Best mini barebones PCs: 5 top options to build your own media PC

21st Dec 2013 | 09:01

Best mini barebones PCs: 5 top options to build your own media PC

A media streaming box can do a lot, but a barebones PC can do more

The PC industry has been in decline for a while now, but certain parts of the market are on the up as consumers change how and where they using PCs. Times have changed, with computers breaking out of the office and study to invade our living spaces.

Media streaming boxes have become incredibly popular by filling the gap for users wanting that Smart-TV experience. But plenty of people are still looking for a more multi-talented home media solution for the living room. Ideally, it would give them unlimited access to full PC functionality, including media playback or streaming and perhaps even high-end gaming.

For this, old tower PCs are often recycled, but they can be space-hogging eyesores, especially next to the svelte HD TVs that have become the focal point of home entertainment. Enter, the barebones PC.

What to look out for

If you're thinking of using a mini barebones PC for full HD video, then a powerful processor such as one based on i7 architecture is highly desirable.

If you want the full high-definition PC gaming experience available from the comfort of your sofa, then look at one of the slightly larger models that have space to accommodate a good graphics card. Just remember it's probably going to be in your front room so you don't want it sounding like a mini vacuum.

Most barebones PCs will need a hard- or solid-state drive. We recommend a HDD for media streamers and/or an SSD for gaming rigs. You'll also need to add some memory - 4GB being the suggested minimum, while gamers should bump things up to at least 8GB. Some models will also need a new processor, but don't fear - we've made some component recommendations for each of the PCs below.

Think about connectivity. What sound system (if any) do you have? Do you need optical audio output? How will you connect the PC to your TV or monitor? You might also want to think about a wireless keyboard with integrated touchpad, as well as either a media remote or a wireless gaming controller.

Finally, don't forget you'll need to decide on an operating system – Windows is the standard go-to option, or you could consider a Linux distribution such as Ubuntu.

1. The budget barebone

Raspberry Pi - from £31 (around USD $50, AUD $56) - Farnell

Raspberry Pi accessories

Read TechRadar's full review of the Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi, or RasPi (as it has become affectionately named) has become quite a sensation for hackers, makers and educators everywhere, selling well over one million units to date. It's a low-powered PC on a single tiny board, which means it can be used for everything from turning your TV smart with the help of XBMC, to being the centre of a retro gaming revival by emulating classic consoles. Despite its diminutive size, the model-B Pi has plenty of ports: 2 USB, Network, HDMI & Composite video and Micro-USB power.

There's a huge community behind the Raspi, with clubs popping up around the country. Raspberry 'Jams' are held around the world and have fuelled their introduction into schools, thanks in part to Google's gift of 15,000 of them to lucky British classrooms.

What to add on

To get you're Pi on, choose from Raspian, RaspBMC or RetroPie operating systems, then consider the following crucial extras:

  • 8GB SDHC card (class 6 or higher).
  • Wired or wireless keyboard.
  • Network cable or USB Wi-Fi adaptor.
  • USB Power cable, HDMI cable.

2. The 'just enough' PC

Gigabyte Brix 1037 - from £129 (around USD $210, AUD $232) - Ebuyer

Read TechRadar's full Gigabit Brix review

The Gigabyte Brix

The Gigabyte Brix is an ultra compact, yet fully fledged PC that comes in a variety of forms, starting with a dual-core 1.8GHz Intel Celeron, with a capacity for up to 16GB of RAM and an mSATA SSD slot for up to 480GB of internal storage. In the box is a VESA adaptor, so if your TV or monitor isn't wall-bound you can mount it right on the back.

For Connectivity it offers a combination of HDMI, mini DisplayPort for secondary screens, two USB 3.0 ports and an inbuilt Wi-Fi card. If you need a VGA output then you can get a mini DisplayPort adaptor, but you'll be left without sound as there's no analogue audio output - sound can only be outputted via HDMI.

The base model Brix doesn't set the world on fire with its performance, but will still happily cope with office productivity and any kind of media playback, including on-demand TV.

What to add on

The Brix comes with an embedded processor, but you still need to add on some laptop-type SODIMM memory and an mSATA hard-drive to get things going. As with the rest of the PCs here, your choice of OS comes down to Windows (7 or 8) or a variety of Linux distributions depending on what you're doing.

  • A minimum of 2GB of 204-pin SODIMM memory.
  • We recommend a 60GB or higher mSATA SSD.
  • Wired or wireless keyboard.
  • Network cable or HDMI cable.

3. The full HD media player

Zotac ZBox Blu-Ray - from £210 (around USD $343, AUD $379) - Ebuyer

Zbox

The Blu-Ray AD03 from Zotac is one of the few barebones PCs out there with an optical drive, but Zotac clearly know their market for this kind of form-factor and have included a Blu-ray drive, making this little PC the perfect HD Media centre.

To ensure smooth 1080p playback, the 1.8GHz AME E-350 APU includes AMD6310 graphics, giving about as much graphic grunt as you'll get without a separate graphics card in a PC of this size. There are also more ports to go around, including DVI as well as HDMI, analogue audio output, full-sized SATA for 2.5" HDD or SSDs, an E-SATA for fast external storage, a 6-in-1 card reader, wired and wireless connections (up to 300Mbps) and 4 USB ports - two of which are USB 3.0.

At lower resolutions the AD03 will even double as a casual gaming PC. There are plenty of Indie games on Steam, browser-based games on the Chrome Store and of course, there's nothing wrong with retro!

What to add on

With a processor already onboard, you'll just need some SODIMM memory and a 2.5" SATA hard-drive or SSD to finish it off.

  • A minimum of 4GB of 204-pin SODIMM memory.
  • We recommend a 500GB HDD or an SSD.
  • Wired or wireless keyboard.
  • Network cable or HDMI cable.

4. The pint-sized server

Shuttle SH67H3 - from £219 (around USD $358, AUD $393) - Ebuyer

Read TechRadar's full review of the Shuttle SH67H3

Shuttle

Shuttle have been in the barebones business since the start, being a pioneering driving force behind the mini-ITX form factor since the days of socket-A. These days they're very much viewed as the standard in building a small (but powerful) desktop or media PC. Thanks to the extra space afforded from a full ITX chassis, you can fit in any 5.25" optical drive and two 3.5" drives for plenty of storage, plus there's space for dual-height graphics cards.

Despite the small form factor, you're not hugely limited as to your choice of components. The Shuttle supports an Intel Core i3, Core i5, Core i7 Sandy Bridge CPU, up to 32GB of RAM, and has all the connectivity you'd expect to find in a full tower PC including four SATA interfaces, S/PDIF optical out, eight USB ports including four USB 3.0 and a whole lot more.

Shuttles are really nicely made and look the part thanks to a sleek brushed aluminium exterior. They offer all the flexibility you could want for a home media server, gaming machine or anything else you'd expect a full-sized PC to do.

What to add on

This barebones comes with a motherboard, heat-pipe CPU fan and PSU, but you'll need to add a socket 1155 processor, DDR3 memory and at least one 3.5" SATA hard-drive or SSD to boot.

  • A Socket 1155 Core i3, i5 or i7 processor
  • A minimum of 4GB of 204-pin SODIMM memory.
  • We recommend a 2TB HDD and / or an SSD.
  • Wired or wireless keyboard and other peripherals.
  • A network or HDMI cable.

5. The console beater

ASRock M8 - Dabs

The new-generation consoles are thoroughly at war, but there's a third option that, despite being a little more pricey, can afford you with graphical quality that's even higher than either Sony or Microsoft's offerings. The offspring of a design co-operative between ASRock and BMW, The M8 verges on mini-pc erotica.

Not only can it compete amongst the best in CPUs and GPUs thanks to a Haswell-compatible Z87-M8 motherboard, but the M8 has some interesting design features outside as well as in. Firstly, there's the 'A-Command' OLED display on the front of the case. This display can adjust its orientation depending on whether you have the M8 horizontal or vertical, and displays a whole host of information including CPU speed, time and date, volume and also lighting controls for the inside of the case.

Other highlights of this little beast include space for up to five 2.5" drives, or else one 3.5" and one 2.5" drive, excellent onboard sound from Creative, space for two SODIMM memory modules, and just about enough space to cram in a double-height graphics card such as a NVIDIA 760. Though the M8 doesn't come with an included CPU cooler, it can take most heatsinks up to about 90mm tall, which is pretty good for a Mini-ITX case.

What to add on

This barebones PC comes with a motherboard, heat-pipe CPU fan and PSU, but you'll need to add on a socket 1155 processor, DDR3 memory and at least one 3.5" SATA hard-drive or SSD to boot.

  • An LGA1155 Core i3, i5 or i7 processor.
  • An appropriate Cooler (such as the ThermalRight AXP100)
  • A minimum of 8GB of 204-pin SODIMM memory.
  • A beefy graphics card such as the Asus GTX 760 DCU II.
  • We recommend a 1TB HDD and / or 2.5" SSD (or 5!).
  • Wired or wireless keyboard and a gamepad.
  • Additional cabling such as network or HDMI.
media streamers Raspberry Pi barebones PC Home entertainment TRBC TRBCFeature TRBCHomeLead componentsbuyingguide-en-gb componentscarousel-en-au componentscarousel-en-gb componentscarousel-en-us computingcarousel-en-gb TRBCHomeFeatureLead
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