Surveying the state of small desktop computers

The fact is that I’m in need of a new desktop computer. My current desktop was purchased an embarrassingly long time ago. It was an impulse purchase, inspired by an attractive offer at Woot.com.

These sorts of transitions are no surprise. I’ve been on the lookout for suitable replacements for a year or more. I know that I don’t want just another huge box. I want something potent, but small and hopefully very quiet.

Is that what they call, “out of the box thinking?” Here are some thoughts about a few notable candidates.

1. CompuLab’s Airtop PC

I’m still seriously enamored with the Airtop PC from Compulab. It’s a fine piece of engineering.

It’s completely fanless, so dead silent. It has both Intel Iris Pro 6200 onboard graphics and an nVidia discrete graphics adapter. It’s capable of driving 7 (!) displays.

The 5th generation Intel i7–5775C CPU might be getting older, but it still measures well against the current crop of Skylake and Kaby Lake processors.

It accommodates six storage devices while maintaining a compact footprint. It even has one PCIe slot to handle my HDMI capture card.

So sweet! So very pretty. Such a beast. But so much $. It’s around $2k nicely configured and running Windows 10.

2. Intel’s Skull Canyon NUC

Intel’s NUC line are bland but affordable little boxes. They didn’t really offer great raw performance. That is until the Skull Canyon NUC.

nuc6i7kyk-front-back-rwd.png.rendition.intel.web.576.324

With a quad-core i7–6770HQ processor and Iris Pro 580 graphics, it’s Intel’s attempt at something that would appeal to gamers….right down to the goofy skull molded into the lid. Thankfully the lid is user swappable. There are even patterns online so people can 3D print customer covers.

Sold as a barebones kit for around $700, I’d need to add memory and storage. A 512 GB M.2 SSD and 32 GB of RAM take it into the $1k range.

It’s encouraging that there are a few users who have already noted that this NUC works well as a small form factor host for vMix. Also, it’s been very well received by some Pro-Tools users.

3. HP Z2 Mini

HP has recently take steps to embrace new, small form factors. The Z2 Mini is their idea of a a SFF “workstation” class system. It mates an 6th Generation Intel® Core™ i7 processor to Intel® HD Graphics 530 or an NVIDIA® Quadro® M620.

HP Z2 Mini_performance_back-view

Default configurations come with 8 GB of memory and a traditional 7200 RPM hard drive. More memory and SSD storage are options that drive the cost up into the Airtop range.

4. HP Elite Slice

HP’s Elite Slice is pretty. Designed for the office or meeting room, it has a quad-core i7–6700T with Intel® HD Graphics 530. Here again, only 8 GB of RAM comes standard. The 256 GB SSD option drives the price up to $1k.

HP Elite Slice Rear

They offer various expansion modules that literally snap into place under the Slice. These include an optical drive, audio module and VESA mount. They connect completely without cables, which is nice. The optical drive module has a curious name. They call it the “ODD” module, for Optical Disk Drive.

One of the more notable things about the Slice is that it can be powered by it’s USB C port. So connect it up to a USB C monitor and there’s no other power supply required.

Observations

I think that Intel and HP are both missing the mark in some ways. They stick with somewhat traditional designs that rely upon fans to cool the hardware. Worse, in small form factors the fans must run fast, increasing the chance of noise.

To some degree, their efforts represent style over substance. Even so, it’s nice to see non-traditional, small form factor systems with more powerful hardware.

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