The 5 Best Mini PCs for Business

by Ted Needleman

You don't always need pricey, high-powered PCs. We look at the best mini PCs for small business.

Small form-factor PCs have been around for decades and, for the most part, people use them as home media centers to stream audio and video. Over the past several years, however, a new size of PC has emerged—ultra-small form-factor PCs that measure 5- x 5- x 1-inches or even smaller.

While affordable mini PCs can handle home theater and media center tasks, we decided to evaluate five of them from a different point of view. In this article we look at five of the best mini PCs and ways that you can use them in your business. Read and compare all of the mini PC reviews, or go right to a specific mini PC by clicking on one of the links below.

[See also: A Small Business Guide to Document Scanners]

How Mini is a Mini PC?

We looked at five mini PCs that sport an ultra-small form factor. How small are they, exactly? Devices from both Gigabyte and Intel have a 4-inch square case that's a mere one or two inches thick. Slightly larger, the Shuttle mini PC measures 5-inches square and 1-inch tall. The largest mini PC we tested is the Acer Revo One—it's about the size of a small bookshelf speaker. Rounding out the group, the seriously small Lenovo IdeaCentre Stick 300 is about the size of a pack of gum.

Best mini PCs: The Acer Revo One

Acer Revo One, the tallest mini PC in this roundup, stands a mere 6-inches high.

A Business Take on the Best Mini PCs

Mini PCs are not suitable for heavy computer lifting like video editing, CAD, and other processor-intensive tasks. However, they can certainly handle many other business-related chores. For example, each mini PC in our roundup proved capable of web browsing and running LibreOffice Free Office Suite and QuickBooks in-house bookkeeping software. They can all handle cloud-based applications such as Google Office Apps, QuickBooks Online, Xero, and FreshBooks; and they can also act as the anchor for digital signage.

All of the tiny PCs we tested include USB and HDMI ports, so they would also work well as a Skype machine for video conferencing and calling.

These mini PCs have several other things in common. First, they aren't all that expensive when compared to an equivalent standard desktop. Depending on how you configure them, they can be substantially less expensive than the average desktop.

More importantly, they don't take up much, if any desk space. Except for the Acer Revo One, you can mount the mini PCs in this roundup on the rear of a monitor using an included VESA mounting plate (the same mount used to attach a monitor or flat-panel TV to the wall). The Revo One stands just about six inches tall, but it takes up only a bit more than 4 square inches on the desktop, so you can easily tuck it behind most displays.

Two Flavors of Mini PC: Ready-to-go or DIY

Here's an important question to answer when choosing a mini PC: do you want a ready-to-run PC or are you willing to do a little bit of work?

The two mini PCs from Gigabyte and Intel are bare-bones computers. They come in the box with a power supply and a VESA mounting plate, but you don't get RAM, a hard drive, an or operating system. Adding a stick or two of RAM and a laptop-sized hard drive takes about five minutes; It's not hard; just about anyone can do it.

You can buy the Windows 7 Home Edition operating system from numerous vendors on-line for less than $100 (though you'll also need a $20 USB DVD drive to install it), and installing the OS takes about another 20 minutes or so.

The Shuttle XPC Nano, Acer Revo One, and Lenovo IdeaCentre Stick 300 are pretty much ready to run out of the box, though you'll need a keyboard and mouse for the Shuttle and the Lenovo. The Acer Revo One comes with a wireless keyboard and mouse in the box.

We used a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to test the mini PCs that didn't come with one. And, of course, you'll also need a monitor, preferably with an HDMI input, which most monitors and even TV sets have these days.

A Guide to the Best Mini PCs

Now that you're more familiar with the ins and outs of mini PCs, let's take a look at five of the best mini PCs for business.

1. Acer Revo One

The Acer Revo One, as configured for our roundup, is the most expensive mini PC we tested. It's also the most highly configured and ready to run out of the box. While Revo One pricing starts at around $280 for a base unit with a Celeron processor, Acer sent us the fully loaded RL85-UR45 model, which carries a $580 price tag.

For that money, the 4.1- x 4.1- x 6-inch Revo comes with an Intel Core i5 Dual-Core processor, 8GB of RAM (the most it supports), and a 1TB hard drive. That's enough to handle pretty much any common office application you might run on a standard desktop. Acer even includes a wireless keyboard and mouse in the box. The Revo One mini PC we tested came Windows 8.1 installed, and it was ready to use right out of the box.

The shiny white Revo provides two video ports (an HDMI and a DisplayPort output), and you can use both ports at the same time, which means that you can run two monitors. Other ports include a Gigabit Ethernet port, a total of four USB ports (two 2.0 and two 3.0), 7.1 audio, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.

Aside from the more powerful CPU and a larger hard disk, what really sets the Revo One apart is that you can stick two additional 2.5 inch hard disk drives (not included) in the compact case. This gives you a huge amount of storage space, or the ability to run the original 1TB drive and an added 1TB in RAID 1 mode, mirroring everything on the original drive to the extra drive for data safety.

2. Shuttle XPC Nano (NC01UWIN10HE)

Shuttle may not be as familiar a brand as the other vendors in this roundup, but it's been selling mini PCs in the U.S. for more than 25 years. The Nano goes small form-factor one better, measuring a scant 5- x 5- x 1.14-inches. The Shuttle is also ready to run out of the box, though first-time setup takes about 10 minutes for Windows 10 Home to initialize.

Best Mini PCs: The Shuttle XPC Nano

Priced at $280, the XPC Nano comes with a VESA mounting plate so you can attach it to the back of a display. As with most of the mini PCs we tested, the Shuttle does not include a keyboard or mouse—we used a set we keep on hand for reviews.

The very lightly configured Nano features a dual-core Intel Celeron 3205U processor, which is fine for basic business tasks you might want to accomplish with this mini PC. You can opt for Core i5 and Core i7 models if your business requires something a bit more high-powered. But as delivered, with 2GB of RAM and a 32GB hard disk, it's a little underpowered for running something like an office suite directly from the hard drive—although cloud-based applications, including Google Office apps, run just fine in a Chrome browser.

The Nano comes with an M.2 SATA drive, a solid state drive in circuit board form, designed for small form factor PCs. The case has room for an additional 2.5-inch laptop type hard disk, and you can buy a 500GB drive online for about $60, so it's a good upgrade for this model. The xpc Nano also has two DIMM sockets for RAM, so adding another 4GB or 8GB of RAM won't cost much. That will bump the price up a bit, but it will really improve performance.

In the port department, the XPC Nano holds its own with the other mini PCs we tested. It has two video outputs, an HDMI and a mini-Displayport, two USB 2.0 ports, two more USB 3.0 ports, Gigabyte Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and an SD Card reader.

Continued: The 5 Best Mini PCs for Business

Here's the lowdown on three more of the five best mini PCs for business. Plus, don’t miss out on the bonus benefits that mini PCs offer.

Read and compare all of the mini PC reviews, or go right to a specific mini PC by clicking on one of the links below.

3. Gigabyte Brix (GB-BXBT-1900)

The Brix, one of the two bare-bone mini PCs in our roundup, measures 4.24- x 4.5- x 2.21-inches, and it comes with a VESA mounting plate so you can attach it to the rear of a compatible display. While the mini PC lacks RAM, a hard disk, and an operating system, it costs only about $100.

Gigabyte Brix (GB-BXBT-1900) mini PC

The mini PC provides one slot for RAM and place for a 2.5-inch laptop-style hard drive. After adding an 8GB Kingston SODIMM ($31), a Kingston 120GB solid state hard drive ($42), and the Windows 7 Home Edition operating system ($100), pricing for the Brix topped out at $273. That's not a lot of money for a well-performing mini PC.

Add another 20 bucks or so for the external USB DVD drive you'll need to install the operating system (if you don't already have one lying around). The Brix gets its power from an Intel Celeron J1900 and a Quad-core processor that runs as fast as 2.42 Ghz. This processor is slightly more powerful than the CPUs in the other mini PCs we tested.

The mini PCs in this review provide approximately the same port lineup. The Brix has four USB ports, split between USB 2.0 and USB 3.0. You also get Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, along with two video-out ports. Unlike some of the other mini PCs, the second video output is a VGA port—not a DisplayPort. That's handy if you want to use the Brix with an older display that doesn't have HDMI inputs.

The Gigabyte Brix and the Intel NUC5CPYH are very similar. If the Intel brand-name isn't all that important to you, the Brix offers a bit more performance for just a bit less money. On the other hand, if support and a well-known brand matters in your decision making, Intel might be the better choice.

4. Intel NUC5CPYH

Intel introduced the NUC (New Unit of Computing) form-factor several years ago. The bare-bones NUC5CPYH mini PC comes with a Celeron 3050 dual-core processor; you can buy models with Core i3, i5, and i7 CPUs, but they cost more.

Mini PC: The Intel NUC5CPYH

As with the Gigabyte Brix, we added an 8GB SODIMM RAM (you get one memory socket), a Kingston 120GB SSD hard drive, and Windows 7 Home Edition. The mini PC—without the added components—sells for about $130. The price with the components hit just about $300. Comparable in size to the Brix—just slightly shorter—Intel's NUC5CPYH measures 4.5- x 4.3-2.03-inches.

As with the other bare-bone mini PCs, installing the operating system is the most time-consuming task; it takes about 20 minutes and requires an external USB DVD drive. Installing the RAM and hard drive took less than five minutes, and you access the inside by simply removing four screws on the bottom of the case.

The Intel NUC offers the same port compliment as the Brix, right down to a VGA port as the second video output (with HDMI as the other video port). And, like the Brix, it handles the LibreOffice office suite just fine, as well as cloud-based applications.

5. Lenovo IdeaCentre Stick 300

How small can a PC be and still be useful? How about 3.94- x 1.50- x0.59-inches? That's about the size of a pack of gum and the dimensions of the $100 Lenovo IdeaCentre Stick 300, a tiny PC that plugs directly into the HDMI input port on a monitor. If you don't have the room for it back there, the Stick 300 comes with an 8-inch HDMI extension cable and a holder for the device that glues on the back of the display.

The very mini PC package also includes a 3-foot USB to Micro USB cable and 5-volt charger-style AC power supply. If you don't have a spare AC outlet within three feet of the back of your display (a pretty common scenario), you might consider a 6- or 10-foot USB cable and an AC extension cord.

Lenovo IdeaCentre Stick 300 mini PC

Given the Stick 300's diminutive size, we're not surprised by its minimal port options. It provides a microUSB port for the power cable and a second USB 2.0 port, which the sparse documentation suggests you use to plug in a dongle for connecting a wireless keyboard and mouse (not included in the price).

Lenovo sent us their micro multimedia keyboard/trackball combos, but the keys were too small for our big hands. Fortunately, the Stick 300 includes both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability, and a Logitech Bluetooth Wireless keyboard and mouse worked just fine, and it left the second USB port open.

The only other opening on the device is a slot for a microSD card, which offers storage expansion possibilities. We like that feature, because the Stick 300's internal memory tops out at 2GB of RAM and 32GB of solid state disk storage. That's not any different than the Shuttle XPC Nano, and the Intel quad-core Atom processor gives about the same level of performance as the Celeron does in the Shuttle.

The IdeaCentre Stick 300 comes with Windows 10 Home Edition already loaded, and it's ready to use right out of the box.

If you're looking for something to handle mainly web browsing and cloud-based apps, it's a great choice. Here's the Stick 300's main limitation; other than adding a microSD card, you can't really expand the mini PC without adding a lot of stuff such as an external USB hub. That erases the benefit of having an actual PC hanging off the HDMI port of your display.

Still, it costs a hundred bucks–about what you'd spend on an operating system alone. If it meets your requirements as an extra or backup PC, it's money well-spent.

[Don't miss this article: Best Business Laptops for Every Budget]

More Mini PC Benefits

An added bonus no matter which of these mini PC you choose—they use less electricity. Lenovo's Stick 300 requires a wall wart power supply like the type used with smartphones or tablets. The other mini PCs come with very small AC power supplies. They sip, rather than guzzle, power compared to conventional desktop machines.

And while using a mini PC you won't save a fortune on your electric bill, you will have an efficient PC that generates very little heat, and it won't fry an egg on its case or tax your office's air conditioning after 12 hours. In fact, these mini PCs are so quiet that if you mount on onto the back of the monitor, you won't even know it's there unless you're using it.

Best of all, these tiny PCs are so affordable that you can keep a spare in your desk drawer for those unexpected times when you need an extra computer at a moment's notice.

Ted Needleman published his first review in 1978. Since then, he has written several thousand hardware and software reviews, columns, articles on using technology, and two books. He has no intention of stopping any time soon.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Jun 1st 2016
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