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What is the point of mini PCs?

The Guardian logo The Guardian 08/11/2018 Jack Schofield
Family enjoying the weekend in their home Family enjoying the weekend in their home

"What on earth do people do with those mini PC things like the Beelink and ACEPC T8 Fanless? They seem ridiculously underpowered and often have just 2GB of RAM. But according to an article I saw in a business magazine in the dentist’s waiting room, it seems there are big sales and a lot of competition in that market." Steven

Mini PCs are a great illustration of a topic I wrote about in Computer Guardian 30 years or so ago: speciation. When the market for computers was very small, there were not many models. As the market expanded, it could support many different types designed to meet specific needs.

The personal computer market started with desktop PCs such as the MITS Altair, Apple II and IBM PC. As sales exploded, we got handhelds, tablets, laptops, games machines, all-in-ones, workstations, servers and eventually the giant server farms that now support cloud services.

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PCs were also incorporated into numerous other products where they provided a graphical user interface. Examples include ATMs or cash machines, electronic tills, machine tools, public access kiosks and signage displays. People are usually amused to see ticket machines, airport displays and massive billboards displaying Windows error messages.

Of course, many devices use different operating systems running on single-board computers, but the principle is the same. Also, for hobbyists, boards such as the Raspberry Pi have taken over a proportion of the market.

Nonetheless, Microsoft Windows has about 1.5 billion users, which means there’s plenty of room for devices that appeal to relatively small market niches.

BERLIN, GERMANY - MAY 05:  A 'Calliope mini' computer is seen during a demonstration of the device on May 5, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. The USB-connected circuit board, similar to a Raspberry Pi, is designed to teach children about basic computer coding and electronics. In a project funded by Google, the Berlin-based manufacturer of the machines is providing 2,500 of the devices to schools, while the Roberta Initiative of the Fraunhofer Institute is educating around 100 teachers on how to give instruction in their use.  (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images) © 2017 Getty Images BERLIN, GERMANY - MAY 05: A 'Calliope mini' computer is seen during a demonstration of the device on May 5, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. The USB-connected circuit board, similar to a Raspberry Pi, is designed to teach children about basic computer coding and electronics. In a project funded by Google, the Berlin-based manufacturer of the machines is providing 2,500 of the devices to schools, while the Roberta Initiative of the Fraunhofer Institute is educating around 100 teachers on how to give instruction in their use. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images) Mini PCs may be underpowered, but they are very small and cheap. The ACEPC T8 you mention is £89.99, which is less than Windows 10 Home (£119.99). This makes them attractive for some purposes.

Mini desktops

Mini PCs work as desktop PCs that don’t take up any desk space. They are so small they can easily be attached to the back of a monitor, preferably using a standard VESA mount. This is a significant advantage in situations where space is limited or you don’t really want a tower case, such as a receptionist’s desk. They can also work for children and others with simpler needs.

Added benefits are low power consumption and, in fanless models, low noise levels.

You could also buy a mini PC as a backup to a full-sized desktop, as long as you set it up first. PCs fail from time to time, and nobody wants to keep a full-sized tower in the spares cupboard. But as long as your essential data is on external hard drives or online, you can swap in a mini PC in a matter of minutes.

Mini PCs are not very powerful, but entry-level models typically have a quad-core Intel Atom x5-Z8350 processor, which is also used in low-end laptops and two-in-ones such as the Asus Transformer T101, Lenovo Miix 320, HP x2 10 and Linx 12X64, which can cost up to £300.

Apple's new Mac Mini is displayed during the company's showcase of new products Tuesday Oct. 30, 2018, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews) © ASSOCIATED PRESS Apple's new Mac Mini is displayed during the company's showcase of new products Tuesday Oct. 30, 2018, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

If you have used any of these machines – and I have two of them – then you will know they are fine for email, web surfing and running Microsoft Office programs. They are not blazingly fast, and they can’t do much in the way of multitasking, but they can do real work.

The trick, of course, is to avoid the minimum specification of 2GB of memory and 32GB of eMMC storage. Windows 10 will run in 2GB, but it works better in 4GB or more. You can now buy mini PCs with 6GB, such as the Beelink M1 and the N34, or 8GB, such as the GN41 and the Hystou Mini PC.

And while 32GB is technically enough storage for Windows 10, you will soon need to attach an external hard drive to do upgrades. It’s better to start with 64GB, and preferably more.

Of course, you can buy more powerful mini PCs. For example, an Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing) can handle a Core i7 processor, 32GB of memory, a 2TB M.2 SSD and a 2TB hard drive. The major drawback for that spec is the price: £1,382 from PC Specialist. The Mac Mini fills the same need, though it’s bigger than most mini PCs.

The question is, why would you buy a mini PC instead of a laptop or two-in-one? There are two reasons. Firstly, you can use a mini PC with a very large monitor or a TV set. Secondly, you can plug in a good, cheap USB keyboard – even an ergonomic model, if you have health concerns. This pushes up the price, but a decent monitor and keyboard should easily outlast a cheap laptop, and are much nicer to use.

Television set-top boxes

A review of the Amazon Fire TV as well as a tag displaying the regular price and the Amazon Prime customer price are on display at the Amazon 4-star store in the Soho neighborhood of New York, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. Amazon is expanding its physical presence again, this time opening a 4,000-square-foot store that sells a wide range of products, including shower curtains, Hallmark cards and baby bottles. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) © ASSOCIATED PRESS A review of the Amazon Fire TV as well as a tag displaying the regular price and the Amazon Prime customer price are on display at the Amazon 4-star store in the Soho neighborhood of New York, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. Amazon is expanding its physical presence again, this time opening a 4,000-square-foot store that sells a wide range of products, including shower curtains, Hallmark cards and baby bottles. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) Generally, I think video streaming is best done with a Roku stick, Now TV box, Amazon Fire TV or similar device. However, mini PCs can also be used as set-top boxes and, as mentioned, can be mounted on the back of a TV set. Just add a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, or a keyboard with a built-in trackpad, and you are ready to go.

Mini PCs will play high-definition YouTube videos in a browser, and also run Kodi, Plex and MediaPortal media servers and client apps. Windows 10 apps provide access to the likes of Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, BT Sport, Minecraft, email, news and weather. And if you want to run Skype on a TV set, a mini PC will do that, too.

People usually sit too far away from a TV set to run programs such as Excel, which require accurate mouse movements. Media servers including Kodi, Plex and MediaPortal have interfaces that work well at a distance. Windows 10’s touch-oriented apps also work pretty well.

Streaming sticks are great, but they don’t offer all the services you might need. Mini PCs can do almost anything, at reasonable prices.

Media servers

Mount a mini PC on the back of a TV set and it will work well as a client, displaying media from the internet or from your PC or NAS (network attached storage) device.

Most mini PCs don’t come with enough storage to work as servers, but you can always add some. The simplest approach is to add an SD card or USB thumb drive: affordable sizes range from 8GB to 256GB. This might not hold your whole media library, but you can delete movies after you’ve watched them and then copy the next movie across over your home network.

You could, of course, add much more cheap storage by buying an external hard drive, with 4TB now being a cost-effective size. This adds an extra box plus wiring, which you may not want.

The other idea – which I have not tried – is to use a mini PC to stream to a Roku or similar device. The catch is whether you need to transcode video in order to display it. Historically, this has required a more powerful processor, such as a Core i3 or better. Intel responded to the problem by adding Quick Sync Video (QSV) to its microprocessors to speed up video conversions, and Intel’s data sheet for the x5-Z8350 (pdf) confirms its presence.

It should therefore be possible to build a cheap media server or NAS around a mini PC and external hard drive, though it won’t be as pretty as buying one from Synology or QNAP.

Note: if you plan to run Linux instead of Windows, check your mini PC of choice supports it.

There must be plenty of PC applications where it would be hard to justify spending £1,000 to £2,000. If a Beelink BT3Pro – with 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage – can do the job for £129.99, some people will buy it.

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