Buyer's Guide: Mini Desktop PCs
The Pros and Cons of tiny PCs
Reviews When you choose the components for a new desktop PC, it’s pretty much a numbers game. The more you pay, the more CPU cores, gigahertz of CPU speed, and gigabytes of memory and hard drive space you get. You don't have to worry about very much else.
Looks are more important when your PC is in your living room
It’s a different story with a mini PC. Manufacturers are limited by the size of the machine as to what they can include. That's not just a factor for the physical size of the components - hard drive, optical drive, chip coolers and so forth - but also how effective that cooling is. Less airspace around the components means the cooling system has to work harder and that may mean it makes more noise.
The size of the case also dictates how easily you can find room for your mini PC on a desk or beside your TV. It also has a major bearing on how portable the PC might be. The Acer Aspire X5900, for instance, is quite small but is effectively a regular desktop PC so you are unlikely to move it about. By contrast, you could drop the Cape 7 Ion or Viewsonic PC Mini 132 in the pocket of your coat.
Smaller machines can also be attached to the back of the screen if space is tight or you simply want a more all-in-one computing experience. Look out for machines that include - or provide as an option - a Vesa mounting kit. The Video Electronics Standards Association's spec ensures the computer's mount will fit onto the display or TV correctly.
Some Mini PCs can be mounted onto the backs of monitors and TVs
Every desktop will give you wired Ethernet network connectivity, but you may prefer the convenience - at the cost of speed - of wireless networking, especially if you're after a mini PC for its portability. Some mini PCs have Wi-Fi built in, others simple bundle a USB adaptor, while the rest may not include it at all.
"Having a dual-core processor makes ..."
"Having a dual-core processor makes a big difference to the performance available to you"
You use those words as the caption to a Windows performance graph which shows four CPUs. It also shows the current CPU utilisation as zero %, average CPU utilisation at well under 20% with a very very brief spike at around 60% on two CPUs, and the fourth CPU might as well not exist. Do you think this is representative of typical SFF/entertainment PC usage?
I've largely lost interest in GHz wars, but I'd have thought one single faster core would in general be a better buy than multiple slower cores with the same price and/or same total power dissipation, because most applications are still basically single threaded and therefore gain little benefit from the extra cores but may well benefit from extra GHz. Your graph shows this - the fourth CPU barely wakes up at all.
In a small form factor entertainment PC where fans are an undesirable complication, this consideration applies even more so than in standard desktop PCs.
Still, if you want to blithely repeat the industry's multi-core hype, feel free.
Objection your honour
"VGA is best avoided if you can".
Not quite so. A very large fraction of the TVs out there have a very limited tolerance on what they will accept on their HDMI port. So if you are using the PC's HDMI output or DVI-to-HDMI adapter you have a very high likelihood of running into overscan/underscan issues where the PC picture cannot be fitted onto the screen correctly. This is especially the case for 1366x768 (HD ready) systems. I have yet to see one that accepts DVI-to-HDMI (or PC HDMI) 720p and works properly.
As far as using VGA for full HD the problem is usually not the VGA itself, but the cables and in the case of Radeon on-board connectors and cables "to bracket". Very few cables on the market are OK with the frequencies required by full HD which results in a significant amount of ghosting. If you get a cable that is OK in that range you are OK with VGA.
Overall - it remains a trial and error game and VGA remains the "old faithful" fallback which (subject to having good cabling) can save the day when HDMI/DVI does not work properly.