The AOpen MiniPC Duo MP945-VXR is a $350 bare-bones system, clearly designed to capture the pocket-size feel of the popular Mac Mini. AOpen has offered Mac Mini clones before, including full systems, such as the MP945-V, but this is the first one to harness the power of Intel's Core 2 Duo processor. The MP945-VXR was first introduced back in May 2006, but it has just been updated to include support for the popular "Merom" Core 2 Duo mobile processors. If you bought one of these bare-bones systems before now, don't worry--AOpen promises a downloadable BIOS update that will allow you to swap in a Core 2 Duo CPU.
The black, brushed-metal case is a little larger than a stack of CD jewel cases, measuring just 6.5 inches square and 2.3 inches high. The top is slightly bowed, not flat like the Mac Mini, and the front panel has a power button/indicator light and an eject button for the slot-fed DVD burner. It's not as elegant as the Mini, but it's not garish by any means.
Besides a standard DVI connection on the back (the system includes a DVI-to-VGA adapter), there's also what AOpen calls a Multi-TV output, which is a dongle connection with S-Video, composite-video, and component-video outs. Three audio jacks provide standard mic-in, line-in, and line-out connections, with one jack doubling as an S/PDIF out. A Microsoft Media Center remote is also included.
You access the chassis by popping off the plastic top of the case, then removing four tiny screws that hold the DVD burner in place. It's harder to get inside than many other small-form-factor cases we've looked at, but once you remove the optical drive, you can then add your own hard drive, RAM, and Socket M 479 CPU. You'll need laptop versions of these parts--in this case a single SO-DIMM and a 2.5-inch PATA hard drive. Being a bare-bones system, as opposed to just a case, the AOpen MiniPC Duo MP945-VXR already has a motherboard (a standard Intel 945GM chipset), a power supply, and a CPU heat sink and fan built in.
Unlike the latest Apple iMacs, the current round of Mac Minis do not support Core 2 Duo CPUs (just Core Duo), so DIY types who want the very latest CPUs in their ultra-small-form-factor system can, for a change, have a clone that's even more powerful than the original.