The best mini PC designs pack an enormous amount of technology into a tiny little space. Shrinking the bulky desktop computer into a size small enough to hide out of sight behind a TV or monitor or even small enough to slip into the hip pocket of your jeans is no small feat.
The best mini PCs offer outsized capabilities to go with the ultra-small designs, letting you pack a fully capable workstation or gaming rig into something you can easily carry in your purse or backpack.
We test each mini PC we review to get a clear picture of how well it performs, what uses it’s best suited to and what sort of capability you get for the price.
What are the best mini PCs?
The gaming oriented Intel Hades Canyon NUC proves that even AAA games and VR can be handled by a well-designed mini PC.
Mini PCs give you the power of a desktop, but in a package that’s small enough to mount behind a monitor, stash in a desk drawer, or take on the go in a backpack or even your pocket.
Mini PCs: Defining Degrees of Small
As a result, we’re seeing some clear stratification in the market for tiny desktop PCs. The very smallest PCs might be termed the “stick class,” vanguarded by the Atom-CPU-powered Intel Compute Stick we first reviewed in early 2018, followed by similar sticks from Lenovo, Asus, and others.
These are really only suitable for display/signage use or extremely basic applications, and after a promising debut a few years back, have not seen much evolution or momentum. You can still find them on the market, but they have failed to have a major impact.
5 Best Mini PCs for 2021:
1. Apple Mac mini
Apple has updated the Mac mini, doubling the storage offered on the basic configurations. Since other hardware remains the same, we expect performance to be relatively unchanged.
Apple took its sweet time updating the smallest of Macs, but the Mac mini (2018) was well worth the wait. The latest Mac mini has a slick new look with it’s darker space grey anodized finish, despite retaining the same dimensions and unibody design as the previous model.
It also picks up some improvements, like a speedy collection of ports, including four Thunderbolt 3 ports for connecting displays, storage and anything else. It even offers (a bit) of upgradability, with traditional SO-DIMM slots for adding memory, though other hardware and storage are not user-serviceable.
Despite rocking an older 8th-generation Intel Core i3 processor, the littlest Mac managed to put up numbers that bested better-equipped systems, and offers a surprising amount of power in a pleasantly compact design. Based on our testing, it’s the best mini PC overall, delivering excellent power and value in a compact package.
- New look and updated design
- Four Thunderbolt 3 ports and 4K support
- Impressive performance
- Improved Mac OS Mojave
- Limited upgradability
2. HP Pavilion Wave
At first glance, it’s easy to mistake the HP Pavilion Wave for a stylish Bluetooth speaker or digital assistant. It’s actually both of these things, but it’s also a mini PC packed with plenty of features.
And that unique design serves a purpose — the top of the Pavilion Wave is a parabolic speaker that directs high-quality audio (from B&O Play) 360 degrees around the room.
Our testing revealed that the Pavilion is powered by a 7th-generation quad-core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and both a hard drive and solid-state drive that are 1TB and 256GB respectively.
It delivers exceptional performance for the size, with plenty of power to spare for demanding tasks like video or image editing. This PC can easily handle 4K video playback, and multi-monitor support ensures that you can watch video on one monitor and multitask on another. Built-in Amazon Alexa adds voice control so you can check a calendar, create shopping lists, or ask questions without pulling up a browser.
The compact design weighs a nominal six pounds and measures only 9.25 inches in height.
- Cool design
- Excellent integrated audio
- Solid performance
- Packed mouse isn’t great
3. Intel NUC 8 Performance-G Kit
As its name (and the glowing skull) suggests, the Intel NUC 8 Performance G-Kit is the most powerful mini PC that was ever produced by Intel. During development, this beast was codenamed “Hades Canyon”, and that says a lot.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that this little monster harbors a very special quad-core processor under its cool chassis, the Intel Core i7-8809G respectively.
This is some kind of a hybrid, as it was developed in a historic (first ever) partnership between the world’s two bitter rivals, AMD and Intel respectively.
Basically, this state of the art processor binds together into an unholy union an Intel Core CPU with an on-chip AMD GPU, the Radeon RX Vega M GH respectively.
Yes, you read that right: Intel and AMD are joining hands on the same processor. The Radeon RX Vega M GH GPU comes with 4 GB of HBM2 (high bandwidth) memory and it’s VR ready, which means that besides seamless gaming, you’ll also benefit from an immersive VR experience if that’s your cup of tea obviously.
- Sheer power due to -overclockable 100W Core i7-8809G CPU
- Small footprint i.e. 8.7 by 5.6 inches (HWD), weighs 2.4 pounds
- You can install up to 32 GB of DDR4 RAM
- Plethora of connectivity options
- Barebones kit, i.e. you’ll have to spend extra money on storage/memory
4. ACEPC Intel Atom Z8350
If you’re working with a limited budget when shopping for a new mini PC, the ACEPC Intel Atom Z8350 is an excellent option. This mini PC comes equipped with a quad-core Intel processor, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, and a 120GB SSD for ultra-fast boot times and app loading.
It comes with Windows 10 Pro pre-installed and supports 4K video playback. With HDMI and VGA inputs, you can connect two monitors to this mini PC for more efficient multitasking.
It has two USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 inputs for fast data transfer to and from flash drives and other external memory storage devices. It has a microSD card reader to view photos from digital cameras or transfer files from mobile devices.
This mini PC supports dual Wi-Fi for fast internet browsing and Bluetooth connectivity for peripherals like headsets and wireless mice and keyboards.
- Windows 10 Pro
- Dual monitor support
- No USB-C inputs
5. HP Z2 Mini G4
The HP Z2 Mini G4 is an ultrasmall workstation PC, cramming workstation-level components and ISV-certified graphics into a desktop PC that’s smaller than some books.
It’s got stylish looks and a surprisingly accessible (and upgradable) interior, but the real draw is the high-powered processing and graphics options. It’s also the best mini PC you can get for workstation performance while maintaining that compact size.
Equipped with a beefy 6-core Intel Xeon E-2176G processor, 32GB of RAM and Nvidia Quadro P1000 graphics, the Z2 Mini easily handles workloads that other mini PCs struggle with, and is certified to work with a variety of mission-critical programs, from vendors like Autodesk, Avid, Siemens, Solidworks and Vectorworks.
If you’re an engineer or designer that wants a workstation desktop that won’t take up your whole desk, this is the powerful mini PC we recommend.
- Powerful processing and graphics hardware
- Internals are easy to access
- Highly configurable components and ports
- Security is built in
- Cooling fans get loud
Ultimate Mini PCs Buying Guide
The world of the mini PC is a strange one, where size and style often win out over raw power, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore hardware specifications altogether. The process of finding and buying the best mini PC comes down to determining why you want a mini PC instead of a traditional desktop PC or laptop, what you need a mini PC for, and where you plan on using it.
Once you’ve figured out those basic questions, you’ll be ready to focus down on more technical questions like system performance and hardware specifications.
How we test mini PCs
We test every mini PC we review goes through a number of benchmark tests and real-world uses to get the clearest picture we can of how well it performs, what uses it’s best suited to, and what sort of capability you get for the price.
For performance, we use the Geekbench processor test to measure a system’s overall processing capabilities. We run custom spreadsheets to see how long it takes to handle large data sets and number crunching tasks. We also test the file transfer speeds, copying large files to see how long a system takes to copy multimedia files, documents and other content.
To test the graphics capability, we run a number of benchmark tests from 3DMark. When a system has the capability, we’ll also run individual game tests and the SteamVR performance test to see how capable a system is at handling the demands of modern gaming.
The mini PC category is fairly broad and services a lot of different usage scenarios, so it’s important to know what you need your computer to do before you start looking. Focus on your specific needs, whether that be streaming video, playing games, or just basic productivity, and then go from there.