Desktops

Big showdown for mini desktops

Small PCs from HP, Apple and Dell mean more computer in less space, and for less money.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Portability and space-saving for computers are generally traits of slim laptops and lightweight tablets, or the new generation of hybrid PCs that combine aspects of both. Several years ago, an eternity in technology time, there was another popular breed of small computers, called small form factor or media center PCs. Some connected to TVs for media streaming and PC-based DVR recording, while others were used as aesthetically appealing work or home computers for those who hated the look of boxy tower desktops.

Since then, home theater types have largely switched to streaming devices such as the Roku or Apple TV, and PC users have shifted in large numbers to laptops and tablets . A handful of small PCs, some hardly larger than a few Roku boxes stacked together, stuck around, but it wasn't what we'd call a growth area.

In late 2014 and early 2015, we've seen a small but significant resurgence in this category, with mini desktops that have been redesigned or upgraded to compete in both price and performance. Some are low-power boxes designed to work unobtrusively in the background, while others are surprisingly ambitious for computers that cost less than $500.

We've tested and reviewed three computers in this category over the past few months, each appealing to a different audience, and each with some impressive features, but also serious flaws. If you want a mini desktop, and don't want to spend more than you would on, for example, a base model iPad Air, it comes down to a choice between lots of hard-drive storage, a faster processor, or budget gaming performance.


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Apple Mac Mini (2014)

After being virtually ignored for a couple of years, Apple's least expensive Mac received a much-needed update in late 2014. In this new version, the outer chassis remained the same, and some of the internal changes were more welcome than others. The $499 base model (£399 in the UK and AU$619 in Australia) has a newer dual-core, low-voltage fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, but the RAM, which was previously user-accessible, is now permanently soldered to the motherboard. Read the full review of the Apple Mac Mini.


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HP Pavilion Mini

For $449 (£349 in the UK), $50 less than the stock Mac Mini, you can upgrade this chunky plastic box with an Intel Core i3 processor (versus the Core i5 Apple offers) and a big 1TB hard drive, which is twice the capacity of the Mac Mini. Even better, HP throws in a wireless keyboard and mouse set, a nice extra that Apple skips. For basic Web surfing and video streaming, it'll do the job with a minimal footprint. But as an all-day computer, it's a little stuttery. Read the full review of the HP Pavilion Mini .


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Alienware Alpha

The base model of this inventive gaming desktop has seen its price cut by $50 since we first reviewed it, down to $499 (AU$699 in Australia and £449 in the UK). For that, you get a mini desktop that pushes the boundaries in low-cost PC gaming, while cutting corners elsewhere. When playing games at medium settings and 1080p resolution, it works surprisingly well, especially if you buy games from the popular Steam service, which is deeply integrated into the Alienware OS overlay. But the CPU is a lower-end Core i3 (paired with an Nvidia graphics card), so it's not ideal for some mainstream tasks. It's also impossible to upgrade, the quirky custom interface is buggy, and our test unit still won't work with some Panasonic TVs. Read the full review of the Alienware Alpha .


Keeping these systems to their roughly $500 configurations, it's easy to point toward one over the others, depending on your needs. The HP Mini gives you a ton of storage, plus accessories, at the expense of processing power. Apple's Mac Mini has the fastest processor, plus OS X and all of Apple's generally excellent included software. Dell's Alienware Alpha experiment in PC-as-game-console is a work in progress, to be generous, but the expansive library of PC games, dating back decades, is more interesting than current-gen consoles any day.

Beyond these three recent mini desktops, there are other tiny PCs that are worth a look. The insanely inexpensive Raspberry Pi is more of a hobbyist's computer than a mainstream machine. A few PC makers offer Chromebox systems, using Google's Chrome OS instead of Windows or OS X, and Intel showed off a concept for a very low-cost PC-on-a-stick at CES 2015 , powered by that company's Atom processors.