Do you have a (family) house with one or two mediocre computer monitors, speakers, keyboards and mice? Do you want a decent, cheap desktop for browsing the ‘net, watching videos, maybe some light document editing work? I did! So I decided to do some research.
Why a mini PC
As Andrew Cunningham writes on the Wirecutter,
Mini PCs cram the power of a Windows ultrabook into a computer the size of a paperback beach read, which means they’re more than powerful enough for browsing the web, handling basic photo and video editing, and working in documents or large spreadsheets. But unlike ultrabooks or most all-in-ones, mini PCs are easy to upgrade if you want to add more memory or storage, and they have all the ports you need to connect two or three monitors and your favorite keyboard, mouse, and webcam.
That I would have to “bring my own” keyboard, monitor, mouse, etc. fit my supply of discarded computer gear in my family’s house. I also liked the idea of buying something once and upgrading it as needed. And of course I could swap in other peripherals as needed.
Wirecutter’s guide hasn’t been updated since June 2021, and their top pick currently starts at $355.50. So while that was an OK starting place, I wanted to see if there were newer, cheaper options available.
Since I just wanted to do basic web browsing and maybe edit a text document, I set loose minimums of 8GB of RAM; 120 GB SSD storage; Intel 6th gen or later. I was also trying to keep it cheap – at least under the $490 price-tag of Wirecutter’s pick for budget Windows laptop, hopefully closer to $200.
I think the Minisforum DeskMini UM350 is the best pick I’ve found so far. Its various configurations get good reviews on Amazon and YouTube (one, two).
The 8 GB RAM + 256GB SSD configuration currently goes for $279 on MinisForum’s site.
- AMD Ryzen 5 3550H Processor and Radeon Vega 8 Graphics (Excited to own an AMD machine for the first time)
- Memory: DDR4 8GB×2 Dual channel (SODIMM Slots×2). Assuming the 8 GB RAM configuration provides two 4GB DDR4. Seems pretty easy to upgrade.
- Video Output: HDMI, DisplayPort and USB-C
- Storage: M.2 2280 256GB PCIe SSD. Can additional take a 2.5 inch SATA HDD Slot (SATA 3.0 6.0Gb/s) – super cool
- Ethernet port and 4 USB3 A ports.
- Comes with Windows 10 installed, but I’d likely install Xubuntu or Kubuntu (see appendix).
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can save about $80 by getting the “Barebone” model and providing your own RAM and storage.
Buying a Used Mini PC
Seems like Lenovo, HP, and Dell have made popular low-power PCs for years. There are pretty robust secondary markets for used or “renewed” ones on Amazon and Ebay, which seems to fit our brief well.
- Lenovo has the “ThinkCentre” line. The ThinkCentre M900 ($120) would be the old, cheap choice. Newer option would be the Wirecutter pick: Lenovo ThinkCentre M70q Tiny ($486); or the newer M75q for $564.
- HP has the EliteDesk line. The EliteDesk 705 seems like the classic. They’ve got multiple generations: G2 (~$100), G3 ($94 / $116), G4 ($147), and G5 ($313). HP EliteDesk 800 G2 comes in Desktop (w/ DVD drive; $103) or the smaller Mini ($124). EliteDesk 800 G3 gets us 16 GB of RAM for only $157. HP also has a similar ProDesk line.
- Dell has the OptiPlex line. The cheapest option listed on Dell’s website at this time appears to be the 3000 Micro for $530. But I think their used, older models are well-regarded for fixer-upper projects. Some examples of used models: 5050 ($99) or 7040 ($140)
Chromebox, aka “Cloud Machine”
One of Wirecutter’s picks that interests me is the CTL Chromebox CBX2 8GB RAM for $294. This machine runs Google Chrome OS, which I think is just the Chrome browser. So it’d be hard to manage files and install real software, but if you really just want to browse the web and watch YouTube videos, this could be a nice and simple solution.
There’s also the ASUS Chromebox 4, but, as Wirecutter mentioned, I was unable to find an 8GB RAM version available (at least from a reliable-looking seller).
Intel apparently makes mini PCs they call “NUCs” that seem to have a good reputation. The Nuc 11 NUC11ATKC4 Atlas Canyon Mini PC with our minimum specs is $250. The CPU is from Intel’s cheaper Celeron line, which I don’t know much about.
There’s also now some newer, small companies that make mini PCs in the $200 range: AEROFARA Mini PC is $200; Kamrui AK1 is $163; and my pick, the MinisForum.
Asus just announced a PL64.
Other options: System76’s mini Linux machine comes in at $475. Dell desktop’s start at $500, as do HP desktops. I didn’t find a Zotac model that fit my bill, but that may have been due to my impatience. Apple’s Mac Mini starts at $699!
On operating systems
Most of these come with Windows 10. I’d likely install a lightweight, easy-to-maintain-and-use version of Linux. See Appendix for more information.
Wait, so did you get one?
Not yet! Going to look into reviving some old Mac laptops first. (I may consult this 2016 blog post I wrote.)
Some concluding notes/other options
I got the idea partially from this article. As the article mentions, a Raspberry Pi 400 would be another option for us, but I’m not sure it’s got quite enough oomph and it’s hard to get right now.
I didn’t really consider a (used) iPad or Chromebook. Another option is to build a (desktop tower) PC, which I’ve always wanted to do, but I don’t know how easy it would be to keep it under $400?
Appendix A: Linux distros I’d consider for this project
- Xubuntu and Kubuntu, in my opinion, offer a nice balance between usability, aesthetics and weight (RAM usage). Should work well with as little as 4 GB of RAM.
- If you’ve got 2 GB of RAM, try Lubuntu, Bodhi Linux, or Ubuntu MATE.
- If you’re machine has 1 GB of RAM (or a little less), you can try Puppy Linux (which I installed on an old Thinkpad), or, if you know your way around Linux a bit, antiX (See Appendix C).
- If you have at least 8 GB of RAM you can probably use Pop_OS, a nice distro from System76. This is my daily driver as of 2022.
- elementary is apparently pretty user-friendly for folks used to macOS.
Appendix B: Retro Xfce themes
If you do use Xubuntu or another Linux distro that uses the Xfce desktop environment, here are some fun “retro” themes you might like.
Appendix C: Tips for reducing RAM load of Linux
These tips are specifically for antiX users, but may be applicable for other distros.
- Install Pale Moon browser and make it the default browser
- Switch to Minimal-IceWM desktop environment
- AntiX specific: Run
sudo cp /usr/local/bin/zram /etc/init.d && sudo update-rc.d zram defaultthen reboot to enable zram at start-up. (source)