Making Ultrasmall Desktops with Mobile PC Components

For a quick overview of the four Mini MCE PCs, check out each of the annotated picture galleries below.

slide shows:
PC Alchemy Mini M1B HTPC
PC Alchemy Mini M2B and Winbook Jiv HTPCs
Shuttle XPC X100
Performance Charts

Left to right, top to bottom: PC Alchemy M1B, Shuttle XPC 100, WinBook Jiv Mini, PC Alchemy M2B

There's a new approach to the desktop PC on its way to online and retail outlets everywhere. It's built around the Core Duo processor (with Merom or Core 2 Duo models promised for later this year) on a nano-ITX supersmall motherboard, populated mostly with notebook components in a very small case (typically with an external brick power supply just like a notebook would use, rather than an internal power supply).

By and large these units are more like notebooks in their weights and dimensions as well. Their small footprints and quiet acoustic signatures make them ideal elements for living room use as entertainment or multi-media PCs. Though they will also make peachy desktop replacements, we approached them primarily from the Media Center side of the world, as you'll see throughout this review.

What Is A Mini PC?

The four units we examine in this review are designed around specialized small form factor components. To our way of thinking (or perhaps more appropriately, of seeing and measuring) they represent a new class of small PCs. These mini PCs, to use what appears to be emerging terminology, may be appropriately distinguished from so-called Small Form Factor, or SFF, PCs by the following characteristics: even smaller dimensions, use of the Intel Core Duo processor on a nano-ITX motherboard and substitution of an internal power supply with a small notebook-like external brick that takes heat, weight, and noise out of the enclosure - and enables these mini PCs to assume even smaller dimensions than their SFF counterparts.

Whereas most SFF PCs may be distinguished by their small cube shaped cases - and Shuttle has clearly been a major and enduring player in the SFF market niche - these mini PCs are best recognized by their smaller, lower height, rectangular formats. That said the PC Alchemy M1B wouldn't be misrepresented by describing it as a truncated cube, though it is far smaller in all dimensions than any typical SFF PC from Shuttle, AOpen, Soltek or any other cube PC vendor you might care to name.

Digging a little more deeply into the nano ITX motherboard used for mini PCs, we see some further causes for making distinctions, along with some further justification for their consideration and use as Media Center PCs:

Invariably, these units are built around the Intel 945PM Northbridge and ICH7M Southbridge chipsets. Most come configured with High Definition Audio and a built-in hardware codec such as the Realtek ALC880. All come equipped with wired GbE circuitry, and all support some kind of internal or external USB 2.0 wireless 802.11a/b/g interface. Some of our vendors bundle this functionality, others charge extra for an optional add-on. All include an optical DVD player. Some bundle a DVD burner (DVD+-RW/CD-RW) drive. All come equipped with at least three USB ports for attaching other devices necessary for MCE use, including IR transceivers (where they're not built-in), wireless networking, Bluetooth, HDTV tuners, and external storage. Note: though the PC Alchemy M1B only features two USB ports on the box, they bundle a tiny but capable powered 4-port USB 2.0 hub with the unit, for a total of four usable USB ports in all. All support TV tuners, where some vendors make SDTV tuners optional, and all make HDTV OTA tuners optional.

Shrinking the form factor, pulling out the power supply and using the low power Intel Core Duo CPU all add up to low overall power consumption, lower heat output, and thus, a need for less cooling to keep these units up and running. This also offers the side benefit of far lower noise output, even when compared to all but the quietest of SFF PCs. To our way of thinking, low noise and petite dimensions are major contributors to the appeal of these units as living room Media Center PCs.

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