Review: 4 mini-PCs give you full power in a very small package

Review: 4 mini-PCs give you full power in a very small package

These tiny Windows systems can be hidden away while offering complete computing power.

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:

As usual, at the end of the article, I offer my conclusions, a features chart, the results of our tests and an explanation of how I tested.

And I'll end with this: Wherever they end up, these tiny PCs show that good things really do come in small packages.

Asus VivoMini VC65R

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).

asus vivomini vc65r a Asus

Asus VivoMini VC65R

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.

Bottom line

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.

ECS Liva X2

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.

liva x2 ECS

ECS Liva X2

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.

Bottom line

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.

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