Can I use a tiny desktop computer?
February 16, 2011 3:01 PM   Subscribe

How small can a usable desktop computer be?

My 5 year old iMac is running out of steam. I currently have a MacBook Pro provided by my work, and my wife has a netbook (running Windows 7) for schoolwork. I've been looking at the Mac Mini and small towers to replace the desktop, but am wondering about small plug computers, (like PogoPlug).

Right now the iMac takes care of the following duties:
1. Online flash games/shows for the kids
2. iTunes syncing for our phones
3. Photo/home movie backup
4. Printer server
5. FTP server (extremely light use, most everything is kept in Dropbox)
6. Torrent box
7. Samba share for watching shows on the Wii

The desktop is wired to the router, so we rarely even bother with WiFi. We don't do any gaming beyond (1) above. (2,3) can always move to my MBPro with regular backups. It seems like 4-7 could be handled by just about anything that qualifies as a computer these days (please tell me if I'm wrong).

(1) is really the only issue that I can't think of a way to resolve. We don't have OTA or cable TV, and I don't want to take away the entertainment and educational value of a computer from the kids. Can any of these tiny machines drive an external monitor and handle flash? If not, is there an alternative, something in between the size/cost/noise of a plug computer and a Mac Mini or tower?

I am willing to accept that the best machine might be a laptop that we just keep closed on the desk, but that's not nearly as cool. If I go that route then I'll probably just keep 1-7 on that machine. Any recommendations for actual machines and possible Linux distributions to handle what I want to throw at it? Thanks!
posted by monkeymadness to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The small plug computers are tiny linux boxes, like a cell phone. Probably not what you want.

There are tiny ITX-based computers, but I think they use very low-end CPUs.

There are tiny-ish shuttle machines such as the X350 but they aren't much smaller than a mac mini.

I got an Aver Aspire Revo for a settop box, but full-screen flash video stutters badly. Might work ok if I used the accelerated video drivers, though I have yet to try it.
posted by joshu at 3:19 PM on February 16, 2011

I'd go with the mac mini. A fringe benefit is you can plug it into a bigger monitor and watch boxee / hulu / etc. The pogoplug isn't going to handle flash games as far as I know. I doubt you can get it talking itunes as well.

Another alternative might be a netbook- those are pretty cheap these days, but tend to have limited drive space, so they wouldn't be a great choice for a media server.
posted by jenkinsEar at 3:24 PM on February 16, 2011

ASUS makes the EEE Box, which has a GPU strong enough to run HD video. We run a 32" TV at my work, as well as several more public computers with these. They have the same processors as netbooks, but do have the added power of a GPU to offload processing to. The come with brackets to mount to the back of any VESA monitor, so you can put them up and out of the way. The only drawback is the lack of a CD drive.
posted by msbutah at 3:31 PM on February 16, 2011

Scratch the lack of a CD drive. I just noticed that their newer models do have integrated CD drives too.
posted by msbutah at 3:36 PM on February 16, 2011

iTunes on a Linux box? What alternate dimension are you from?

That's probably going to be a big problem with this idea unfortunately.
posted by 47triple2 at 3:38 PM on February 16, 2011

iTunes on a Linux box?

Sorry, I should have added that if I run Linux I'll move the iTunes mess to my laptop.
posted by monkeymadness at 4:07 PM on February 16, 2011

The nice thing about a Mac mini, compared with mini- and micro-ATX computers I've put together, is that the noise level is practically nil. Mini- and micro-ATX computers have fans that invariably turn on, regardless of how little CPU work they are doing. This has made them loud enough to be poor computers for home theatre use.

I have looked around for and tested low-noise fans, noise dampening mounts and materials, power supplies, etc, but the promises always overreach the actual results. The Mac mini has always been quiet, as there is no fan.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:30 PM on February 16, 2011

I've worked on a newish Aspire Revo and never heard the fans kick on. It also has a decent GPU that can accelerate flash videos, run Windows 7 Aero, etc. Overall performance is good, and it's a LOT faster than my Dell Mini 10v netbook despite basically being a netbook in a desktop's clothes.

I'm not sure how well Flash games would run though.
posted by The Lamplighter at 4:40 PM on February 16, 2011

This is about as small as a usable desktop computer can be, but it's much less powerful than something with a "real" Core i3/Core i5/Core i7 CPU. You can put a SSD in it if disk performance is the bottleneck. There are versions with HDMI/DVI ports instead of VGA.

Shuttle X35
posted by thewalrus at 5:26 PM on February 16, 2011

I should add that the Shuttle X35 series is known to run well with Linux, particularly the versions that ship with Ubuntu 11.04 and 11.10. Everything is well supported.
posted by thewalrus at 5:28 PM on February 16, 2011

Just as an aside, the Atrix phone is supposedly dockable and usable as a lightweight computer. It will do flash, but I don't think it would do torrenting well or heavy storage though.
posted by benzenedream at 5:37 PM on February 16, 2011

benzenedream, that's reminiscent of Palm's failed Folio idea.

So it sounds like a plug computer won't cut it. Too bad; those are cool. It looks like I can find a used Mac Mini for a reasonable price, and the EEEBox looks like a nice option, too. Is there any reason to get one of those over a low-end laptop running Windows 7? I can still get the optical drive and it seems that there are more options than there are for small form factor desktops. Cnet has a nice looking list of $500 laptops.
posted by monkeymadness at 5:48 PM on February 16, 2011

I used an ASUS Eee All-in-one for several months last summer and really liked it. The unit is a little bulkier than just a monitor, but that's all there is, no box at all. The one I used had a 21" screen, larger than any laptop I've seen. It had a wireless keyboard and mouse.

If I were in a computer buying situation, it would be a serious contender.
posted by Bruce H. at 7:10 PM on February 16, 2011

I would check out Aleutia because they have many small form factor computers and some are even completely fanless. I have been toying around with the idea of getting an H1 for a while now.
posted by koolkat at 1:48 AM on February 17, 2011

I bought three Dell Zinos as media pc's at work and love them to death. Unlike some of the competition they come with dvd drives and can be upgraded to blu-ray. They have full 3.5" hard drives that outperform the laptop drives the other machines have. Built-in wifi, gigabit ethernet, etc. They're not entirely silent but they're incredibly quiet as they only seem to have one tiny fan. They start at $299 which is roughly half what the mac mini costs.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:09 AM on February 17, 2011

Oh, almost forgot. It ships with an HDMI port and an eSATA port.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:20 AM on February 17, 2011

Maybe a little too on the high-end, I've been using an Aopen XC Mini PC to power a 74 inch flat-screen TV for awhile now. Runs HD Bluray content over HDMI beautifully. It's very mac-mini-like in its design and footprint. However, since it is bare-bone, be prepared to spend about $700 to have a fully working system (eg. Hard drive, memory, wireless, TV tuner, etc would need to be purchased separately)
posted by samsara at 9:15 AM on February 17, 2011

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