If you're looking for a computer that can fit anywhere and do almost anything, a small form-factor PC is your best bet. The best ones offer power and portability, make the right compromises, and still come in at a good price. This week we're looking at five of the best, based on your nominations and suggestions.
Title photo by Sinchen Lin
We're talking about full x86 systems here. All of these PCs would be good choices for home theatre PCs, kids' computers, office computers, space-saving build platforms, or even modest gaming rigs that don't take up a lot of space.
The HP Stream Mini earned a lot of praise when it came out for being a surprisingly capable tiny little powerhouse. It fits in the palm of your hand, and our friends at Gizmodo gave it high marks for packing powerful components into a small case. The Stream Mini packs an Intel Celeron processor under the hood with 2GB of RAM (upgradable to 16GB), a 32GB SSD, Windows 8.1, Gigabit Ethernet, Wi-Fi and Intel HD graphics, and more into a round, flat computer that fits in the palm of your hand.
The Stream Mini has a card reader on the front for adding more storage, four USB 3.0 ports on the front and back of the case, and HDMI and DisplayPort out so you can connect to a monitor or a TV. All of that comes at a price tag of $349 direct from HP.
The Intel NUC (or Next Unit of Computing) series of mini PCs is a form factor rather than a specific product -- you can order NUCs configured in different ways and in different shapes depending on what you need. These kits are small enough to go anywhere, pack Intel Core i3, i5, or i7 processors, and are shipped as "barebone kits", meaning they're the perfect platform to add the storage and memory that you need. They're more expensive than some of the models discussed here, even without drives and memory, but you can choose the processor, size, ports, and other features you need before buying. You can get a look at the various models here, and compare them here.
Some of them are all glossy black, perfect for HTPCs, while others are grey with removable lids, handy for upgrading, tinkering, test machines or secondary computers. If you really need to save cash, there are models with Intel Celeron or Atom processors as well. They almost all pack USB 3.0 on-board, many have card readers for additional storage, and most use HDMI, mini-HDMI, or DisplayPort out so you can connect them to just about any possible type of display.
Gigabyte's BRIX series is another barebones PC kit that you can pick up and then customise with your own preferred storage and memory options. The BRIX are available in workstation, gaming and budget-friendly models, all in glossy black (with a few of the gaming models in black with bright yellow or red accents.) They're a bit like higher-end NUCs, with most models shipping with either budget-friendly Intel Celeron processors or higher-end Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, HDMI and mini-DisplayPort video outputs, four USB 3.0 ports, support for up to 16GB (or more) of memory, Wi-Fi and Gigabit Ethernet, and Intel HD or HD Pro graphics on-board.
Almost all of the higher-end models support discrete graphics, meaning that as long as the card isn't too big for the case physically, you can install your own graphics card for higher-powered gaming or more graphically demanding tasks.
The Alienware Alpha is a line of gaming PCs that work like consoles -- that is, they're small and flat and are designed to be connected to an HDTV and controlled with a gaming controller. The Alpha comes in four different models, each of which includes your choice of an Intel Core i3, i5, or i7 processor. 4GB or 8GB of RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 860M+ 2GB graphics cards, and your choice of 500GB, 1TB or 2TB SATA hard drives. Gigabit Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and a wireless Xbox 360 controller come standard with each model, and each model ships with Windows 8.1 pre-installed.
The design of the Alpha is typical of Alienware, with the glowing alien head logo in the front, sleek glossy black panels, and red accent notches cut out of one side -- it's small enough to slide in where your HTPC would go, and it's powerful enough to play a lot of PC games on your big screen with solid performance. This is very much a gaming system,and it comes with a number of titles bundled and pre-installed, ready to play. Alienware's custom UI on the system is designed to work with the controller, and can do everything from launch Steam in Big Picture mode to switch to the HDMI input on the back you can use to daisy chain other input devices or consoles. The Alpha also packs USB ports for added storage or wired controllers.
The ASUS Chromebox was a tricky one to include in the roundup, but just because it ships with Chrome OS onboard doesn't make it any less of a functional small form factor PC. The standard models offers Intel Celeron processors, 16GB SSDs and 2GB of RAM, and Core i3, i5 or i7-powered versions are also available. Each Chromebox includes a card readers for added storage, onboard Wi-Fi and Gigabit Ethernet, USB 3.0 ports, and HDMI and DisplayPort outputs. Chrome OS works just fine as an HTPC (and the Chromeboxes can even be mounted on the back of your TV if you like), and it makes for a great and affordable workstation, especially if you're a heavy Google user.
This week's key honourable mention goes to the Raspberry Pi and Pi 2, which are more than capable of running Linux (or Windows 10, if you're interested in the preview) and functioning as a full desktop system in a palm-sized package. The Pi is an ARM-based system and we were looking for x86 machines in our roundup, but if that's not an issue, it's a very flexible choice for building your own portable computer or semi-desktop computer.
Our second mention goes to the a repurposed laptop, AKA "a laptop with a broken screen". Repurposing one of these is an awesome DIY project for any old laptop you might already have lying around.
Have something to say about one of the contenders? Want to make the case for your personal favourite, even if it wasn't included in the list? Tell us about your favourite small form factor PC and why you love it in the comments.