[IMGCAP(1)]Small form-factor PCs aren’t anything new. They have been available for years, though in the past they tended to be built around low-power, not-so-fast CPUs. I have several sitting around here that I built as network clients for a project I ran several years ago, all built around miniITX size motherboards with the Intel Atom CPU already mounted. All I had to do was add a laptop-sized hard disk and some RAM, install Windows, and I was ready to go. Total cost (about six years ago) was under $300 including a keyboard and mouse.

More recently, a few months ago, I needed something similar, but with a bit more horsepower, so I built another one. It cost about the same, but with one of Intel’s new Celeron CPUs, it’s considerably faster on some tasks—with “some” being the operative word.

When I need a PC for a particular project, I tend to build one. It’s not because I save a ton of money doing so, but as long as I don’t have to spend more time troubleshooting the build than actually constructing the PC, I enjoy the experience.

But the past month or so, I’ve been playing around with a couple of really small form-factor PCs that have me rethinking the wisdom of DIY.

The first is the new Pavilion Mini Desktop from Hewlett Packard. This is a complete PC in a case that measures 5 ¾ inches square on top and 5 ½ inches square on the bottom, standing a bit more than 2 inches high. It comes in two models configured a bit differently. The 300-020 has a Celeron dual-core processor, 4GB RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and costs $320 complete with a wireless keyboard and mouse. The model HP sent me to look at is the 300-030, which is a bit more upscale both in price and innards. The price on the 300-030 jumps to $450. That’s as much as many full-size desktops cost these days.

But the interesting thing about the 300-030 is that it is configured pretty much like a full desktop machine, with a Core i3 CPU, 4GB RAM and a 1TB hard drive. Both models come with Windows 8.1, and have loads of connectivity options. There’s an RJ-45 jack for wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, four USB ports, HDMI and DisplayPort video outputs (you can use both at the same time to drive two monitors), and an SD card reader.

Both models actually have two memory slots for RAM, so you can add another 4GB DIMM to boost internal RAM to 8GB. Getting at the empty slot is easy. There’s a nonslip rubber mat on the bottom of the Mini which pops off, and three Philips-head screws. Undo these screws and the case comes apart, offering access to the empty RAM slot.

The Pavilion Mini has plenty of pep. You can easily run most write-up or tax prep software from it, though I wouldn’t recommend using it as a network server (though I’m sure someone will do just that). I can find only one thing about the Pavilion Mini that might be construed as a negative. Many of you will not have a monitor that is compatible with either DisplayPort or HDMI. This isn’t a deal-breaker. There are HDMI to DVI or VGA cables available for about $10.

For many uses, the less expensive model will suffice, and while it offers a less powerful CPU, it also has the same easy-open case and empty RAM slot, and all of the ports detailed above.

The second tiny form-factor I received was from Lenovo. It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Lenovo’s equipment, and my go-to laptop has been a Lenovo model for years. The ThinkCentre Tiny M83 is Lenovo’s top-of-the-line in the Tiny series, and is similar in configuration to the HP Pavilion Mini, though at 7.04 x 1.36 x 7.16 inches, it’s both larger and heavier than the HP model.

And while prices are similar to the Pavilion Mini, at least for the core i3 model, Lenovo almost always sends the top model for review, so I got the considerably more expensive core i5 model. It’s around $700, but it does have enough power to serve as a really small network server if you’re very space constrained. The Tiny M83 is housed in a heavy duty metal case and also has more ports than the Pavilion, with a VGA port supplementing the HDMI and DisplayPort connections and built-in Wi-Fi.

The M83 (and other Tiny models) also have an interesting plus. Lenovo offers a 23 inch monitor that acts as a dock for the Tiny series PCs. Slip the Tiny PC into a dock at the top of the monitor, and you have an all-in-one PC. The display can accommodate all of the Tiny models, so you can start with the least expensive, and upgrade to a powerful Core i5 if you need to in the future.

A look at more tiny PCs coming soon in Part II.

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