As great as beefy desktop PCs are, there’s one problem: their size. Compared to other computing devices such as smartphones and laptops, PCs take up an awful lot of room. Even many compact designs can struggle to fit beneath a monitor or TV, and portability isn’t even considered.
Fortunately, there’s an alternative, and we don’t mean spending the premium for a laptop. Mini PCs replicate the full-sized desktop experience in truly tiny form factors. Some use laptop components such as low-power processors – but because you’re not paying for an attached display or keyboard, the mini PC as a whole is generally considerably cheaper.
If you’re looking for a space-saving computer, you’ve come to the right place. Here are the best mini PCs on the market – some running Windows, others ready for you to install the OS of your choosing. Best of all, the prices are tiny, too.
How to buy the best mini PC for you
“Mini PC” is something of an umbrella term covering a few distinctive types of product. One subspecies is the board-only PC, otherwise known as a microcomputer or maker board. Whatever you want to call it, it’s essentially a petite motherboard with attached system-on-a-chip (SoC). With various connectors and ports, and potentially a spot of soldering, these can be transformed into almost anything you want, from a home media computer running Android to the brains of a remote-controlled robot. Their versatility and very low cost make these boards understandably popular with the maker community.
For those who want a better approximation of a desktop PC, there’s a large selection of mini PCs designed to run Windows. These are much closer to the desktops and laptops we’re familiar with and support proper SSDs and hard disks, upgradeable RAM and a wide range of external ports. There are options here, too, though: you can buy a ready-made system or opt for a so-called “barebones box”, to which you add the RAM, storage and operating system yourself. It’s a little extra inconvenience in exchange for more choice and control.
How much power?
Whichever mini PC you go for, you’ll need enough processing power to perform what needs doing. Maker boards tend to feature lightweight ARM-based processors, which are fine for browsing the web but might struggle with more demanding jobs.
Windows-based mini PCs often feature more powerful processors – sometimes the same ones you’ll find in laptops, which means they can accommodate some very powerful chips indeed. Of course, you’ll end up paying a lot more for this sort of hardware.
What about graphics?
Most mini PCs only have room for the integrated graphics on their existing processor, rather than a separate GPU, so it’s rare to find one with serious gaming capability. Options do exist with discrete graphics, though – such as the Asus VivoMini, below – which can help with productivity tasks like image and video-editing. It’s something to keep in mind if you’re looking for a tiny workstation.
How much storage do I need?
Solid-state storage is a natural fit for mini PCs as it’s lighter and far more compact than traditional hard disk technology. On tiny maker boards, this might be in the form of a microSD card, in which case shop around for a fast card as a cheap, slow one will drag down performance.
As you move upmarket, you might see mini PCs with small eMMC flash drives built in. Spend a bit more and you can potentially have a large, capacious system drive. It’s normally a good idea to aim for as much storage as your budget allows because it’s a pain to replace a drive once you’ve installed your operating system and apps on it.
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The best mini PCs you can buy in 2021
1. Raspberry Pi 4 Model B: The best mini PC for hobbyists
Price: £34 | Buy now from The Pi Hut
The Raspberry Pi series has been the last word in tiny project computers for years, and the latest Pi 4 Model B is yet another triumph. This time, the Pi Foundation has tried to make it more of a viable desktop PC, without losing any of the flexibility that made its predecessors so appealing to makers.
Everyone will benefit from the more powerful CPU, of course, but combined with the added dual 4K monitor support (courtesy of two micro-HDMI ports), it’s a big boost to the Pi 4’s desktop credentials. Two of the four USB ports also now support Super Speed USB 3, Wi-Fi uses the faster 802.11ac standard instead of 802.11n, and even the power connector has been upgraded to a USB Type-C port.
If the default 2GB of RAM sounds like too little for use as your main computer, 4GB and 8GB variants are also available – although for projects it’s heartening to see the basic version is still sold at a very affordable £34.
Read our full review of the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B
Key specs – Operating system: Raspbian (recommended); Processor: Quad-core 1.5GHz Broadcom BCM2711; RAM: 2GB (max 8GB); Supplied storage: None; Data connectors: 2 x USB 2, 2 x USB 3, 1 x 40-pin GPIO; Video ports: 2 x micro-HDMI; Networking: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, 10/100Mbit/sec Ethernet; Dimensions: 19 x 57 x 86mm (HWD); Warranty: One year RTB
Buy now from The Pi Hut
2. Asus Mini PC PN50: The best barebones mini PC
Price: £320 | Buy now from Ebuyer
As per barebones tradition, the PN50 isn’t quite as dirt-cheap as the initial outlay suggests, since you’ll need to supply your own storage, operating system and SO-DIMM RAM sticks. Once that’s all sorted, however, you’ll be left with a remarkably powerful yet extremely tiny PC that’s more than capable of everyday computing duties.
Its processor, a brand-new Ryzen 5 4500U, blows away the likes of the Minix Neo JS0C-4 on both single-core and multithreaded performance, and its integrated graphics can even handle some light gaming. Dirt: Showdown ran at a playable 30fps at 1080p, even with graphics settings on Ultra.
Even better is the PN50’s connectivity. As well as multiple USB-C ports (which can carry video as well as data), Bluetooth 5.0 and 802.11ax Wi-Fi are both built in. That makes the PN50 one of the first PCs, of any form factor, to support Wi-Fi 6 out of the box.
Key specs – Operating system: None (Windows 10 recommended); Processor: Hexa-core 2.3GHz AMD Ryzen 5 4500U; RAM: None (max 64GB); Supplied storage: None; Data connectors: 3 x USB 3, 2 x USB-C; Video ports: 1 x HDMI, 1 X DisplayPort, 2 x USB-C; Networking: 802.11ax Wi-Fi, Gigabit Ethernet; Dimensions: 49 x 115 x 155mm (HWD); Warranty: One year RTB
Buy now from Ebuyer