Computers have come a long way since the days when they took up an entire room or table. Today, you can get a powerful desktop PC the size of a peanut butter sandwich. Whether you're trying to save space at home, fit more computers into your office, create your own kiosk or squeeze a media server into your entertainment center, there's a mini PC made for you.
The Kangaroo Mobile Desktop is currently our favorite mini PC overall, because it offers a wide range of unique features for less than $100. This half-pound Windows 10 PC includes a built-in battery for up to 2.5 hours of unplugged use, a fingerprint reader for quick logins, a removable ports dock and the ability to use an iPad as a screen. However, the Kangaroo is powered by an Atom processor with 2GB of RAM, which means it's not powerful enough to be your primary PC.
If you don't mind bringing your own RAM, storage and OS, consider the Intel NUC (less than $400 on Amazon) because of its tiny, aluminum, cubelike design; speedy performance; and support for the fastest solid-state drives. If you want a mini PC that's ready to run out of the box, consider the slightly larger Mac mini or the business-friendly Lenovo ThinkPad M83 Tiny Desktop.
How We Test
We put each mini PC through a series of tests to determine how it performs. Synthetic benchmarks Geekbench 3 and 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited provide scores that represent overall system speed and graphics prowess, respectively.
Our real-world Spreadsheet Macro test matches 20,000 names with their addresses to demonstrate productivity performance, and our File Transfer Test measures the hard drive or SSD's capabilities by copying 4.97GB of mixed media files. To see how well a mini PC plays games, we run World of Warcraft at various resolutions, including 1080p, and record the frame rate.
Most importantly, we use each mini PC for several hours, trying out its unique features and any preloaded software. If a system is sold as bare-bones (i.e., lacking RAM, storage or OS), we install 8GB of memory, a compatible SSD and the latest shipping version of Windows (currently Windows 8.1).
Arguably the best bargain in technology, this half-pound Windows 10 desktop combines solid performance with a unique set of features including a fingerprint reader, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, a removable ports dock and the ability to use an iPad as a screen. Better still, the Atom-powered Kangaroo Mobile Desktop comes with a built-in battery that provides two and a half hours of unplugged endurance, allowing you to conduct a presentation, run a wireless file server or get some work done, without being near an outlet.
The Intel NUC (next unit of computing) is as beautiful as it is fast, with a sexy aluminum chassis that's just 4.5 x 4.4 x 1.3 inches — the size of a couple of slices of bread — and weighs only 1 pound. The 5th-Generation Core i5 CPU provides plenty of pop, but its M.2 slot, which can take SSDs capable of 1,000 MBps or higher speeds, really steals the show. A replaceable lid lets you add a touch of color or extra ports to the top. You'll need to spend at least $200 on your own RAM, storage and operating system — and a few minutes installing them — but it's well worth the effort.
If you're outfitting an office, there's no need to cram 3-foot towers into the cubicles. At 7.2 x 7 x 1.35 inches, the 2.6-pound ThinkCentre M83 Tiny Desktop fits on even the smallest table or narrow space for point-of-sale systems and kiosks. With a full-power desktop Core series CPU, TPM security, vPro manageability, a bevy of ports and your choice of hard drive or SSD preinstalled, Lenovo's mini PC provides maximum performance and flexibility.
Though it requires you to bring your own RAM, storage and OS, the Brix offers remarkable Core i7 performance in a pint-size package. At 1 pound and 4.2 x 4.5 x 1.8 inches (nearly the same as the NUC), the GB-BXi7H-5500 is small enough to mount on the back of your monitor or fit onto any entertainment-center shelf, but powerful enough to edit videos, do heavy multitasking or play World of Warcraft at 1080p. An NFC reader in the lid allows you to share data from your phone with a tap.
The $499 Mac mini is the most affordable means of getting a Mac into your home. It stuffs a full OS X experience into a sleek, silver package that measures 7.7 x 7.7 x 1.4 inches and weighs just 2.6 pounds. The Mac mini's Core i5 processor offers plenty of power for watching movies or working on projects in iMovie and GarageBand, and the system's new Thunderbolt can output at 4K or power multiple monitors. The Mac mini is especially ideal for all-Apple families — thanks to OS X Yosemite, you can answer calls and texts from your iOS devices right from the desktop.
The Kangaroo Plus doubles the memory and storage from its predecessor to 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. The catch, though, is that the $169.99 mini PC won't come with an operating system. Be prepared to buy and install Windows or figure out Linux.