There is a new generation of mini-PCs out there -- small, inconspicuous but powerful. They offer a number of advantages for businesses over laptops or more traditional desktop systems.
First, they can be placed where most traditional desktops and laptops won't fit, and can be set up in creative ways, such as in a drawer, on the underside of a desk or on the back of a display. As a result, they are perfect for places like call centers or school computer labs, where you want to maximize space and keep the computers out of sight.
They also don't use a lot of electricity, so they are excellent for environments where electrical current can be an issue, such as a construction site trailer. In fact, one of the units we review, the InFocus Kangaroo Pro, is so small and power-efficient that it can run for more than an hour on battery power.
They are inexpensive (partly because you must supply the keyboard, mouse and display). Despite their small size, all are upgradeable to some extent; for example, some let you change or add memory modules, and most let you add extra storage space. And one, the Kangaroo Pro, offers enterprise-level security in the form of a fingerprint scanner and a Trusted Platform Module (TPM).
The type of storage used can vary. Of the four mini-PCs reviewed here, two (the Asus VivoMini and Gigabyte Brix) have traditional hard drives that record data on a spinning disc, while two (the Kangaroo Pro and ECS Liva X2) use solid-state eMMC modules that are smaller and cheaper than conventional SSDs, but can be slower.
For an examination of these new mini-PCs, I tested four of the newest available, all of which shipped with Windows 10 Home:
And I'll end with this: Wherever they end up, these tiny PCs show that good things really do come in small packages.
The most conventional of the systems reviewed here, the Asus VivoMini VC65R is the closest in size and configuration to a traditional desktop PC, with room for extra drives and a powerful combination of components. Despite that, it's no bigger than a hardcover book. The 1.9-x-7.7-x-7.7-in. system weighs 4.5 lbs. and costs $410 (Amazon price).
Inside, it's the best equipped of the four, with a Core i5 6400T processor running at between 2.2GHz and 2.4GHz, and 8GB of RAM -- four times what the Liva X2 and Kangaroo Pro carry. If you need more power, it can handle up to 16GB of RAM.
The VivoMini includes a 1TB hard drive; if that's not enough storage space, there is room for three more 2.5-in. drives -- just slide off the case's lid, unscrew the drive covers and plug in the drives. I added a 480GB SSD module in about three minutes.
Like the Brix system, the VivoMini uses Intel's HD Graphics hardware and 128MB of dedicated video RAM. It can also call on up to 4GB of system RAM for graphics chores. It can handle Ultra-HD resolutions up to 4096 x 2304.
The VivoMini has two USB 3.0 ports in the front and two more in the rear; there are also two USB 2.0 ports in the back. There are jacks for audio-in and audio-out as well as a video port trifecta: VGA, HDMI and DisplayPort. It also has an RS-232 serial connection and an SD card slot. And, of course, a power button.
For networking, the VivoMini system has an Ethernet port along with 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
Rather than having to use an external AC power brick, the VivoMini has a 90-watt power supply built in; as a result, it only requires a lightweight AC cord. It's also the only one of the four to come with a keyboard and mouse.
The VivoMini doesn't come with a mounting bracket for attaching it to the back of a monitor (Asus offers one for $10, although it was out of stock at the time of writing). However, I was able to mount it on the back of my display with a generic mounting plate.
The system used 25 watts of electricity while running, more than the others reviewed here. Still, when it was paired with my display, the VivoMini's fan kept it cool.
The VivoMini comes with Microsoft Windows 10 Home and with apps for power management, software updating, security, and backup and recovering, all accessed using its Business Manager interface.
The VivoMini VC65R pours out the power with the top-gun processor of the group and room for three more drives, and it doesn't require an awkward AC adapter. Although it's the largest device of the ones reviewed here, it's still small enough so that it's ideal for times when you need a lot of PC but don't have a lot of room.
Unlike the other mini-PCs in this roundup, the ECS Liva X2 is designed to be seen. Rather than the usual gray and black box, the Liva X2 is pearl white, has rounded corners and a chrome accent trim. At 1.7 x 3.2 x 6.9 in., it is about the same size as the Kangaroo Pro and Brix systems; it weighs in at 1.3 lb.
The Liva X2 is powered by a 1.6GHz Celeron N3050 processor that dates to early 2015 and that runs between 1.6GHz and 2.2GHz. The main system (the one I reviewed) comes with 2GB of RAM and 32GB of eMMC flash storage; it retails for $158 (Amazon price). If you want more power, there's a model that includes 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, but doesn't include operating system software; it costs $237 (Amazon price).
There's a connection inside so that you can install an M.2-specification SSD module for additional storage. Doing the upgrade is not for the faint of heart, however -- after unscrewing the case's bottom plate and removing the Liva X2's heat sink, the Wi-Fi card and a bar that holds a pair of microphones, I needed to carefully pry the system board out to get at the M.2 connector underneath. It took 20 minutes of delicate work; the same operation only took three to five minutes on the VivoMini, Kangaroo Pro and Gigabyte Brix.
Like the other PCs in this roundup, the Liva X2 uses Intel's HD Graphics hardware along with 128MB of dedicated video memory. It can add up to 967MB from its system RAM for a total video RAM of 1.1GB. It can show up to Full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution.
The Liva X2 doesn't have a cooling fan and hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which made it (not surprisingly) warm to the touch. However, the unit does have feet that you can pull out to allow more cooling air to flow under the system.
In front, the unit offers its power button and three USB 3.0 ports, one of which can charge a device when the system is asleep. The back of the system contains HDMI and VGA video ports, an audio jack and an Ethernet port; but unfortunately, it doesn't include an SD-card slot. Inside, the Liva X2 has 802.11ac Wi-Fi as well as Bluetooth 4.0. It comes with an external power brick that has a two-prong plug, making it convenient in locations with older wiring. It uses just 7 watts of power, half of what the Kangaroo Pro consumes.
The system includes a handy mounting bracket for attaching it to the back of a display; it took me about a minute to attach it to my monitor, creating a nice all-in-one PC. And while the white and chrome case is attractive by itself, I have to admit that it stood out in contrast to my black monitor.
The system includes Windows 10 Home but not much else in the way of software, a nice plus if you're not a bloatware fan. ECS does have a good firmware update program that checks, downloads and installs updates.
While the Liva X2 won't set any performance records, it is good basic computer for work with an attractive casing -- and at $158, it's a bargain.
Part of Gigabyte's Brix family of petite PCs, the model listed as GB-BSi3H-6100-B2-1WUS shoehorns a lot of computing into a small case.
Powered by an Intel Core i3 6100U processor that runs between 2.3GHz and 2.8GHz, this Brix comes with 4GB of RAM (it can handle up to 16GB), and a 1TB hard drive that runs at 5,400rpm. About one-third the size of the VivoMini, the system measures 1.8 x 4.7 x 4.4 in. and weighs 1.3 lbs.
The patterned gray case is easy to open if you want to change the memory modules. While there isn't room inside for another 2.5-in. drive, the Brix system can accommodate an 80mm M.2 SSD -- it took me about two minutes to add a 128GB module.
The Brix system relies on Intel's HD Graphics video accelerator, which has 128MB of dedicated memory and can use up to about 2GB of the system's memory for up to 2.1GB of video RAM. It tops out at Ultra-HD (4029 x 2304) resolution.
In front of the unit are two USB 3.0 ports along with audio-in and -out jacks. In the back are another two USB 3.0 ports as well as an HDMI port and Mini DisplayPort for video. On the downside, it lacks an SD card slot. A triangular power button is located in the corner of the top. The system supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0; there's an Ethernet port in the back.
The Brix tested as using 13 watts of electricity and kept its cool when it was mounted on the back of my monitor.
Nicely, the system comes with a mounting bracket. It took me about a minute to attach it to my display, and the Brix's small size and dark color meant that it blended in nicely.
The Brix comes with Windows 10 Home and Intel's Small Business Advantage suite; the latter has apps for security, updating software and file sharing.
The Brix squeezes a powerful desktop computer into something the size of a paperweight. It provides the ability to add storage space and offers the more performance per cubic inch than the others.
As if it weren't enough that you could carry it around in a shirt pocket, the InFocus Kangaroo Pro can run on battery power for more than an hour. But while it's clearly the most innovative of these four mini-PCs, it still has its share of gotchas.
Measuring 0.5 x 3.1 x 4.8 in. and weighing 0.36 lbs. (0.93 lbs. when combined with its dock), the black computer has a power switch indicated by a circular LED that lights up when it's turned on, a micro-SD card slot and a micro-USB port for power.
The Kangaroo Pro is, at heart, a minimalist system that's built around an Intel Atom Z8500 processor; it runs at between 1.4GHz and 2.2GHz, depending on its workload. It comes with 2GB of RAM and 32GB of eMMC flash storage.
The Kangaroo Pro includes Intel's HD Graphics video with 128MB of dedicated memory that can be augmented with up to 1GB from RAM. But the system can't go beyond HD (1920 x 1080) resolution. There's also wired Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1.
This smallest PC is the most secure -- alone of the four reviewed here, the Kangaroo Pro has a fingerprint scanner for local authentication; it also contains a TPM for airtight remote log-ins.
Another thing that sets the Kangaroo Pro apart is its docking station. The dock, which is included with the unit, has ports for two USB 2.0 and one USB 3.0 connections as well as VGA, HDMI and an Ethernet port.
If you unscrew the dock's top, you can add a 2.5-inch drive. It took me about two minutes to install a 480GB SSD Pro.
Unlike the ECS and Gigabyte systems, the Kangaroo Pro doesn't include a mounting bracket for attaching it to a display. While the Kangaroo Pro is practically small and light enough to be attached using Velcro tape, Kangaroo engineers told me that too much heat might build up if it were strapped to a display, so I didn't try it.
Like the Liva X2, the Kangaroo Pro doesn't have a fan and under normal use was bordering on hot to the touch at 125-degrees Fahrenheit.
Unlike the others, the Kangaroo Pro can work on battery power -- in tests, its internal 2,200mAh battery was able to power the system for 1 hour and 17 minutes (as measured by the PCMark 8 battery life test) and took me through 1 hour 31 minutes of nonstop YouTube videos. Unfortunately, the battery isn't strong enough to power an external monitor as well -- you'll have to plug the monitor into a separate AC outlet rather than have it get its power through the computer system (as with normal desktops).
A big bonus is that, along with Windows 10 Home, the Kangaroo Pro comes with Devguru's OSLinx Windows Monitor app that allows the Kangaroo to use an iPad as a display. After connecting an iPad Pro to the Kangaroo using a Lightning cable, I was able to see the Kangaroo's Windows output on an iPad Pro's display, but to connect using Wi-Fi requires a $3.99 software upgrade.
All told, the Kangaroo Pro provides a lot of PC for $200. It innovates with room for a hard drive, a way to use an iPad as a display and the ability to run on battery power. If you don't mind its relatively low performance, it could be an interesting addition to your technical arsenal.
Each of these computers proves, in its own way, that thinking small can have a big payoff. They all can fit in places that traditional desktops can't, and some provide extras, like the ability to run on battery power, be attached to the back of a display or hold a multitude of drives. Which of those features you'll find appealing depends on what your needs are.
For me, the innovative is always alluring, but the InFocus Kangaroo Pro falls short of the mark. It fits into a shirt pocket, can run on battery power and you can add a 2.5-in. drive, but it has only 2GB of RAM and can't be attached to the back of a display.
By contrast, ECS's Liva X2 is a fashion statement that makes the others look dull and pedestrian. It includes hardware for mounting it on the back of a monitor, creating an easy-to-assemble DIY all-in-one PC.
As the largest of the four, the Asus VivoMini VC65R is the power leader and can hold three extra 2.5-inch drives, making it the equivalent of a micro server. As big as it is, the VivoMini can be mounted on a display (with an optional plate) and has the best assortment of ports.
None of the other three, however, can match the versatility of the Gigabyte Brix. It's nearly as small as the Kangaroo Pro, can be upgraded with an M.2 flash module and includes the mounting hardware for turning a monitor into an all-in-one PC. More to the point, despite its diminutive dimensions, it was almost as powerful as the VivoMini, making it a computer that won't slow you down.
Mini-PCs: Features and specs
|Asus VivoMini VC65R||ECS Liva X2||Gigabyte Brix||InFocus Kangaroo Pro|
|Dimensions||1.9 x 7.7 x 7.7 in.||1.7 x 3.2 x 6.9 in.||1.8 x 4.7 x 4.4 in.||0.5 x 3.2 x 4.9 in. (1.6 x 3.4 x 6.8 in. w/dock)|
|Weight||4.5 lbs.||1.3 lbs||1.3 lbs.||0.36 lbs. (0.93 lbs. w/dock)|
|Mounting hardware included||No||Yes||Yes||No|
|Processor||Intel Core i5 6400T||Intel Celeron N3050||Intel Core i3 6100U||Intel Atom Z8500|
|Storage||1TB HDD||32GB eMMC||1TB HDD||32GB eMMC|
|Ports||SD-card slot, 4 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, DisplayPort, HDMI, VGA, RS-232, audio-in, audio-out, Ethernet||3 USB 3.0, VGA, HDMI, audio, Ethernet||4 USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort, HDMI, audio- in and -out, Ethernet||SD-card slot, 2 USB 2.0, USB 3.0, VGA, HDMI, audio, Ethernet (w/dock)|
|Flash card reader||Yes||No||No||Yes|
|Upgrade capacity||3 additional 2.5-in. drives||None||1 additional 80mm M.2 SSD||1 additional 2.5-inch drive|
|Wi-Fi / Bluetooth||802.11ac / BT 4.0||802.11ac / BT 4.0||802.11ac / BT 4.0||802.11ac / BT 4.1|
|Operating System||Windows 10 Home||Windows 10 Home||Windows 10 Home||Windows 10 Home|
|Warranty||1 year||1 year||1 year||1 year|
|Price||$410||$158||$500||$200 (including dock)|
Mini-PCs: Test scores
|Asus VivoMini VC65R||ECS Liva X2||Gigabyte Brix||InFocus Kangaroo Pro|
|Power use||25 watts||7 watts||13 watts||15 watts|