Test / review: cheap mini PC/HTPC/barebone (< 200$)Category: Tests / Reviews
The computer market today is dominated by three categories of devices: desktops, laptops and finally tablets. Each device has found its place in our homes and most of the time, new devices have progressively replaced the usual desktop configuration. We have seen in recent years the emergence of a fourth type of device that will gradually come to our homes, the mini PC (also called barebone or HTPC for some)[b][b]Test date: february 2019 (I bought 2 mini PCs two months earlier)[b][b]
A mini PC, what's that?[b]You have to see the mini PC as a traditional desktop computer in a much smaller format. The mini PC comes in the form of a small box with reduced dimensions that contains most of the components to run a computer (motherboard, processor, memory, hard disk, graphics card,...). It must then be associated with a keyboard, mouse and screen to be able to be operated. The first advantage of this type of machine is the size, the PC I chose to test measures 12cm by 12cm with a height of 3.5cm, there are even smaller models. It's not a portable solution as you need to drag all kinds of periphericals along but it's a nice alternative for desktop computers.[b][b]
A mini PC, why?[b]Okay, the mini PC takes up less space, that's fine but it's not its only advantage. The mini PC is a passively cooled system (in most cases), this means that there is no fan to cool it, this type of computer makes absolutely no noise, not even a small hum! In addition to silence and size, the mini PC offers a huge advantage in terms of power consumption, the configuration I tested consumes barely 25W when I push it really hard![b][b]So all this sounds very attractive but how much does a mini PC cost? You can already find a full mini PC for less than 200 USD![b][b]The main advantages in summary:[b]- small size[b]- complete silence[b]- low power consumption (less than 25W)[b]- the price (depends on the configuration)[b][b]What about performance?[b]Yes entry level mini pc are weaker in terms of performance but unless you are a gamer, this type of configuration is probably enough. Computer manufacturer have tried to make us believe we needed power but for most of the computer users today, power is not really a need if you spend time surfing the web and watching movies.[b][b]
Mini PC price USA / World[b]You can find mini pcs at all prices, there are already some at less than 100 USD but they generally offer poor performances. In the 100 to 200 USD range, there are some very interesting devices but if you really want to find the best price/performance ratio you have to buy a mini PC in China through Aliexpress just like the mini PC I chose to test. The test below should help you to make your choice between the different types of computer but it should also help decide where to buy it (in your country or in China)[b][b]
GUZILA Fanless Mini PC,Intel x5-Z8350 HD Graphics Mini Computer,Windows 10 64-bit,DDR3L 2GB/32GB eMM...
T95 P1 Mini PC Win 10 Cherry Trail Z8350 Quad Core 4GB 64GB WiFi BT (EU)...
Mini PC Z83 II...
T95 P1 Mini PC Win 10 Cherry Trail Z8350 Quad Core 4GB 64GB 2.4G 5G WiFi BT...
MINIX NEO Z83-4 Intel Quad Core Fanless Mini PC Windows 10 - Brand New Sealed...
Mini PC Fanless Intel Celeron N3350 Processor 4GB DDR4/ 64GB eMMC Mini Desktop...
My mini PC[b]I had already bought mini PCs in the past, they were running on Android and they were used to watch movies on my TV, those Android boxes are generally very affordable but the performance is often weaker. They tend to become too slow after a while and they are often one or two generations behind in term of Android updates. After a while, applications are no longer supported and the box becomes completely obsolete. So I decided to choose a real mini PC that would run on Windows or Linux like a real computer.[b][b]Here is a short demonstration video from the manufacturer, I didn't make a video myself because this video reflects quite well what the mini pc is capable of doing:[b][b][b]The configuration I chose:[b]Mini PC Core i7 4610Y (100 €)[b]8Gb memory (29€)[b]MSATA hard disk 128Gb (21€)[b]Total cost: 150€ [b][b]I bought two units. You can buy it at Aliexpress here: Mini PC / Aliexpress[b][b]
Photos mini pc[b][b][b][b]The pictures were taken in my portable studio with a Xiaomi Mi 8 Lite (test/review is available on my website).[b]The mini PC has 6 USB ports, 4 of which are USB 3.0. On the back is a microphone connector, a jack connector, an ethernet port, an HDMI port, a VGA output and the power socket.[b][b]
Performance[b]Performance is really key when choosing a mini PC, you may not need a very powerful engine but choosing the cheapest device will only result in frustration as you will very rapidly hit the limit of what it can reasonably achieve. Performance is mainly determined by two factors: the processor (also called CPU), the graphics chipset (also called GPU). My mini PC has an Intel Core i7 4610Y processor and an Intel HD Graphics 4200 graphics chipset. This configuration is more than enough for casual use and even more.[b][b]To determine if a mini PC will be powerful enough for you, I advise you to use the following two sites:[b]- https://www.cpubenchmark.net/[b]- https://www.videocardbenchmark.net/[b]With those sites I can have a good idea of the performance I can get out of a computer.[b][b][b]CPU performance[b][b]Let's start with the processor on cpubenchmark.net, we find my Core i7 4610Y here:[b]https://www.cpubenchmark.net/cpu.php?cpu=Intel+Core+i7-4610Y+%40+1.70GHz&id=2092[b]The site indicates (at the time of writing) that the CPU has a score of 3746 points. The score means nothing if you can't compare it with something else, I don't have a scientific method to evaluate this score but I can do some tests. With this mini pc, you can easily play 2 YouTube videos at the same time without the mini pc being put in difficulty. See for yourself below.[b][b][b][b]I opened two videos in full HD at the same time, activated temperature measurement and monitored the processes used. We can see that the mini PC is very comfortable because its CPU stays between 30 and 40%, the temperature is around 40°C. Let's see what it looks like in terms of consumption. Those values are pretty good.[b][b][b][b]The mini PC only consumed 20W while streaming the two YouTube videos. If I do the same thing with my big desktop PC, I will definitely exceed 100W. Energy performance is very good.[b][b]Coming back to the original topic, this score of 3746 points indicates that the machine is very comfortable for office use, multimedia and also casual use in general. If you intend to use the mini PC for those types of tasks, you can take any configuration with a score from above 2000 points. [b][b]I advise you to avoid machines that have scores below 2000 because even if they can be use for casual computing, they will quickly show signs of weakness.[b][b][b]GPU Performance[b][b]The Intel HD 4200 graphics chipset scores a little over 500:[b]https://www.videocardbenchmark.net/gpu.php?gpu=intel+hd+4400&id=2643[b]Again, the score means nothing if you can't compare it. If we compare this score to the one of the world's best-selling graphics cards (GTX 1060), we quickly realize that this mini PC is not a gaming machine. The GTX 1060 scores over 9000 points. This mini PC is not designed to play recent games, however, old games or games in the browser should not be a problems. [b][b]There are mini PC configurations for gamers but they are much more expensive and in this kind of situation, it is better to use a traditional computer. Anyway, I'm sure that a great majority of the population could live with this kind of configuration, you would only need to exclude people that are producing things (video material, heavy coding, 3D, ....) or hard-core gamers.[b][b]
Consumption[b]One of the advantages of mini pcs is the consumption but as for any product, the consumption can vary quite strongly from one product to another. This mini PC has a power consumption of about 7W when using it for office tasks or browsing. If you push it a little like on the previous screens, the power consumption can go up to 25W. It's quite good, it consumes a little bit more power than a light bulb![b][b][b][b]What benefit can you get from such a consumption? A "normal" computer will easily consume 75W for a similar use, so with the mini PC you will consume at least 3 times less. [b][b]
Temperature[b]Most mini PCs use a passive cooling system, the box is designed to dissipate heat in a natural way without using any ventilation. The risk with this kind of configuration is overheating, at 100°C the mini PC turns off by itself to preserve its components from being permanently damaged. [b][b]I've had an issue with overheating on one of my mini PCs but it was mainly because I was using the device on its back. I had flipped the computer on his back because I thought it looked prettier like this. That was a stupid mistake! The heat was generated at the bottom and remained at the bottom, the temperature rose very quickly to 100°C inside the case. By putting the mini PC back in the right correct, the temperature always remained in the safe zone with peaks around 60°C. That may seems like a lot but it's perfectly normal for a computer.[b][b]I have made temperature measurements outside the box and when the inside heats up to 50°C, the outside reaches about 35°C. We feel a little heat coming out of the case but this is absolutely no problem.[b][b]
Types of use[b][b]Casual/Leisure[b][b]Examples: surfing the web, watching Youtube videos, using basic applications (word, email,...)[b]For this type of use, you can already buy a configuration delivering a moderate performance with a score above 2000 points in the benchmark mentionned above. Avoid Atom based solution, they are much weaker. [b][b][b]HTPC (home theater pc)[b][b]Examples: associate the mini pc with a TV to watch movies[b]My box works perfectly for this type of use but if you want to play 4k videos, you will need to select a mini pc with a better graphic chipset.[b][b][b]Gaming[b][b]Examples: PC games (GTA type), online multiplayer games,...[b]This kind of configuration is not made for that.[b][b][b]Server/Automation[b][b]Examples: running scripts and automating tasks[b]That was my main motivation for buying the mini PC and it works perfectly. I installed Ubuntu on one unit, a PHP server and run some Chrome extensions. On the other unit I installed Windows 10 and it's also working perfectly fine.[b][b]
Purchasing advice[b]If you're a little lost in all this or don't want to spend your time looking, I've made a pre-selection of products that could meet your expectations. To broaden your choice, I first chose a product available in Europe/US (at Amazon) with a Chinese alternative.[b][b][b]Casual/Leisure and multimedia [b][b]This kind of configuration will allow you to watch movies comfortably, play certain games without going into too much detail, watch movies in streaming (Youtube, Netflix,...). These configurations generally offer a box already equipped with memory and hard disk, some PCs even have a Windows 10 license.[b]Budget: up to 250€[b][b]Processor: Intel Celeron at least[b]See the selection at Amazon.en[b][b]For an equivalent budget, you can find more powerful machines in China, Core i7s can be found for less than 200$, these machines offer much better performance than the Celerons available in the Amazon offer.[b]The Chinese alternative on Aliexpress[b][b][b]Mini PC with better performance[b][b]This type of configuration will allow you to perform more demanding tasks, use software that requires computing power, play games in medium resolution and play movies without restrictions.[b]Budget: up to 500€[b]Processor: minimum Core i3[b]See the selection at Amazon[b]As with the previous selection, you can find much more powerful machines in China.[b]See the offer on Aliexpress[b][b][b]The mini PC NUC from intel[b][b]If you don't trust all those unknown manufacturers and you're ready to spend a little bit more money, the mini pc range from Intel (also called Intel NUC) is probably a good alternative. Those products are well built and performance is usually better than the average. [b]Intel NUC on Amazon[b]You won't find Intel NUC in China because sites like Aliexpress or Gearbest are now allowed to sell genuine branded products.[b][b]
Intel NUC explained[b]Intel NUCs are identified by a model name that is completely incomprehensible to the average person, but with a little help, it becomes easier.[b][b]Here is an example: NUC5i3RYK[b][b][b]NUC[b][b]The first three letters represent the NUC range, so easy. By the way, NUC means Next Unit of Computing.[b][b][b]5[b][b]The first number just after the NUC represents which generation you're buying, 5 indicates that it is a 5th generation processor and today we are in the 8th generation (February 2019). Intel launches a new generation every year (more or less), so a 5th generation processor is at least 3 years old. My mini PC is 4th generation, so this technology is not new but it still works very well.[b][b][b]i3[b][b]The i3 indicates the type of CPU (i3, i5, i7, ...). The i3 range is generally the weakest but generally offers sufficient performance for casual computing. Some i3 models are even more powerful than some i5 models, so check the scores.[b][b][b]RYK[b][b]I don't know what this means but the Y, U or M often indicates mobile configurations.[b][b]
Operationg system[b]If you are not familiar with installing operating systems, you should take a ready to use configuration with memory, hard disk and with the operating system already installed. There are many mini PCs of this kind on Amazon.[b][b]If you want to reduce costs, you can go for a mini pc running on Ubuntu (Linux distribution). Ubuntu could scare beginners, but there's honestly no reason. I installed it for my partner who had never used anything other than Windows, I gave her no instructions and she has never complained about it, it simply works fine.[b][b]The mini PC I chose works very well with Windows 10 if you want to stay on that path. If you decide to buy a mini PC in China, I do not recommend that you take a machine with a pre-installed version of Windows because they are often pirate versions, so it is already not very legal but you may also find yourself with spyware that could send private information back to China, so avoid it![b][b]
Conclusion[b]I bought 2 mini PCs with the same configuration from the same seller on Aliexpress. The first one arrived defective and I had to send it back to get another one, the seller refunded the costs and the new unit works perfectly. My partner uses one of the two PCs to surf the web, mainly on Facebook and Youtube, she is very happy with the machine. I use the other machine for script automation with a PHP server and here too I am quite happy.[b][b]I added an MSATA hard disk in both machines and installed Ubuntu on one and Windows 10 on the other. The machine starts up very fast and can be used after 15 seconds. I chose Windows for practical reasons, Chrome under Ubuntu was not stable enough for what I wanted to achieve.[b][b]The strong points:[b]Small size[b]Low power consumption[b]Total silence[b]Quick start-up time[b]Prices[b]4 USB ports 3[b][b]The weak points:[b]It's getting a little hot.[b]Not very pretty finish[b]Limited to 1080p[b]Quite heavy, the case is made of metal