Small form factor (SFF) PCs or mini-PCs come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but they all share one thing in common – they’re tiny compared to the box most PC users are accustomed to.
The smallest, such as Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) will fit into the palm of your hand, while even the largest models are still generally smaller than a shoebox.
This makes them perfect for environments where space is at a premium, be it a cluttered study or small AV cabinet under your TV. However, whenever PCs shrink, there’s a price to be paid elsewhere, and small form-factor PCs are no different.
Most obvious of all is the lack of room for high-end components. They tend to use low-voltage CPUs as there’s simply no space for the larger cooling systems needed for desktop CPUs, which in turn leads to lower performance when compared to a full tower.
Thankfully even today’s power-sipping CPUs tend to have enough grunt to do day to day duties such as web-browsing, spreadsheets and the odd-spot of video viewing, but don’t expect most of these machines to be game-ready.
There’s also a rather drastic trimming back of expansion slots, lacking any form of PCI or PCI Express slots.
Don’t expect to build a mini-PC with masses of storage either, as they’re generally limited to one 2.5-inch drive, and another mSATA drive if you’re lucky.
One thing that may not be immediately obvious is that most SFF PCs are sold as barebones units. This means that they generally only include the motherboard, CPU, power supply and networking components; you’ll need to fork out extra for the memory, operating system and storage.
This is why we were unable to benchmark the machines in this roundup, as the vast majority weren’t bootable. Instead we’ve reviewed them based on their form factor, price, range of inputs and outputs, CPU speed and expandability.
What to look for
Most SFFs don’t include the cost of a hard drive, Operating System or memory, so remember to add that onto the total cost of ownership.
Due to their small size, most SFF PCs use the same SO-DIMM memory found in laptops, of the low voltage variety. Double check before ordering your SFF PC’s memory.
SFF PCs make great media boxes due to their small size and cost, but only a handful have the performance required to decode 4K video on the fly. 1080p isn’t a problem for even the cheapest, though, and everything here should handle Netflix with ease.
Like AIO PCs, mini-PCs generally have an external power pack. Check the size of this if you’re worried about squeezing your tiny PC into an even tinier space.
Many SFF PCs can be mounted onto the rear of a monitor or TV via a VESA mount, which is handy for hiding them away in home theatres.
If you do buy one of the top-end SFF PCs designed for gaming, be aware that their fan noise can be quite noticeable, as they have to spin fast to remove the heat from such a small case.
Due to their smaller size, these PCs are more prone to dust build-up over time, so give them a quick blast of compressed air every six months or so to ensure they don’t have thermal issues.
If you want to connect your SFF PC to your Wi-Fi network, ensure it has a wireless network card built-in, as some of the cheaper models only come with Ethernet.
How we tested
Mini PC’s come in a wide variety of configurations — some ship pre-built and ready to just plug in and switch on out of the box, while others require you to add a few core components yourself.
When testing each system, in the case of ready-to-go Windows devices we plugged them into a monitor, mouse and keyboard and put them through their paces with both real-world use and our standard range of PC benchmarks.
For devices that required the additon of RAM and an SSD (roughly half those here), we used the same components across all PCs and, once built, we again tested them in day-to-day real world tasks as well as using general system benchmarks.
Let’s start off our reviews with a doozy, the Alienware Alpha. It’s one of the most expensive mini-PCs on the market, and for good reason — when it comes to the hardware packed inside, it blows the competition away.
Alienware has designed this to be one of the few miniature PCs on the market that can play games, but you’ll need to keep your expectations in check before you boot up the latest and greatest graphical delights.
Intel’s Core i7-4785T is one of the fastest CPUs in our roundup, a quad-cored HyperThreaded beast that hits 3.2GHz when the going gets tough.
But it’s the custom NVIDIA GPU that really separates the Alpha from the pack. While Alienware won’t say what type it is, the base specs peg it around the level of a GeForce GTX 850M laptop GPU. As such, it’ll happily play newer games at 720p with middling settings, well in excess of other small form-factor PCs.
There’s also no need to buy memory or storage, as everything is included in the box. It’s all tucked away inside a beautifully small case measuring just 200mm squared, though the power pack is almost half that size again.
If you’re looking for the tiniest gaming machine around, the Alpha is hard to beat.
However, if you don’t mind building your own inside a slightly larger case, it’s possible to build a shoe-box sized PC with a dedicated graphics card that will wipe the floor with anything this small, all for the same price.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Apple Mac mini (1.4GHz Core i5)
While the rest of us in the PC world are enjoying our 6th Gen Core CPUs from Intel, this little Mac is powered by a rather weary 4th Gen chip. Even worse, it’s only a dual-core model with a top speed of just 1.4GHz, which is severely underpowered compared to other mini-PCs.
On the flipside, you don’t need to buy anything else to get this up and running, as it’ll boot up out of the box.
It’s rather large given the relatively average specs, with the stunning aluminium chassis measuring 20cm by 20cm, but it thankfully hides the power supply away inside, with no large external brick to take up more space.
And when it comes to I/O options, owners really are spoiled. Along with 802.11ac and Gigabit Ethernet, there’s HDMI out, twin Thunderbolt 2, four USB 3.0, an SDXC card slot, along with twin 3.5mm stereo minijacks (headphone and mic).
An IR receiver on the front will handle an Apple Remote, but sadly it’s not included in the box. There’s even a built-in speaker, though the less said about its audio quality, the better.
One benefit of its lower power is the whisper quiet operation, and yet that sluggish CPU is hard to accept at this price.
Released in late 2014, we’re hoping the mini gets an upgrade this year, as it’s about time.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Apple Mac mini (2.8GHz Core i7)
And for whatever reason, Apple decided that the latest minis would be limited to dual-core processors, a rather hefty slashing of processing power compared to the quad-core model it had used previously.
However, the jump in price for this version of the mini has resulted in a much more powerful computer that still fits inside the exact same chassis as the lesser model.
The CPU speed has doubled, peaking at 2.8GHz, which makes it much more capable as a media box. If you’d like to spend even more, it’s possible to upgrade to a 3.5GHz I7 CPU, but again it’ll be limited to just two cores.
The memory size has also been doubled but it’s also impossible to upgrade, as it’s soldered into place.
The 1TB Fusion Drive helps to deliver a noticeable performance improvement when doing normal duties, where its SSD cache delivers a huge shot in the arm to system responsiveness.
It’s only when you start playing around with files larger than the 128GB cache that it slows down. Like the more affordable version, this mini comes with a huge range of I/O options.
There’s no denying the sexy design of the mini, but its 18-month-old birthday makes it hard to recommend at this price point, especially when the likes of the Alienware Alpha resoundingly whip it into shape for several hundred dollars less.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Gigabyte Brix GB-BACE-3000
It might not have the oomph to handle your heavy image-editing or 4K video-decoding duties, but if you’re looking for an extremely cheap mini-PC to run as an Android or Steam Link box, look no further.
Part of the reason it’s so affordable is the fact that it’s a barebones model; buyers will need to add the cost of the memory, hard drive and operating system.
Tucked away inside the absolutely miniscule 108mm x 114mm x 56mm case is a single SO-DIMM DDR3L slot. This can handle a maximum of 8GB of memory, which, by today’s costs, would set you back another $150 or so.
A single SATA 6Gbps port is included for a 2.5-inch drive, though there’s also a M.2 slot. However, this comes occupied already, inhabited by the dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi/Bluetooth card, which is a fantastic inclusion at this price point.
Intel’s ice-cool Celeron N300 doesn’t require any active cooling, resulting in a totally silent design, yet it has the performance to handle relatively routine duties.
If there’s one thing we’re not too in love with, it’s the way the various I/O ports reside on three different faces of the chassis, which will make hiding cables a challenge.
Still, at least it has Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI out, four USB 3.0, MicroSD card slot and mic in/headphone out, making it able to handle a variety of peripherals.
Even once the memory and storage are factored into the price, this entry-level Brix still offers fantastic value for money.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Gigabyte Brix S GB-BSi7H-6500
It’s amazing what a difference in price a simple CPU upgrade makes to the cost of a mini-PC. Take this premium-performance model from Gigabyte; at four times the price of the other Brix reviewed above, we expected to see storage and memory included in the box, but it wasn’t to be.
Instead, the highlight of this unit is the Intel Core i7-6500U, one of the latest 6th Gen Processors on the market.
It might only be a twin-cored model, but the inclusion of hyperthreading gives it leverage that lesser processors lack, especially when it hits 3.1GHz under load.
However, the rest of this PC looks very similar indeed to the Brix GB-BACE-3000, to the point that the huge leap in price is hard to justify.
There’s no memory in place, but the number of SO-DIMM DDR3L slots has doubled, allowing for a maximum of 16GB of memory. There’s still only one SATA 6Gbps slot, but at least, this time, there are two M.2 slots.
Once again, the smaller of these is occupied by the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth card, but a second stands ready for your high-speed M.2 drives.
The range of I/O options is nearly identical; though, this time, the inclusion of a Mini DisplayPort 1.2 output means it can drive 3,840 x 2,160-pixel displays at 60Hz.
Whether or not the Intel HD Graphics 520 can seamless decode video at this resolution in another matter entirely — don’t expect an utterly flawless decode.
While it’s nice to see the latest 6th Gen Core CPU in a mini-PC, the huge leap in price is a bit of a head-scratcher, making this hard to recommend.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
These palm-sized devices broke new ground in miniaturising the computing experience, but early models launched in 2013 lacked the processing power to do much more than powering basic electronic signs.
They also lacked any form of storage or memory, which makes the brand-new NUC5PGYH one of the most interesting NUCs in the few years they’ve been around, as it comes ready to roll out of the box.
Measuring a mere 115mm x 111mm x 52mm, at the heart is the Braswell-based Pentium N3700. This low-power chip delivers four cores with a maximum frequency of 2.4GHz, making it rather capable at this price point, provided your intended software can handle multithreading.
Just 2GB of memory seems rather sparse, but Windows 10 is surprisingly responsive on this PC, especially as it’s pre-loaded onto the eMMC drive (yes, this PC comes with Windows 10 preinstalled, making the price that much more attractive).
Sure, the included hard drive is only 32GB in size, so won’t hold your video library, but there’s also room for another 2.5-inch SATA 6Gbps based drive inside. Add HDMI out, four USB 3.0 ports, Gigabit LAN and 802.11ac, and the value-packed offering here is hard to resist.
We’d highly recommend adding an additional hard drive, though, but even then, this is one of the most affordable NUCs on the market, without sacrificing too much performance in the process.
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
It might have the ASUS logo splashed all over the box, but we’ve been asked to refer to this as the Scorptec VC65R-G006M. It’s actually Scorptec’s take on the ASUS VivoMini V Barebone PC, and they’ve stocked it to the gills with some impressive goodies.
We should point out that this is slightly larger than most other mini-PCs here; with around the same length and width of the Mac mini, but around twice the height. This allows the makers to install a DVD-RW, a very rare inclusion that might be a huge benefit to those of you with large DVD collections.
The case is made entirely from plastic, but it looks and feels superior to the cheap finish of the Shuttle.
Intel’s speedy Core i5-6400T delivers a full four cores of performance at 2.8GHz, and is paired with a hefty 8GB of DDR3 1,600MHz memory along with a tasty Samsung EVO 250GB SSD.
Combine this with Intel’s HD Graphics 530, and we’re confident this little beast will decode 4K with ease.
A whopping six USB 3.0 ports provide plenty of connectivity, while the inbuilt 802.11ac adaptor handles dual band networks. Scorptec has even thrown in a copy of Windows 10 Home, so there’s absolutely nothing more to pay when setting this box up.
It might seem a little pricey, but when measured against the likes of the Shuttle and Gigabyte Brix S, actually delivers pretty respectable value for money.
One for the power user who just wants it to work straight away.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Shuttle XPC Nano NC01U5
These had room for a discrete graphics card and mid-range CPU, making them powerful options for those who still wanted mobility.
The new Nano NC01U5 has instead gone for a much smaller chassis this time around, and we can’t help but feel there’s something missing in the shrink.
This is a bare-bones PC, so there’s no memory, storage or operating system. It’s a little hard to fathom given the extremely high price point, as the Intel CPU included within isn’t exactly remarkable.
Sure, it’s a full-blown i5, but only offers twin cores with hyperthreading at 2.7GHz. Compared to the i7-6500U in the Brix, it’s no speed demon at all.
We’re also not big fans of the plastic chassis, which feels cheap and insubstantial for such a premium priced product.
When it does come time to install the extra goodies, twin SO-DIMM ports await a maximum of 16GB of memory, and Shuttle suggests using a twin-channel setup to deliver smooth 4K video performance.
There’s also the usual M.2 and SATA 6Gbps ports for two drives, along with the usual Wi-Fi/BT card.
Yet on the whole, we’re not really sure why Shuttle feels this mini-PC can command such a high feature price; for a PC low on features, it’s simply not up to snuff.