The personal computer market started with desktop PCs such as the MITS Altair, Apple II and IBM PC. As sales exploded, we got handhelds, tablets, laptops, games machines, all-in-ones, workstations, servers and eventually the giant server farms that now support cloud services.
PCs were also incorporated into numerous other products where they
provided a graphical user interface. Examples include ATMs or cash
machines, electronic tills, machine tools, public access kiosks and
signage displays. People are usually amused to see ticket machines,
airport displays and massive billboards displaying Windows error
Of course, many devices use different operating systems running on
single-board computers, but the principle is the same. Also, for
hobbyists, boards such as the Raspberry Pi have taken over a proportion of the market.
Nonetheless, Microsoft Windows has about 1.5 billion users, which
means there’s plenty of room for devices that appeal to relatively small
Mini PCs may be underpowered, but they are very small and cheap. The ACEPC T8 you mention is £89.99, which is less than Windows 10 Home (£119.99). This makes them attractive for some purposes.
Mini PCs work as desktop PCs that don’t take up any desk space. They
are so small they can easily be attached to the back of a monitor,
preferably using a standard VESA mount.
This is a significant advantage in situations where space is limited or
you don’t really want a tower case, such as a receptionist’s desk. They
can also work for children and others with simpler needs.
Added benefits are low power consumption and, in fanless models, low noise levels.
You could also buy a mini PC as a backup to a full-sized desktop, as
long as you set it up first. PCs fail from time to time, and nobody
wants to keep a full-sized tower in the spares cupboard. But as long as
your essential data is on external hard drives or online, you can swap
in a mini PC in a matter of minutes.
Mini PCs are not very powerful, but entry-level models typically have
a quad-core Intel Atom x5-Z8350 processor, which is also used in
low-end laptops and two-in-ones such as the Asus Transformer T101,
Lenovo Miix 320, HP x2 10 and Linx 12X64, which can cost up to £300.
If you have used any of these machines – and I have two of them –
then you will know they are fine for email, web surfing and running
Microsoft Office programs. They are not blazingly fast, and they can’t
do much in the way of multitasking, but they can do real work.
The trick, of course, is to avoid the minimum specification of 2GB of
memory and 32GB of eMMC storage. Windows 10 will run in 2GB, but it
works better in 4GB or more. You can now buy mini PCs with 6GB, such as
the Beelink M1 and the N34, or 8GB, such as the GN41 and the Hystou Mini PC.
And while 32GB is technically enough storage for Windows 10, you will
soon need to attach an external hard drive to do upgrades. It’s better
to start with 64GB, and preferably more.
Of course, you can buy more powerful mini PCs. For example, an Intel NUC
(Next Unit of Computing) can handle a Core i7 processor, 32GB of
memory, a 2TB M.2 SSD and a 2TB hard drive. The major drawback for that
spec is the price: £1,382 from PC Specialist. The Mac Mini fills the same need, though it’s bigger than most mini PCs.
The question is, why would you buy a mini PC instead of a laptop or
two-in-one? There are two reasons. Firstly, you can use a mini PC with a
very large monitor or a TV set. Secondly, you can plug in a good, cheap
USB keyboard – even an ergonomic model, if you have health concerns.
This pushes up the price, but a decent monitor and keyboard should
easily outlast a cheap laptop, and are much nicer to use.
Television set-top boxes
Generally, I think video streaming is best done
with a Roku stick, Now TV box, Amazon Fire TV or similar device.
However, mini PCs can also be used as set-top boxes and, as mentioned,
can be mounted on the back of a TV set. Just add a Bluetooth mouse and
keyboard, or a keyboard with a built-in trackpad, and you are ready to go.
Mini PCs will play high-definition YouTube videos in a browser, and
also run Kodi, Plex and MediaPortal media servers and client apps.
Windows 10 apps provide access to the likes of Netflix, Hulu, Spotify,
BT Sport, Minecraft, email, news and weather. And if you want to run
Skype on a TV set, a mini PC will do that, too.
People usually sit too far away from a TV set to run programs such as
Excel, which require accurate mouse movements. Media servers including
Kodi, Plex and MediaPortal have interfaces that work well at a distance.
Windows 10’s touch-oriented apps also work pretty well.
Streaming sticks are great, but they don’t offer all the services you
might need. Mini PCs can do almost anything, at reasonable prices.
Mount a mini PC on the back of a TV set and it will work well as a
client, displaying media from the internet or from your PC or NAS
(network attached storage) device.
Most mini PCs don’t come with enough storage to work as servers, but
you can always add some. The simplest approach is to add an SD card or
USB thumb drive: affordable sizes range from 8GB to 256GB. This might
not hold your whole media library, but you can delete movies after
you’ve watched them and then copy the next movie across over your home
You could, of course, add much more cheap storage by buying an external hard drive, with 4TB now being a cost-effective size. This adds an extra box plus wiring, which you may not want.
The other idea – which I have not tried – is to use a mini PC to
stream to a Roku or similar device. The catch is whether you need to
transcode video in order to display it. Historically, this has required a
more powerful processor, such as a Core i3 or better. Intel responded
to the problem by adding Quick Sync Video (QSV) to its microprocessors
to speed up video conversions, and Intel’s data sheet for the x5-Z8350 (pdf) confirms its presence.
It should therefore be possible to build a cheap media server or NAS
around a mini PC and external hard drive, though it won’t be as pretty
as buying one from Synology or QNAP.
Note: if you plan to run Linux instead of Windows, check your mini PC of choice supports it.
There must be plenty of PC applications where it would be hard to
justify spending £1,000 to £2,000. If a Beelink BT3Pro – with 4GB of
RAM, 64GB of storage – can do the job for £129.99, some people will buy
1 What Is The Point Of Mini PCs? Photos