Staff, Courtesy of Acer
As microchips have grown increasingly powerful, the need to have a hulking tower desktop computer has shrunk—as have computer sizes themselves. These days, it’s possible to get a competent machine little more than the size of a hardcover book, and there are even computers that can fit in the palm of your hand, albeit considerably less capable. Known as mini PCs, these machines can handle most everyday tasks while taking up little real estate on your desk. So if space is at a premium and your computing needs are modest, a mini computer is a great way to get more bang for your buck than with a laptop, especially if you don’t have a need for portability (although most of these computers are small enough to throw in a backpack if needed).
What to Consider
As when choosing any computer, the first thing you need to consider are your needs. How you will use your computer will help you determine things like how much RAM (if you plan to do more than just browse the internet and write emails, be sure to get at least 8GB) and what kind of inputs you require. Fortunately, most mini computers offer much more flexibility than a laptop, and some are sold as kits that let you customize your machine to your exact specifications.
If you are considering a mini computer, size and how much space your machine will take up on your desktop are obvious considerations. Certainly, it’s appealing to try to get the smallest machine possible, but generally with a smaller machine, you’ll get less power and less flexibility when it comes to adding components, simply because there’s less room for adding them. But if you plan to use your mini computer just for streaming music and video, you should be able to get away with a tiny machine. Some mini computers are even mountable to the back of your monitor, letting them take up no space on your desk whatsoever.
Like other desktop computers, most mini computers offer the ability to add components like additional RAM and memory or a graphics card. If you’re more technically inclined, some models are sold as kits that allow you to customize your own CPU, RAM, and storage. In such cases, you’ll need to examine the available slots to ensure it can accommodate your choices.
How We Selected
We looked at a wide range of reviews from reputable sources like Wirecutter, Lifewire, and PCMag to find consensus on the best mini computers. While there are mini computers specifically designed for tinkerers to build desktop machines from scratch and which require a higher-than-average technical knowledge, we looked for computers that most users would easily be able to get up and running. We also looked for computers versatile for most everyday uses and opted not to include tiny computers suitable only for specific uses and not powerful enough to handle the needs of the average user.
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Apple Mac Mini with Apple M1 Chip
Released last year, Apple’s newest Mac Mini sports the same M1 chip featured in the latest MacBooks. As such, if portability isn’t a consideration (although at 7.7 x 7.7 x 1.4 inches and just 2.6 pounds, it’s highly movable), the Mini is just as powerful at about half the cost of a MacBook Pro, though you will need to purchase peripherals like a monitor and keyboard if you don’t already own them.
It has been lauded for its performance on everyday and web-based tasks, and is even capable of light gaming and video editing. You won’t be able to upgrade it, though, so make sure you take that into consideration when selecting options for RAM (8 or 16GB) and storage (256 or 512GB).
- Highly efficient
- User-friendly macOS
HP ProDesk 400 G6 Mini
While the 6.9 x 7 x 1.4-inch HP ProDesk 400 G6 Mini comes completely configured and is available in a multitude of iterations, one of the best things about it is how easy it is to swap out components as your needs change. What this also means is that with a little bit of know-how, you can buy the base model then upgrade things like the SSD for cheaper than what it would cost you from HP initially.
You can choose from several different CPUs, but we recommend going with the 10th generation i5 to run its Windows OS, then selecting options for RAM, storage, and ports as you see fit.
- More expensive than similar machines
Acer Chromebox Premium CXI3 Mini PC
Like their Chromebook laptop brethren, Chromeboxes operate on Google’s Chrome operating system and offer an inexpensive option for those who primarily use their computers for web-based operations.
Measuring 5.9 x 5.8 x 1.6 inches, this one from Acer is a favorite among critics for its plethora of ports and ability to either sit horizontally or vertically, or be attached to the back of a monitor using its VESA mounting kit. Acer offers a variety of configurations; you can choose between Celeron, i3 and i5 processors, 4 to 16GB of RAM, and 32, 64, and 128GB SSDs, depending on your needs. Plus, it comes with a keyboard and mouse, so the only other additional expense will be a monitor.
- Equipped with Google Assistant
- Built-in Wi-Fi
- Chrome OS can be limiting
Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit
$1,155.02 (41% off)
Launched in 2013, Next Unit of Computing is Intel’s line of small form factor kits. Each barebones kit comes with Intel’s latest CPU, in this case you can choose between a Core i5-9300H, Core i7-9750H, or Core i9-9980HK.
From there, it’s up to you to purchase your own RAM, storage, and other components, which means this computer will end up costing more than its already somewhat high price, but you’ll also end up with a computer specifically designed to your requirements. (For those less inclined to DIY, the NUC 9 is also available preconfigured.) As such, the NUC 9 gives you a solid base on which to build the mini computer you’ve always wanted.
- Highly customizable
- Can work as a compact gaming machine
- Internal power supply
Best for Home Offices
Lenovo ThinkCentre M90q
Lenovo’s line of ThinkCentre M Series Tiny desktops have earned a reputation as top mini computers, particularly for businesses with small offices. As such, they’re a great choice if you work remotely and have limited space in your home office.
One of its latest iterations, the 7.1 x 7.2 x 1.4-inch, M90q comes loaded with a 10th generation Intel Core i9 vPro processor and plenty of RAM and storage options that are easily expandable. Even better, it’s outfitted with Lenovo’s ThinkShield security so you can be sure that all of your company’s information is safe. Plus, it can support up to three monitors, and it comes with a keyboard and mouse.
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