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2016 Guide to Mini PCs and Barebones Computers

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Barebones computers and mini PCs remind us that the physical size of computers has trended downward since the days of the ENIAC. When you think about how computers once took up the entire floor of an office building, it is amazing that something the size of a pack of tissues can house an Intel® Core™ i7-4770r processor.

The shrinking phenomenon has accelerated in recent years. This has occurred thanks to energy-efficient CPUs that offer enough performance for playing HD video and running office productivity programs. The computing sticks and boxes that contain these processors make laptops look downright bulky.

We will go into detail about several types of mini PCs and barebones computers to differentiate what is on the market in 2016.

barebones pcs

What is a barebones computer?

In modern computing, barebones usually implies a super-compact form factor, but any sized system (ATX, mini-ATX, micro-ATX) can be described as barebones in reference to the type of components it comes with. The motherboard and power supply are usually soldered into the chassis. The CPU is usually purchased with the computer, while the memory and a small storage disk are usually installed by the user.

The internal storage disk is large enough to hold the operating system and usually not much else. Additional file storage is normally done by way of attaching an external hard drive to a USB 3.0 port.

Other peripherals, like mouse and keyboard, also connect via USB. Displays might connect with HDMI, mini-HDMI, DVI, or Thunderbolt interface. Some high-end mini PCs have PCIe-16 sockets that support discrete graphics cards. Most barebones computers can network via LAN, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.

Why might you use a mini PC?

The small size of mini PC gives users several advantages.

  • Ideal for computing in places with limited space
  • Enables use of a television as a computer monitor
  • Can be mounted behind a monitor as an inexpensive alternative to an All-in-One PC
  • Low power consumption and quiet operation

In the business world, these advantages translate into a wide range of scenarios where mini PCs solve a lot of challenges.

Mini PCs and barebones computers provide computing power to run digital signage kiosks and smart teleconference rooms.

digital signage and smart teleconference

Mini PCs have widespread industrial applications. The Intel NUC (shown below) controls industrial grain dryers.

Mini PCs and barebones computers are the building block for thin-client computing. A thin client is a lightweight computer designed for remotely accessing a more powerful server. Here, a mini PC is typically fitted onto the back of a monitor and networked back to a server in a data center somewhere.

thin client

Many surveillance systems have a custom-fitted barebones computer providing the computing power to display the video. These are usually sold as part of a complete surveillance system, but DIY setups wherein the router, cameras, and monitor are purchased separately are not uncommon.

What are the different types of mini PCs that are available?

Embedded solutions

RPi 700
The Raspberry Pi became popular in the maker community a few years ago. More importantly, it ushered the idea of miniature computing into technological mainstream. It more resembles a motherboard than a computer, and powers on like a mobile phone with a Micro-USB.

Don’t be fooled—the RPi has legit computing clout. Raspberry Pi 2 Model B (shown above) comes with a 900 MHz processor that can run Windows 10, though most users choose to run a Linux variation. The embedded VideoCore IC GPU is capable of streaming 1080p video.

The RPi can be fitted with an array of dongles that add functionality. The Raspberry Pi 2 Model B starter kit is popular with schools, and gives you everything to get up and making with the Pi.

galileo2

Users that prefer a touch more computing power might want to look at the Intel GALILEO embedded solution. This x86-chipped microcontroller board is popular among professional developers in sensor and monitoring technology fields. Other differentiating attributes include a mini PCI Express slot and a Real Time Clock.

Barebones computer

nuc

For a full-blown Intel Core processing power, an Intel NUC (short for Next Unit of Computing, shown above) offers users desktop PC power in a book-size form factor. The actual specifications of these polished, premium barebones machines vary by which components you choose to fit them with.

Other vendors offer similar barebones systems. Among the most popular are models made by Gigabyte, ASUS, and ZOTAC. Like the Intel NUC, these computers come with just the motherboard, CPU, and PSU assembled in the case, and you purchase the rest of the components and add them to the system.

One great feature offered on NeweggBusiness.com is the Mini-PC Barebone configurator.  Start by choosing the case, motherboard, and CPU that you want. Then, on the same page, choose from a number of available configurations of memory and storage disks.

Fitting a NUC or another mini-PC with component s requires the same approach as building a desktop PC. It is always best to first think of how you intend to use the machine, and outfit the computer with parts capable of the performance that is needed..

The side panel of the Mini-PC Barebones store enables searching for machines fitted with the components that you want. Search filters include:

  • CPU
  • Onboard Graphics
  • Memory Slots/Memory Type
  • PCIe and PCIe x 16
  • SATA connections
  • Drive bays—size and number
  • LAN speed

Chromeboxes

asus chromebox

The Chromebox is the desktop equivalent of a Chromebook. The Chrome OS is quickly becoming a potent Windows alternative, and in many cases, operates alongside Windows and Mac OS machines without a hitch. The major selling point for any Chrome device is the price—for under $160 you can get the popular ASUS Chromebox (shown above).

Unlike barebones PCs, Chromeboxes come assembled with all the necessary components. You can choose from all the major PC manufacturers when shopping for Chromebox The most inexpensive models have low-end Intel CPUs and 2-4 GB of memory.  On the other hand, Chromebox with high-end specifications are among the most competitively priced computers available. For example, $650 gets you this HP Chromebox with an Intel Core i7 4600U CPU (dual core) and 8 GB of memory.

Intel Compute Stick

Intel compute stick

The smallest barebones computer on the consumer market is the thumb-drive sized Intel Compute stick. The Compute Stick plugs into a display’s HDMI port, and draws power via USB connection. Once it connects to the Internet over Wi-Fi, it’s ready to go—preferably paired with a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard for controls. It comes with a range of Intel Core M CPUs, which are specially designed low-power / high performance processors

Digital signage is probably the most obvious business application for the Intel Compute Stick. The computing power combined with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity offers users easy remote control of signage and digital kiosk installations.

Pre-loaded with Windows 10, the Compute Stick can transform any HDMI television into a complete desktop PC, and offers a slew of business-world applications. High-end models support multiple-monitor environments (handy in classrooms and labs) and enable CPU-intensive activities like CAD and computer programming. Mid-range models offer enough computing power for thin-client usage.

Chromebit

 

chromebit

The Chromebit is the Chrome equivalent to the Compute Stick. Naturally it is less expensive ($85 range) for a model with similar specifications in comparison. Just like other Chrome devices, the Chromebit is not necessarily meant as a replacement for other devices, but rather a complementary item for the ecosystem of gadgets in any particular environment.

Where the Chromebit might pull up a bit lightweight is in the connectivity department, having just one hardwired micro-USB port. Users better be sure to have Bluetooth peripherals on hand for its fullest potential.

Final thoughts

A little bit can go a long way in the world of modern computing. Users have several options for adding ultra-compact systems in the workplace. Which computer you select comes down to physical employment specifications (how small do you need it?) and the task you plan to use it for (which processor, which inputs?). When shopping for a NUC or one of its clones, remember that some assembly is required, and the configurator tool will help you select the correct components. Chrome devices provide great inexpensive alternatives, though they are not necessarily designed to replace Windows or Mac environments, but rather, they will play nicely within them. Keep these things in mind while shopping for a mini PC, or barebones computer, and you will be on the right track.

Summary
Article Name
2016 Guide to Mini PCs and Barebones Computers
Description
Barebones computers and mini PCs show us that small is beautiful for office computers. Here is what is on the market for 2016.
Author
Adam Lovinus

Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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