Apple Mac Mini Alternatives: Best Windows based mini desktop PC Options


The old Mac Mini used to be the most affordable MacOS based machine one can buy. With new 2020 Mac Mini however, Apple has incorporated the Apple M1 chip. It has 8 CPU cores and 8 GPU cores. Leaving the rivals in the dust. But if you still have to get mini PC, we explore 5 rival mini PC options to go against the Apple Mac Mini

So what are we up against? The entry level Mac Mini now spots a Apple’s own silicon, the 8-core processor with 4 performance cores and 4 efficiency cores. It starts with 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD storage and relies on the onboard 8-core GPU for graphics as well as 16-core Neural Engine for other computing tasks. You can choose a higher model with double the storage at 512GB SSD or configure the memory to a maximum of 16GB. But, gone are the space gray option below in the days of Mac minis with Intel chip.

Here’s what Apple will have you start with. You can customise the specifications below by choosing your starting point and configure to your heart’s content.

Mac mini 2018 Specifications

Mac mini M1 2020 Specifications

If you plan on using the Mini for more than just your standard everyday computing such as 3D rendering, photo and movie editing then you will need to the higher model with more storage. You will also need to configure your memory at the point of purchase to push it up to 16GB. As it uses unified memory, there is not user upgradeable. So make sure you know pick the right upgrade for your application.

Another area that you might consider is the Gigabit Ethernet. If you are using the Mac mini as a server and need super fast network access, you might consider configuring the computer with a 10Gb Ethernet. That is ten times more bandwidth that the standard Gigabit Ethernet that it comes with.

Obviously, when you start configuring the system, the price will balloon up. The biggest price tag when the system is configured by choosing the maximum options available for memory, storage and networking (not including pre-installed software is $1799.

Budget conscious consumers looking for a mini desktop are left with the entry level Mac Mini with 8GB RAM and 256GB SSD.

Top 5 Best Mac Mini Alternatives

The mini desktop or small form factor segment has seen a decline as more people move to an all-in-one machine or a laptop. Dell used to offer the Inspiron Zino mini PC and Inspiron Micro Desktop. They have since ceased the lines in favour of conventional desktop PCs and all-in-ones. Still, if one looks hard enough, there are quite a few capable machine that will go against the Mac Mini.

1. Intel NUC Performance Mini PC series 10 (and series 11)

UPDATED: The latest series 11 NUC Performance Mini PC are out. Powered by up to Intel Core i7-1165G7, the system lets you take advantage of Intel’s powerful Iris Xe embedded Graphics which is claimed to offer discrete graphic performance.

The ultra small form factor PCs from Intel are offered as a ready to use or as a kit. The latter means you can get your hands into the configuration and assembly of your own mini PC. Choose from a range of Intel processors, add your own memory, storage and operating system to complete your system.

For most people, the ready-to-use option, configured and tuned by Intel with Windows 10 installed will be the better answer. Again, you get a choice of processors with the Intel NUC 10 Performance mini PC:

And the Intel NUC 10 Performance mini PC processor choices are:

Beyond that, the series is available in two chassis measuring 117mm width and 112mm depth with varying height of 51mm or 38mm. The taller chassis allows for an extra 2.5-inch Hard Disk Drive on top of the standard 256GB NVMe SSD storage. Connectivity ports are the same across both variants, see image below.

For more storage options, M.2 and 2.5-inch internal drive, pick the taller option. There is also a USB-C port that supports DisplayPort 1.2 so you can connect up to two monitors. One over the HDMI 2.0a port and the other over the USB-C.

NOTE: *smaller 38mm version does not come with 2.5-inch 1TB HDD.

2. HP Z2 Mini G5 workstation

A purpose built workstation, the HP Z2 Mini G5 comes from a long line of powerful machines. They are small enough to mount to the back of a monitor, under the desk or rack mounted. As its name suggest, this is more of a workstation targeting the professional and business users.

To give you an idea of how far the Z series mini workstation has come, earlier G3 specification starts with Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB RAM memory and 1TB HDD storage. Next, we have an Intel Core i7 model, 8GB RAM and 256 SSD storage with NVIDIA Quadro M620 2GB GPU. Then there is the Intel Core i7 model, 16GB RAM and 512GB SSD storage with NVIDIA Quadro M620 2GB GPU.

The HP Z2 Mini G4 comes with 9th generation Intel Core-i processors. Starting from Intel Core i3-9100, Intel Core i5-9500 and Core i5-9600 to Core i7-9700 and Core i7-9700K to Intel Core i9-9900. Beyond that the system is also available with Intel Xeon processors.

Fast forward to today, we see the fifth iteration, the HP Z2 Mini G5 comes with 10th generation Intel Core-i processors starting with Intel® Core i3-10100 and Core i3-10320 to Intel Core i5-10400F, 10500 and 10600 to Intel Core i7-10700 and 10700K. For even more performance, pick one with Intel Core i9-10900, 10900K or 10900F. And, like previous generation, the HP Z2 Mini G5 is also available with Intel Xeon processors.

Without a doubt, the HP Z2 Mini G5 is a high-end machine with crazy amount of power capable of taking on workstation level tasks. Our preferred configuration is one with Intel Core i9-10900 with 16GB memory, 512GB SSD storage and dedicated NVIDIA Quadro T1000 (4GB GDDR5 memory).

Even with its tiny form factor, there is room for one 2.5-inch drive and two M.2 NVME 2280 SSDs and crazy amount of connectivity ports. If you want uncompromising power, the HP Z2 Mini G5 is your answer.

3. ASUS PN51 Mini PC and PN50 Mini PC

We were very impressed with ASUS PN50, a baritone system with AMD Ryzen 4000 series chip. Barebone systems are the only way that enthusiasts and PC builders can get their hands on the 4000 series chip as these are not available on their own. The successor to the mini PC from ASUS, the PN51 uses the even more impressive AMD Ryzen 5000 series. Capable of supporting up to four 4K monitors or 8K UHD display at 60Hz, 64GB DDR4 RAM, M.2 SSD, WiFi 6 and dual USB3.2 Gen 2 Type C ports, it has everything you will ever need and want from a mini PC.

When configured with the fastest AMD Ryzen 7 5700U chip, this is reported to be up to 58% faster than previous generation with Ryzen 7-4800U and the average mini PC. The graphics does not disappoint either. With AMD Radeon embedded, the PN51 with the same processor scores 6489 in 3DMark11, around 170% faster than the average PCs. Although it has to be said that it has a marginal gain when compared to Ryzen 7-4800U. For those who doesn’t need cutting edge CPU and fancies a bargain, the PN50 is still around with an affordable price.

4. MSI CUBI 5 10M Barebone Mini PC

Another barebone PC, this time from MSI, the CUBI 5 has a similar profile to the Intel NUC and ASUS PN series above. Powered by 10th generation Intel Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7, you can specify this as a full system, if you do not wish to get your hands dirty or as a barebone system. If you go for the latter, you can pick your own storage (2.5-inch SSD/HDD or M.2 SSD) and memory (up to 64GB via two slots).

Our recommended system is powered by Intel Core i7-10510U, the energy efficient Comet Lake processor. This allowed the design of the small form factor desktop to be super small with a tiny footprint of 12.4cm cube. And, with VESA mount onboard, it can be stuck to the back of the monitor taking up no desktop space whatsoever. Other thoughtful design includes low noise fan and USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type-C port. For those looking for a multi monitor setup, CUBI 5 10M supports up to two monitors via DisplayPort and HDMI.

5. Gigabyte BRIX H series

Next is the BRIX from Gigabyte. Powered by AMD Ryzen 4000 series chip, you can get the low profile K series of this higher model, the H series. As another barebone, you will need to select your choice of factory fitted CPU. The CPU options are as below:

For longevity and maximum performance, pick the AMD Ryzen 7 4800U, an octa-core processor that supports 16 threads. You can then choose up to 64GB of DDR4 memory for the dual SODIMM slots and pick up a storage of your choice. For the latter, you can use either the NVME M.2 SSD slot or the 2.5-inch HDD/SSD drive bay. Obviously, a faster option would be an SSD that supports Gen 3 NVME M.2 interface.

BONUS:

Lenovo IdeaCentre Mini 5i

Fast, compact and affordable, the Lenovo IdeaCentre Mini 5 doesn’t only look good but performs well to, packing a solid punch with plenty of connectivity options and choice of processors and configuration. Our favourite of course is the Core i5 model but if you are feeling extravagant, go for the Core i7 model. Either models will perform really well tackling processor, memory and storage intensive applications like AutoCAD, Revit Architecture, Affinity Photo and more. The real bonus is its small footprint and good looks. The top is covered in cloth in Mineral Grey and the chassis is finished in Terrazzo Grey to match plus the ports are easily accessibly via the front and arranged horizontally on the back.

Gigabyte BRIX S series

Finally, we have yet another Gigabyte BRIX. This time the S series powered by 10th generation Intel Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7 processor. Like previous Intel based barebone, the system comes with two SO-DIMM slots for memory, Dual HDMI support for up to 4K resolution and 60Hz, one M.2 SSD and one 2.5 SATA drive for storage. Processor options are as follows:

There are plenty of network connectivity options in the form of Dual Band WiFi, Gigabit LAN and Bluetooth. While expansion ports are available both in front, at the back and side, including USB3.2 Gen2 Type-C support for up to 10Gbps transfer speed. For industrial applications such as vending machines, ATM systems, kiosk and vending machine. Don’t mix this up with earlier generation of the mini PC based on 8th generation Intel processors.

OTHERS:

ASUS VivoMini PC UN68

The UN68 is similar in design to the UN65 but features the 8th generation Intel Core i5 or i7 processors. Don’t be deceived by its small foot print, the VivoMini UN68 is capable of supporting dual storage options. Use the NVE Express M.2 interface for super fast SSD data transfers of up to 32 GBps and the SATA interface for bigger 2.5-inch HDD or SSD storage. The unit can also be specified with Intel Optane memory for better system performance. The mini desktop supports up to 3 displays with one at 4K UHD resolution perfect for multitasking or as a home entertainment center. Even with all that power, the system runs silently with optimised low speed fan setting. A barebone model is also available where you add your own memory and storage.

Intel® 8th generation Core™ i7-8550U Processor
4GB up to 32GB Dual Channel DDR4 RAM
2.5-inch 500GB up to 1TB Hard Drive
128GB up to 512GB M.2 SSD
Intel HD Graphics 620

Intel® 8th generation Core™ i5-8250U Processor
4GB up to 32GB Dual Channel DDR4 RAM
2.5-inch 500GB up to 1TB Hard Drive
128GB up to 512GB M.2 SSD
Intel HD Graphics 620

Gigabit Ethernet, 4-in-1 Card Reader, Kensington Lock, 2 USB 3.1 Gen 2 with Battery Charging 1.2 (Front) 2 USB 3.1 Gen 1, 1 HDMI, 1 DisplayPort, 1 DC-in and 1 Audio Jack. Dimensions and Weight: 131 x 131 x 52 mm (WxDxH), 700 grams. Also included (region dependent) are keyboard, mouse, power adapter and VESA mount kit.

ASUS VivoMini PC UN65

The UN65 from Asus is an award winning quiet mini PC with a full range of processor options from Core i3 to Core i5 to Core i7 Kayby Lake. Like its newer counterpart, the UN65 also supports dual storage options with the high speed 10GBps M.2 SSD interface. The mini PC can be hooked up to 3 displays with one being 4K UHD resolution. Like the UN68, ASUS has included software to turn the system into a media center with ASUS Media Streamer and Remote Go! apps. The latter includes access to Cloud storage, remote desktop, files transfer and remote keyboard and mouse control.

Intel® Core™ i5-7200U Processor
4GB up to 32GB Dual Channel DDR4 RAM
2.5-inch up to 1TB Hard Drive
32GB up to 256GB M.2 SSD
Intel HD Graphics 620

Intel® Core™ i7-7500U Processor
4GB up to 32GB Dual Channel DDR4 RAM
2.5-inch up to 1TB Hard Drive
32GB up to 256GB M.2 SSD
Intel HD Graphics 620

Gigabit Ethernet, 4-in-1 Card Reader, Kensington Lock, 2 USB 3.1 with Battery Charging 1.2 (Front) 2 USB 3.1 Gen 1, 1 HDMI, 1 DisplayPort, 1 DC-in and 1 Audio Jack. Dimensions and Weight: 131 x 131 x 52 mm (WxDxH), 700 grams. Also included (region dependent) are keyboard, mouse, power adapter and VESA mount kit.

HP Elite Slice G2

A modular platform, the HP Elite Slice is a premium mini desktop PC with a big ambition. There many modular add-on options, these include the Optical Disk Drive and the Bang & Olufsen Audio Module. The specifications start from the  Intel Core i3 processor with 4GB RAM and 500GB HDD storage to  Intel Core i5 with 8GB RAM and 256GB SSD storage to Intel Core i7 with 8GB and 256GB SSD storage.

ACEPC AK1 and GK1 Mini Desktop

Taking a leaf from the modular HP Elite Slice’s design book is ACEPC AK1 and GK1 Mini desktop. It even features the floating cover effect and air grill. And, no it’s not from Acer, the Taiwanese manufacturer but ACEPC. In fact, Acer also has a module desktop PC of their own called theAcer Revo Build. But, this is no modular machine, at least not yet.

ACEPC has been able to keep the price ultra low using Intel’s Celeron J3455 CPU 1.5GHz that turbo boosts up to 2.3GHz speed, using only 4GB of RAM and 32GB eMMC storage. Other memory and storage options are available; 6GB+64GB and 8GB+120GB both are paired with the more powerful Intel Celeron J4105 Quad-core processor clocking at 1.5GHz with Turbo Boost up to 2.5GHz).

PassMark CPU benchmark puts the two processors at 2146 and 2641 respectively. But what really caught our attention, apart from the small form factor are the ability to add your own 2.5-inch storage in the included hard disk enclosure module or mSATA SSD in the main unit and support for 4K Ultra HD output and playback. We recommend the mSATA route as the 2.5-inch storage route is more of an external storage solution via fixed USB Type-C socket, USB 3.0 bandwidth limitation applies.

Elsewhere, you get 802.11ac Dual band WiFi. Bluetooth 4.2, 1x Gigabit LAN, 2x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0, 2x HDMI for dual monitor support, 1x audio output, 1x Micro SD slot (for TF cards with up to 128GB).

Seriously, if you are considering a small desktop and don’t want to spend a bomb, the ACEPC is your answer but we strongly recommend adding a 128GB or 256GB mSATA Solid State Drive and move your Windows Installation there. Not only will your system run smoother and faster, you will have more room for apps and Windows super size updates. Plus, included in the price is Windows 10 64-bit Operating System.

Chromeboxes as Mac Mini Alternatives in Education

We also considered the following Chrome OS based machines. Don’t forget, Chrome OS now fully supports Android apps on Google Play. This opens up the platform to thousands of apps were previously available on tablets and smartphones. If your desktop based tasks are based on the Internet, browsing the web, social media and emails, consuming streaming media and content as well as mobile apps then Chromebox may be your thing. Not only are these machines cheap, you never have to worry about viruses and malware with automatic system updates from Google.

The low total cost of ownership, great manageability, easy collaboration, Google Play for Education content and Google’s G Suite for Education makes the Chromebox and amazing option for the education sector. The device is perfect in a classroom or lab setting requiring little administration and support, saving the school time and money.

ASUS Chromebox 3 Mini PC

The latest Chrome OS based mini form factor machine from ASUS is powered by 8th generation Intel Core processor. The unit comes with a versatile USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C port for fast data transfer and power delivery as well as DisplayPort functionality. The latter lets you connect up to two 4K UHD displays turning your Chromebox into a true multi-tasking setup with extended desktop. It works even better with a touchscreen especially when driving those mobile apps from Google Play store, perfect for games and apps that require touch control.

Intel Celeron 3865U Processor4GB DDR4 Memory32GB M.2 SATA SSDGigabit LAN, 802.11ac Wi-Fi 

Intel Core i3-7100U processor4GB DDR4 Memory32GB M.2 SATA SSDGigabit LAN, 802.11ac Wi-Fi 

Intel Core i3-7100U processor8GB DDR4 Memory32GB M.2 SATA SSDGigabit LAN, 802.11ac Wi-Fi 

Intel Core i7-8550U processor8GB DDR4 Memory32GB M.2 SATA SSDGigabit LAN, 802.11ac Wi-Fi 

Front I/O:1 x 3 -in-1 Card Reader, 2x USB 3.1 Gen 1, 1 x Audio jack. Back I/O: 3 x USB 3.1 Gen 1, 1 x USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C, 1 x HDMI, 1 x RJ45 LAN, 1 x DC-in

HP Chromebox G2

The chromebox as its name suggest is based on Chrome OS. It starts with an 7th generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB RAM and 32GB SSD storage and maxing out with Intel’s 8th generation Core i7 processor with 8GB RAM and 64GB SSD storage.