Nov 08 2022

Mini PCs: What Are They, and How Can You Use Them in the Workplace?

Increasingly powerful computers with a small form factor, such as the Intel NUC and Mac mini, have added versatility in areas far beyond the desktop workstation.

Many IT teams looking to provide users with desktop computing power feel compelled to buy dedicated workstations, but the ongoing miniaturization of computing has made it possible to deliver a robust computing experience in a small footprint.

In fact, IT teams may not even need to deploy full-size desktop computers. The mini PC has emerged as a flexible alternative that can work in settings as diverse as edge computing, retail stores and factory floors — along with standard office environments.

And depending on an organization’s needs, mini PCs could prove to be essential building blocks for the modern workplace.

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What Is a Mini PC?

A mini PC is built for a small footprint, often less than a foot wide. Despite its size, the machine packs a powerful computing punch and perhaps even some degree of upgradability.

The market for mini PCs emerged in the mid-2000s with the convergence of two trends — the legacy-free desktop, which eschewed traditional connectors such as the parallel port in favor of USB and similar standards, and the small-form-factor PC. As technology began to improve and optical drives and other hardware were less necessary, it became possible to put increasingly powerful computers in much smaller form factors.

Two key devices helped shape the mini PC market. The first is the Apple Mac mini, initially offered to consumers in 2005, which gained interest as a low-cost “headless” way to get into the Mac ecosystem. The second is the Next Unit of Computing (NUC) concept, introduced by Intel in 2012, that puts x86-class processors in tiny cases.

A recent related trend is the single-board computer, such as the Raspberry Pi and the NVIDIA Jetson Nano, which generally rely on smartphone-class, ARM-based processors and are helpful for use cases involving the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence.

Generally, mini PCs leverage processing power more commonly seen in laptops and similarly low-powered solutions, but they tend to have more connectivity and upgradability options. A NUC, for example, can support external graphics processing units through its Thunderbolt ports and can leverage upgradable RAM and internal storage.

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What Are the Advantages and Uses of Mini PCs for Businesses?

For businesses, miniaturized PCs are easy to maintain and replace, as they can be included in an embedded system and swapped out as necessary. While the Mac mini and Mac Studio are not meant to be upgradable, PC-based minis such as the NUC are. And for IT officials, they can be easy to repair or upgrade on the fly.

“Sometimes they need to swap out their memory or storage or do an upgrade out in the field,” says John Deatherage, chief marketing officer for NUC manufacturer and reseller Simply NUC. “I think most people who’ve worked with a NUC know how easy it is to do those things compared with some of the older technology.”

Additionally, for point-of-sale uses and digital signage, the adoption of industry-standard technologies such as Intel’s vPro makes it easier to manage machines remotely.

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History of the Mac Mini

When Apple introduced the Mac mini in a 2005 keynote, then-CEO Steve Jobs framed the discussion around a comment that he frequently heard from consumers: Why doesn’t Apple offer a stripped-down Mac that is more affordable?

“I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asked me that,” Jobs said.

The machine that Jobs introduced that day, which was intended to lure PC users to the Mac platform, eventually evolved into a highly versatile device that found workplace use cases for developers, in server and conference rooms, and as an inexpensive file server.

And while it underwent a redesign earlier in its life, the Mac mini has largely stayed the same for more than a decade, maintaining the expectation that users will provide their own displays, keyboards and mice.

As miniature PCs go, the Mac mini is relatively large: a 7.7-inch square that’s 1.4 inches tall. Its consistent size has allowed Mac mini devices to work well in server and even embedded environments, making the platform highly swappable and easy to manage. Also, the system integrates a power supply within its case, something that many smaller devices put into an external brick.

John Deatherage
Sometimes they need to swap out their memory or storage or do an upgrade out in the field.”

John Deatherage Chief Marketing Officer, Simply NUC

These days, the Mac mini is sold with Apple silicon while maintaining the same form factor it has used since 2010. In spring 2022, Apple introduced the Mac Studio, which has the same footprint as the mini but increases its height to make room for a beefier fan and additional cooling. While still technically fitting into the mini PC category, it is intended for heavy-duty workloads that lean on graphics or raw processing power, such as video editing.

The Benefits of Intel NUCs — Why They’re Worth It

In the early 2010s, Intel was looking to exit the traditional PC motherboard space, which was effectively supported by an array of third-party manufacturers, while still finding a way to leverage the internal resources that supported the sector.

The solution Intel implemented was an experimental project called the NUC, says Deatherage, who was Intel’s director of product marketing at the time.

“A few of us sat around a table one day and said, ‘What if we made the smallest motherboard we possibly can with our engineering expertise and all that good stuff that could scale from an Atom processor up to Core i7?’” he recalls. “That was kind of the genesis of this 4-by-4 board, as we called it at the time.”

The 4-inch board, eventually given an enclosure and a name, has evolved into one of the most interesting segments of desktop computing. In its earliest iteration, a legacy-free ethos drove the product’s development so aggressively that the NUC’s initial version didn’t come with an Ethernet port at all.

“A lot of people don’t even use their LAN jack, and I think we were right there, but that ended up making the product not very successful,” Deatherage says, noting that once Intel added one, the concept began to find success in the market.

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Deatherage’s role in developing the NUC helped lead to his current position at Simply NUC. He says Simply NUC has found customer bases in an array of areas beyond the desktop paradigm, especially around digital signage, as equipment for industrial machines, as a point-of-sale retail management tool and even as a way to power virtual reality equipment.

While the NUC, like other mini PCs, does have consumer and enthusiast use cases, Deatherage says 90 percent of Simply NUC’s sales are in the B2B space.

AMD-Based Options

Apple and Intel aren’t the only players in the mini PC space. AMD-based products built around the company’s Ryzen chips, such as machines sold by ASUS and MSI, have some solid benefits in this form factor, particularly thanks to their powerful integrated graphics. This makes them effective choices when graphics capabilities are necessary but an external GPU might not be an option, such as in artificial intelligence or virtual reality settings.

Simply NUC also sells an AMD model in a universal case style that is intended for long-life management — as much as seven years of support in some cases — which Deatherage says many enterprise customers find appealing.

“That’s the customer that’s not as interested in the newest technology but is more interested in a stable environment for a long period of time,” he says.

READ MORE: Find out how AMD's latest processors improve performance, productivity and security.

How Have Intel NUCs and Other Mini PCs Evolved Over Time?

While the Intel NUC couldn’t get rid of the Ethernet jack, it proved easily adaptable to the needs of its customer base, with a variety of applications. It is possible, for example, to have a serial port added to a NUC so the device can plug into older industrial equipment, or to get a fanless version for use in dusty or humid environments.

Deatherage explains that this approach has evolved to accommodate the many different markets where NUCs are used.

The Mac mini, meanwhile, is now a server-room standby for many companies and is even used in the cloud to scale Mac instances for compiling iOS apps and other functions. Amazon Web Services, for instance, offers cloud access to Mac provisioning. While mini PCs are not server-grade, some organizations have found them to be efficient choices on the rack as an alternative to servers.

Digital signage is a key use case across industry sectors, says Deatherage, as many NUCs can drive multiple displays with no additional hardware. In fact, it may even make sense to use several NUCs across multiple displays in case of a glitch or downtime.

The mini PC, in its many forms, is often quite versatile and by no means limited to the desktop — though if you need a decent office PC, it’s well suited for that too. In case you’re on the hunt for the right implementation strategy, CDW AmplifiedTM Services can help you figure out the right place to fit them in, whether on the edge or within the server room.

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