Laptops remain the go-to choice when buying a compact computer, whether or not you ever intend to take them outside your house or office. Mini PCs offer an alternative that could save you money, promote productivity, and deliver a more comfortable computing experience.
Mini PCs Are Excellent Value for Money
Strip the computer experience down to its barest form and you’ll get something resembling a mini PC. These machines come without an internal (or external) display, include little in the way of peripherals, and vary greatly in terms of performance depending on how much you’re willing to spend.
When you buy a mini PC, you’re generally not buying anything you don’t need. All you’re getting is the brains of the operation: a small box that’s reflective of your budget. Due to their compact nature and limited thermal management, mini PCs are usually less capable than their full-sized desktop PC counterparts.
Compared with laptops, however, they’re often a close match. They may include very similar components like mobile processors and integrated graphics rather than discrete GPUs. This is because mini PCs are often trying to manage the same limitations as laptops. These machines often have smaller, limited power supplies and cramped internals that make heat dispersion difficult.
One of the easiest ways of demonstrating this is to compare the Apple’s base Mac mini with the entry-level MacBook Air, both of which feature the same M2 system-on-chip, 8GB of unified memory, and a 256GB SSD. While the laptop form factor costs $1199, the Mac mini is half the price at $599.
Laptops Sacrifice Comfort and Productivity
Laptops are portable and convenient, but this comes at a cost. In addition to being more expensive, a laptop often makes for a less comfortable computing experience compared with a desktop setup. Laptop keyboards often aren’t well-suited to prolonged use, especially when compared to some of the best ergonomic keyboards you can buy.
Most laptops don’t include mechanical keyboards, which provide an improved typing experience. By opting for a desktop mechanical keyboard you can pick your switches, swap out keycaps, or build a custom keyboard of your own. The same is true of trackpads and mice where an ergonomic mouse like the Logitech MX Vertical or a trackball mouse could prevent wrist pain.
Vertical Ergonomic Mouse
Productivity is also limited when it comes to the laptop form factor. With only one display, you’re limited in terms of screen real estate. Adding more displays to your computer is a sure-fire way to improve productivity since you’ll spend less time tabbing between windows or looking at your taskbar or dock.
You could buy a laptop screen extender or connect an iPad to your Mac, but these solutions are sub-par compared to a multiple monitor setup. It’s not unusual to find a mini PC that can drive three monitors, which is great for displaying multiple web pages, chat apps, dashboards, vertically-mounted monitors for coding, and anything else you want visible at all times. Laptops can also connect to standard monitors, but you’ll pay a premium for both the laptop form factor and a decent external display.
Most monitors include stands that allow you to adjust the height and tilt of the monitor, which is something you can’t say for laptops. Tilting your head downwards at a laptop screen for hours a day can cause neck pain, though you can fix this with a laptop stand. For better ergonomics, mount a monitor on an arm and adjust its position accordingly.
On top of this, many mini PCs have a wider range of ports available than their laptop counterparts. While you might have to use hubs and adapters to get access to Ethernet ports and card readers on a laptop, these features are standard on many mini PCs.
Mini PCs Are Small and Somewhat Portable
If your reason for choosing a laptop is down to size constraints, a mini PC may also fit the bill. The clue’s in the name, but these boxes are about as small as it gets when it comes to a full desktop computing experience. They run full-fat operating systems like Windows, macOS, and Linux and—depending on what you buy—can edit video, play games, and more.
The size of the monitor you choose will have a far greater bearing on your available space than the mini PC itself. You can be smart and make the best use of available space by mounting the monitor on an arm that’s attached to the desk or the wall, for a minimalist “floating” effect.
Make your mini PC disappear entirely by mounting it on the back of your monitor. This is possible using VESA mounting kits which range from pack-in brackets to third-party mounts. Combine your hidden mini PC with a wireless mouse and keyboard for a clean and modern look.
Though mini PCs can’t be used like a laptop since they lack internal batteries, displays, and integrated peripherals; they’re still more portable than their desktop and all-in-one counterparts. If you want to bring a mini PC with you and plug it into a TV or spare office monitor, you can.
A Mini PC Could Be Better for Gaming
Many look at gaming laptops as a compromise between a full-sized desktop PC and something they can still use for work. These portables run the full gamut in terms of price and capability, from capable chunky machines that can heat a dorm room to thinner designs that provide a moderate performance boost over standard models.
If gaming is a top priority but you’re tight on space, a mini PC could be a better buy. In particular, Intel’s “Extreme” NUC range includes space for a full-sized GPU plus an adequately-powerful power supply to run it. These kit PCs are not cheap, and the cramped form factor may result in poorer thermal performance than a full-sized desktop.
Alternatively, if you’re looking for a computer to run a multi-system emulator like RetroArch or MAME you can get away with a far less powerful machine. A cheap Raspberry Pi can handle retro emulators, while Apple’s M2 chips (as seen in the Mac mini) can emulate relatively modern systems like the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and Dreamcast.
Most Laptops aren’t Upgradeable Either
One thing you should expect to sacrifice when opting for a mini PC is upgradeability. You may be able to upgrade storage and RAM on some models, but other components like the CPU, motherboard, and GPU are rarely upgradeable. Some models, like Apple’s Mac mini, are not upgradeable at all.
In this respect, mini PCs are comparable to a laptop. Very few laptops are truly upgradeable, and those that are (like the modular Framework platform) are rare. If you want a computer that you can upgrade for years to come, you should build a desktop instead.
You Can’t Match the Utility of a Laptop
Despite all the positives of a mini PC, the one thing they can’t do is rival the true utility of a laptop. If you want a laptop because you need to travel with a portable computer that you can use anywhere, you should stick with the notebook form factor.
But if you’re buying a laptop because you lack the room or the drive to deal with a full-size desktop PC and you’re confident you’re never going to need a truly mobile workstation, a mini PC may be the best buy.
Wondering where you should start looking for a mini PC? Check out our top recommendations for mini PCs.