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Small form-factor desktop PCs enjoyed their greatest popularity several years ago. It was the era of the media center computer, when tech-savvy home-theater enthusiasts would hook tiny computers up to TVs to stream video or record over-the-air programs. Since then, smart TVs, Roku-style boxes and game consoles have largely taken over, and the only puck-sized desktop anyone hears much about is Apple's $500, £399, AU$619 Mac Mini.
HP feels there's still room for a tiny Windows-powered desktop, whether hooked up in the living room or on an office desk. The company's new Pavilion Mini costs less than a Mac Mini, has a smaller footprint and offers one feature notably missing from the Mac Mini -- accessibility to the internal components if you want to add additional RAM or a new hard drive down the line.
The Pavilion Mini starts with an Intel Pentium processor, but can be configured with a faster Intel Core i3 CPU as well. The less-expensive of two fixed configurations pairs an Intel Pentium CPU with a 7,200rpm 500GB hard drive for $319 (available for £269 in the UK); while a $449 configuration (£349 in the UK) has an Intel Core i3 CPU and a 1TB 5,400rpm hard drive. Neither option is available in Australia at this time but the UK prices convert to around AU$535 or AU$690.
Both have 4GB of RAM, but can support a maximum of 16GB if you add more later. A related model, called the Stream Mini, uses the same chassis (but in blue), with an Intel Celeron CPU, 2GB of RAM and only a 32GB SSD, and is intended for media streaming or cloud-based tasks. It costs $179 in the US and is not currently listed on HP's UK or Australian online stores.
The configuration tested here is the more expensive of the two Pavilion Mini versions. At $449, it's a good match-up against the $499 Core i5 Apple Mac Mini, as well as other mini desktops such as the Alienware Alpha , which also has a Core i3 CPU in its $499 entry-level configuration, but pairs it with a custom graphics card for decent mainstream PC gaming. The competitive landscape also includes more affordable budget options like Chromebooks, "Chromebox" mini desktops and even full-fledged Windows laptops like the HP Stream 11 , all of which can be had for about $200.
For everyday surfing and basic office tasks, the HP Pavilion Mini proved adequate, but didn't especially impress. On paper, the performance is not far removed from the Mac Mini, but in hands-on testing it gave us occasional slowdown and hitches. But for pure value, it's got a good story to tell, with double the Mac Mini's onboard storage for $50 less, and with an included wireless keyboard and mouse, another feature Apple leaves out.
|Price as reviewed||$449, £349|
|PC CPU||1.9GHz Intel Core i3-4025U|
|PC Memory||4GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||1,793MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400|
|Storage||1TB, 5,400rpm HDD|
|Networking||802.11n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)|
If you didn't know it was a Windows 8 desktop, the Pavilion Mini might look like it could be any number of consumer electronics devices, from a Wi-Fi hub to an external hard drive to a micro-console for gaming. With its rounded shape, curving to a bowl-like bottom surface, it looks less utilitarian than the Mac Mini. Apple's version is severe, despite the rounded corners, and looks as it could easily be stacked into a server farm. The HP Mini has more of a friendly (if unimaginative) living room look.
At 5.7 inches (14.5cm) square, it has a much smaller desktop footprint than either the Mac Mini or Alienware Alpha. Of those three, the Mac is the slimmest, at 1.4 inches (3.6cm) tall, versus 2.1 inches (5.3cm) for the HP Mini.
While the Mac Mini comes loaded with useful software such as Pages and Keynote (as do all OS X computers), HP includes a mixed bag of links to outside services, upsell pitches and advertising links and desktop icons, from enhanced HP support to ads for Snapfish and Priceline. HP gets credit, however, for including a wireless keyboard and mouse set at no extra cost -- an add-on that Apple skips in the Mac Mini.
The included peripherals are plastic-feeling and thick, and don't even particularly look like they go together -- the keyboard is matte black, while the mouse is glossy black. But they work well enough, with thick, chunky island-style keys on the keyboard and a gentle ergonomic curve to the mouse. Note, however, that the USB dongle required for the mouse and keyboard is fairly large, and besides eating up one of the four USB ports, it can also potentially get in way of other things you may want to plug into the back of the system.
|Video||HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Combo headphone/microphone jack|
|Data||4 USB 3.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Two USB 3.0 ports are on the front panel, with two more on the rear, along with both HDMI and DisplayPort outputs, an audio jack and an Ethernet connection. The DisplayPort output is a full-size plug, not the mini version found on most PCs with a DisplayPort connection (the Thunderbolt/DisplayPort connections on the Mac Mini and other Macs are all mini-DisplayPort size). Note that the audio connection is a simple 8-inch input/output combo jack, while the Mac Mini has separate headphone and mic jacks.
Even with the upgraded Core i3 CPU in this higher-end configuration, versus the Intel Pentium in the least expensive HP Pavilion Mini, your performance expectations should be kept modest. Between the latest Mac Mini, which has a faster Core i5 processor and the Alienware Alpha, which also has a Core i3, all three systems performed competitively, with the Mac Mini and Alpha trading top positions between them in multitasking and single-app tests, but not blowing each other out of the water. The HP Mini fell a bit behind in each test, but not radically so.
In hands-on use, however, the difference felt slightly more pronounced. The Mini was often fast and smooth for everyday Internet surfing and office tasks, and playing even HD streaming video was fine, but we also experienced infrequent, but notable, slowdown and stuttering, especially when launching or switching between multiple apps. Your milage may vary, and for media playback it worked fine, but if I was doing all-day mission-critical work the occasional hitches would get annoying.
With a low-power CPU and only last-gen Intel integrated graphics, don't look for any serious gaming on here. The most casual of games, or vintage games, should work fine, and I was able to play both the recent remastered re-release of Grim Fandango, as well as some vintage Star Wars games via Steam.
Anyone looking for a low-cost desktop with a small footprint is likely to start with the Mac Mini and either look to spend more or less, depending on their budget and needs. Apple's tiny desktop is certainly very capable, and works especially well within the larger Apple ecosystem, but getting enough storage for a big movie collection, plus adding a keyboard and mouse, can drive up the price quickly. The latest Mac Mini also locks users out from adding more RAM later, while HP has a second RAM slot just a few Phillips-head screws away.
If you can deal with the performance limitations of the slower Core i3 CPU (to say nothing of the entry-level Pentium chip), HP offers some serious value, with a wireless keyboard and mouse set and a large 1TB hard drive, all for $50 less than the least-expensive Mac Mini.