Buying a new mini PC can be fun, but it can also be a bit stressful. A computer is a rather expensive device and we expect it to serve us well for several years. Also, it’s important that it runs fast and works well together with our other devices such as a monitor, printer, external drive, or our phone.
These are just a few factors that are important to us when buying a computer. What else? Let’s see what we should be paying attention to.
Barebone/kit or a full system?
Firstly we can divide mini PCs into two groups: barebone computers or kits, and fully equipped computers.
If you’re a regular user and don’t know what a barebone computer is, you can read the next section to become familiar with the term, but probably a fully equipped computer is right for you.
Barebone computer/computer kit
Barebone computers usually come without any RAM and disk drive. Sometimes you have to purchase the CPU separately. Such systems allow you to better customize them for your needs, and usually, you can equip them with additional RAM and a larger disk drive than you would normally receive with a similar fully equipped computer.
When buying a kit you should pay attention to:
- the RAM type they support (usually they support DDR4 SO-DIMM RAM)
- number of RAM sticks that can be inserted (usually 2)
- type of disk drive they support (usually M.2 or SATA III 2.5″ drive)
- and number of disk drives you can install (usually 1 to 2)
This way you’ll know which additional equipment you’ll have to buy to make your computer fully functional.
Note that in the case of a barebone computer, there won’t be any operating system on it. You’ll have to buy and install it separately.
Fully equipped computer
Fully equipped computers don’t need any additional components to work. They usually come with an operating system already installed, and you just have to plug them into power, connect to a monitor, and you’re ready to go.
Since they come with fixed RAM and disk drives, it’s imperative to check that the components meet your needs.
If you’re a casual user that uses a computer for browsing, watching videos, and storing pictures/videos from your phones/cameras, you don’t need more than 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of disk space. It’s best to buy a computer with an SSD disk, even if its capacity is just 128 GB, because you’ll get a faster computer than if the disk was the regular spinning type. 128 GB is enough to have all the applications installed. If it turns out that you need more space for photos and videos, you can always buy an inexpensive external drive.
Advanced users should look more towards computers that come with at least 8 GB of RAM and 512 GB of space. There are also some computers that support 2 disk drives, an M.2 and a 2.5″ SATA III drive. In such a case, you can use the SSD drive as a system drive, while storing your content on a 2.5″ hard drive.
If you’re buying a home theater PC (HTPC) and are concerned about the noise, a fanless device might be the best option. However, fanless devices have limited capabilities and may not be fast enough to enjoy doing anything else on them than watching content. Especially if you plan to use a HTPC for transcoding, you’ll need a much more powerful device with active cooling. Don’t worry – playing a video on a modern mini PC doesn’t need a lot of resources and the device will be able to do it with fans spinning at a (quiet) minimum.
Casual users usually shouldn’t focus too much on the processor. We suggest buying a mini PC with at least an Intel i3 processor. Intel Atom processor might also be adequate, but if you’re able to spend a bit more money go with an i3. (It’s worth it!)
We’re sure advanced users don’t need much advice on the CPU. Perhaps you should only pay attention to the maximum temperature/TDP of the processor if you wish to have a quieter or maybe even a fanless computer.
Discrete graphics (GPU)
Casual users don’t need a mini PC with a dedicated graphics card. Modern CPUs have a graphics chip already integrated into them and are capable of processing the majority of everyday tasks.
For advanced users, there are more and more mini PCs available each year that are capable of running the most demanding games. Again, you may only want to check the power consumption of the GPU to avoid ending up with a PC that overheats.
Available ports for your external devices are one of the most important factors when deciding which mini PC to buy.
External ports are needed to connect your external devices to your computer, such as a USB hard drive or stick, monitor, mouse, printer, speakers, headphones, phone, camera, etc.
The usual ports are:
- USB, type A – this is the most common USB connector
- USB, type C – this is the USB type that can be plugged in regardless of how the connector is turned
- HDMI – graphics port, used to connect a monitor
- DisplayPort (DP) – graphics port
- Audio In, Audio Out – used to connect a microphone and speakers
- Thunderbolt (⚡) – versatile port, used to connect phones, drives, monitors
- LAN port – used for wired networking
- Memory card slot – can be used to read data from memory cards from e.g. your video camera
Nowadays PCs usually come with USB 3 ports which are much faster than USB 2 ports, but your might still want to double check that the computer supports USB 3. If you’re using external hard drive or transferring video from your phone or camera, having a USB 3 port will speed up the process a lot.
Also, it’s convenient if there are ports available on the front side of the PC. They’re more accessible when connecting things like an external USB drive for example.
Infrared sensor may come in handy, if you’re planning to use your mini PC as a home theater PC. It is usually installed in the front of a device.
The price varies from one PC to another.
The most inexpensive mini PC’s start at $100, but for a casual user, we recommend to start looking for a mini PC around the $200 price. It’s far better to spend a bit more money and have a computer that will last for years, than having a computer that feels slow already at the beginning.
Size and weight
The majority of mini PCs vary in size and weight. Often the size is related to their specifications. The best-performing PCs tend to be larger than the base models. The reason is that the higher end PCs need more space for cooling. So if you’re buying a more powerful computer, expect it to be larger.
If you don’t want to deal that much with which mini PC is better, it’s a rather safe decision to buy the one that is the newest. They usually have better equipment for the same money than older models.
Also, the newest models are usually equipped with better input and output ports. This is especially important if you want to connect external devices to the computer, such as a smartphone, video camera, or external disk. Read more about the topic in the above section about External ports.
Other: Wi-FI, Bluetooth
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth adapters are standard equipment in most mini PCs. However, since they’re not visible components, always double check that the PC actually has them.
These are the most important factors to look at when buying a mini PC. For easiest decision see our mini PC recommendations. Or check out our search tool with filtering to find a mini PC that suits your needs.