Review roundup: Invasion of the ultrasmall desktop PCs

Good things come in small boxes -- including PCs

Look inside a desktop PC and you'll find processors, drives, random access memory, video and audio adapters, and more. Yet mostly these big boxes enclose air.

However, in many home and small offices, there is virtually no room to spare. So why devote so much precious space to bulky air-filled desktop PCs?

The latest generation of small computers can free up lots of space. These tiny computers are a fraction of the size of traditional PCs and can be tucked away on shelving or even placed unobtrusively on top of desks, perhaps as a base for a monitor. In contrast, actually putting an ordinary "desktop" computer on a desktop is unthinkable.

Shrinking electronic gear inevitably leads to trade-offs, and these small computers are no exception. For instance, vendors must find clever ways to vent air heated by processors and drives -- a task made more challenging because of the smaller fans used. Some vendors use one fan, which is quieter and cheaper, and others use two. Vendors also must decide whether to use standard hard and optical drives, which are larger but cheaper, or smaller and pricier laptop components.

Buyers must balance size and expandability. While much of the air in traditional desktops is devoted to expansion slots, there is no such space in small computers.

While older generations of ultrasmall computers, most notably the first Mac Minis, were criticized for being underpowered compared to full desktops, small computers now are often as powerful as their larger cousins -- at least in terms of their processors and hard drives, although they do often have fewer slots for RAM.

Older ultrasmall computers also got dinged for being expensive, but that's not as true now as it was then. Prices vary more widely than they do with standard desktops, but typically you'll pay only a small premium -- if any -- for smaller size.

And they offer other benefits besides their size. Some small computers are quieter than typical desktop models, which is important in cramped quarters. They're also portable -- which benefits both the IT staffers who must lug computers around and the users who might need all of their desktop computing resources for a meeting in a conference room.

A final benefit is that most vendors make their small computers environmentally friendly. Many are Energy Star-compliant, which bespeaks a frugal use of power. In addition, many small computers are highly rated by the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), an organization that uses a standards-based approach for grading computers on 51 environmental criteria. Those criteria involve not just energy efficiency but also issues such as the use of environmentally sensitive materials.

To give you an idea of what to look for in ultrasmall computers and their benefits, we examined three units that are appropriate for small and medium-size offices and home offices. Two are recently released Windows Vista devices from Hewlett-Packard Co. and Lenovo Group. The third is Apple Inc.'s Mac Mini, arguably the first, or at least the most successful, ultrasmall computer.

Small computers are available from most PC vendors; our intention wasn't to be comprehensive, but rather to shine a light on three typical small computers from well-known vendors. Here's what we found.

Apple Mac Mini

At 6.5 in. wide and deep, two in. high and weighing less than three pounds, the Mac Mini is, by far, the tiniest of the three small computers we looked at. It's also, arguably, the most elegant-looking. While the other units look like shrunken desktop computers, the Mini is a sleek silver-and-white unit with rounded corners. There is nothing on the front panel except an optical drive slot and a tiny light showing whether the unit is turned on. Apple Mac Mini Apple's Mac Mini. Courtesy of Apple.

Its diminutive size means the Mini can be tucked into even smaller spaces than Windows-based small computers can. It's also far quieter than those computers in minute-to-minute operation; if the optical drive isn't running, you can't hear the Mac Mini unless you put your ear right next to it.

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David Haskin

Computerworld
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