Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024

Mini PCs can be more practical (and usually cost less) than regular-sized desktops. Here are a few things to know before making the final call if you’re considering buying a small computer.

What Exactly Are Mini PCs?

As the name implies, mini PCs are computers smaller than the usual desktop case. They reach that reduced footprint by (usually) using laptop parts, and by not focusing too much on sheer performance.

Desktop computers used to be large because they had to accommodate larger parts, like 3.5″ internal HDDs and optical disk drives—such as Blu-ray or DVD readers/writers. Expansion cards were also important a few decades ago: back then, motherboards didn’t have built-in components like wired network ports and audio outputs. A discrete sound card takes space, as does a noisy dial-up modem.

As technology advanced, parts that provide enough day-to-day performance for office and study tasks started to become more efficient. Nowadays, they’re smaller and require less power. That means large desktop computers aren’t needed anymore for such cases of use. Some tiny PCs are so small they don’t even have cooling fans.

A lineup of 13th generation Intel NUC PCs, which are now sold and supported by ASUS.

Chipmaker Intel envisioned a somewhat standard format for that: the Next Unit of Compute (NUC). Intel itself stopped making NUC PCs in mid-2023, but ASUS announced shortly after that it’d take over the brand. There are also tiny PCs from other manufacturers, like Gigabyte, HP, MSI, and the Linux-friendly System76, and many more.

Today, mini PCs can do virtually any task that doesn’t require a dedicated graphics card. Some models are actually able to do some light gaming or 3D modeling, while others are compatible with GPUs (built-in or external) and could serve as a mid-range gaming PC or workstation.

How Much Do Mini PCs Cost?

As with regular desktops and laptops, the cost of mini PCs depends on which specifications you’re looking for. The best tiny PCs may reach thousands of dollars, while entry-level ones start at less than $200.

In both cases, tiny computers often cost less than both desktops and laptops featuring similar hardware—the HP Pro Mini 400, for instance, costs $140 less than its desktop counterpart, the Elite Tower 600, having a newer processor, similar RAM and storage. This makes mini PCs an interesting choice if you’re looking to upgrade from an existing machine, since you’ll already have the peripherals.

Beelink U59 on dark background

The Beelink U59 Pro, e.g., gives you 16 GB of RAM and 500GB of storage for less than $200 with an Intel N100 processor (in performance terms, roughly the equivalent of an entry-level i3 CPU from 2019). There’s a slightly more affordable version with an N95 CPU (somewhere between a 2017 and a 2018 i3), but that one also cuts RAM and storage by half.

If you’re the DIY type, you can always build your own mini PC. It requires some tech knowledge, but may save you a bit of money, and you’ll end up with a machine that fits your needs and priorities just as well as a pre-built computer.

Can a Mini PC Replace a Desktop?

For the right use case, Mini PCs can absolutely replace a bulky desktop computer. Take Lenovo’s ThinkStation P3 Tiny: you can fit an Intel i9-13900 vPro CPU, 64GB of RAM, 4TB of storage, and an NVidia T1000 (8GB) graphics card. It’s a real powerhouse.

Mac Minis, possibly the most famous tiny computer models, are also highly-capable. You can fit an M2 Pro CPU with 12 cores, 32GB of RAM, and 8TB of storage inside one. They’re widely regarded as having great value for the price, and leave nothing to be desired when compared to the “traditional” iMac (except, obviously, a screen).

Apple Mac mini in pink light

Both of the above are considerably larger than the Beelink U59 and also cost (much) more ($2,250 for the maxed-out P3 Tiny, $4,499 for the Mac Mini). However, they’re still in the “Mini PC” ballpark, in terms of size.

There are also Micro-ATX desktops and Mini-ITX computers. Both are types of smaller PC cases, though even larger than the Apple and Lenovo models mentioned above. These desktop formats have their pros and cons, but are popular among computer gamers, especially those wanting to save desk space.

When compared to traditional desktop PCs, tiny computers—even the not-so-tiny ones, like the above—have the considerable advantage of saving you a lot of desk space, both horizontally and vertically. But that’s not all: they can put up a fight against portable computers, too.

Can a Mini PC Replace a Laptop?

If you don’t need the built-in screen, battery, keyboard, and mouse that comes with a laptop, a mini PC can certainly replace a laptop. Suppose you just want to use the same computer at home and in your workplace. If you have the required peripherals in both locations, a tiny computer works the same as a portable one. Some models are so small you can carry them in your pocket.

As a bonus, a tiny PC may even be lighter and smaller than a laptop. If we’re talking about high-end computers, like gaming or workstation laptops, the size and weight differences will be more pronounced. In such cases, you may even be tempted to get yourself a decent portable monitor, a nice wireless keyboard, and a good wireless mouse, and just use your mini PC to work on the go.

Front of Asus ExpertCenter PN64-E1 Mini PC.
Hannah Stryker / How-To Geek

There are arguments in favor of using a laptop instead of a mini PC, for sure. The required peripherals are all built-in, and it works on battery power. So, in the end, it’s really about what better suits your needs.

What Use Cases Are Best for Mini PCs?

You can use a Mini PC in virtually any situation that doesn’t require a high-end computer. And, as explained above, some models are more than suited for heavy workloads, too. There are really a lot of reasons to get a tiny computer as your next one.

If you’re getting a new desktop for trivial tasks, a mini PC is a decent bet. If you are upgrading from an old machine and do some light gaming, a tiny computer may also be the better choice. Need an inexpensive computer for your kids? Definitely a good fit, too! Need two or three computers for the small business you’re starting? Those will save you money and space.

To sum things up, the two situations in which mini PCs won’t be a good option are if you need to use discrete graphics cards, or when a built-in monitor is indispensable. In the first case, get a desktop. For the second scenario, you’ll likely need a laptop if even a good portable monitor won’t be up to the task.

Size is just one of the aspects to consider when purchasing a desktop computer. But a mini PC may surprise you with how capable and flexible they are.

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By John P.

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