Tablets, laptops and the like are great and convenient, but they don’t make much sense for certain needs. Think about media servers / players, home and small office servers (from a simple NAS to special purpose servers), or even educational / kid computers to hook up on the living room’s TV set to save some space and help parents monitor their kid’s activity. These use cases call for small, power-efficient yet powerful and easy to use computers. Over the last few years it has become increasingly easier to get such a machine. In this short article I am going to present the three small form factor computers which have won my heart and a permanent place in my home office.

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi Model B is a tiny computer board, about the size and volume of a deck of cards. It’s really barebones, not even having a case. Despite its deceptively small size and frugal specifications to regular desktops it is powerful enough to run a full featured Linux distribution called Raspbian with all modern amenities such as a web browser and the ability to play 1080p video without stuttering.

In order to fully use it you’ll need an SD card, a case and a wired Ethernet connection – or a compatible WiFi adapter. Add a basic USB keyboard and mouse,  hook it up to your TV through HDMI or composite connector and you’ve got yourself a fully operational desktop for less than $100 USD. An added bonus is that it’s passively cooled and doesn’t have a spinning disk, therefore completely noiseless.

Its low price, tiny power consumption (3W) and adequate power make it an excellent choice among hobbyists for do-it-yourself media centre (who needs a “smart” TV!), DLNA-compatible media server, always-on BitTorrent client or all of the above. If you’re an alpha geek you might want to spend some extra cash to land a tiny UPS with extras such as real-time clock, temperature sensor, NO relay control and RS232 port. Finally, the Raspberry Pi can become your best buddy in electronics and educational projects with one of the numerous breakout boards available. Now, if only I had that when I was a teenager!

I use it for: DLNA media server, SSH & VNC gateway, automation tasks

Intel NUC

Some people prefer to stay well within the comfort of an x86 system running Windows or a mainstream Linux distribution such as Ubuntu. For you there’s the Intel Next Unit of Computing series of computers, or Intel NUC for short. I’ve got the tiny D54250WYK kit which is about twice the size of the Raspberry Pi but sports the far more powerful Intel Core i5 processor.

The NUC ships without RAM and you also need to buy a compatible mSATA SSD and half-length mini PCIe wireless card. The total cost for this rig quickly climbs to $600 USD if you stick with Intel hardware. That’s about the price of an entry level laptop. However, Intel NUC is far more powerful than a laptop of that price. Furthermore, Intel NUC has 4x USB 3.0 ports, audio in/out, consumer IR (albeit I haven’t found a compatible IR remote yet), Gigabit Ethernet and HDMI and mini DisplayPort connectors. It even comes with a VESA plate and screws which allow you to mount it at the back of most monitors and TVs, away from view. An SD card reader is woefully missing and the only serious complaint I have from it is the high-pitched, relatively noisy fan. Not that you’ll notice it if you’re playing music or watching a movie, but it’s definitely noticeable in the quiet of the night.

Given its price and high-end specs it makes more sense to use it as an everyday work computer, high-end media player or high-performance small office application server. Even though Intel originally marketed NUC as the x86 competitor to Raspberry Pi it’s nowhere near as practical for hobby electronics projects.

I use it for: web development and testing on a Windows environment

Mac Mini

Mac Mini is the original small form factor computer. Rumour has it that when Steve Jobs asked the engineers how small can they make a desktop one of them muttered “not smaller than a CD if you want an optical drive” at which point Mr. Jobs retorted “then that’s how small you should make it”. Like many Apple tales nobody knows if it’s true or not, but that’s how small it used to be. Nowadays it’s a bit larger, standing at 7.7” square by 1.4” high. It’s the larger of the three but also the strongest.

You can score a basic version for $599 US, the same price as an Intel NUC and with similar specs. However I opted for the Intel Core i7 version with the 1TB Fusion drive, a combination of an 1TB magnetic drive and an 128GB SSD. I also installed 16GB of after-market RAM, creating a major powerhouse in the process. A machine like that will set you back a serious $1500 USD. Almost as serious as the phenomenal performance it packs. Seriously, it’s an overkill to what I’m using it for. The Fusion drive and the OS work together to give you the illusion of having a massive 1TB drive working at SSD speeds.

The Mac Mini has all the external connectors you’ll find in the Intel NUC plus an SD card reader. Like the NUC it’s actively cooled but the fan is much less noisy and so low pitched that it’s very unlikely to make its presence known until you stress the CPU very hard and very long. The hard drive noise, however, is perceptible in a relatively quiet office since the OS is constantly pushing data between the SSD and the HDD of the Fusion drive to maintain optimal access speeds.

Given its price and the high-end specs it only make sense to use it as your primary computer or a high-performance small office / collocated server. Especially the latter part sounds rather strange to many people, but it really makes perfect sense. You can get serious performance for the fraction of the price and rack space of a high end dedicated server.

I use it for: primary computer

The bottom line

Small form factor computers have come a long way since I was a student in the late 90’s. The ginormous beige boxes I used to have under my desk and warm my feet have given way to small, shiny (or bare circuit board!) gizmos on my desk that pack more punch and all together cost less than a single of those old PCs. We may have tablets, phablets, laptops and whatnot but no, the desktop is still not dead. As long as we’re supposed to sit in front of an office in the morning and entertain ourselves in front of a large TV in the evening the desktop, reborn as a small form factor computer, will live long and strong.

One last thing. If you have geek children please do them a favour and buy them a Raspberry Pi, some breakout boards, electronics supplies and a book on building programmable electronics.

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