What is a micro PC? Is it the same as a mini desktop PC? Or how about a mini computer? Is a micro ATX a personal computer?
Well, to be honest – there’s no real difference: all of these terms are pretty much interchangeable. The only important differential is that they’re all designed to sit on a desk, rather than your lap.
But talking of laptops, and the phenomenal performance they offer, we need to ask ourselves a big question: are we seeing the end of desktop computers?
In this article, we’ll be weighing up the evidence regarding the ‘death of the desktop’, and we’ll look at how to choose the best micro PCs for 4K TV streaming and other applications. But first, let’s try and solve the confusion over all these different names.
What Exactly Is a Micro PC?
Good question! The problem is that everybody has a different idea of what makes a desktop PC a mini, or what makes a tower PC a micro.
If we look at our updated list of the best micro PCs for 4K TV, we can see that even the major manufacturers can’t agree with each other. Acer refer to their superb Chromebox range as simply ‘desktop’, HP prefer the term ‘compact mini’ for their ubiquitous ProDesk machines, and Minix – champions of the small form-factor – have chosen to label all their tiny Neo computers as ‘mini PCs’.
So, in order to remain unbiased, we’re going to use the term ‘Micro PC’ for the rest of this article. In fact, there’s one format where the word ‘micro’ is actually required, and that’s for Micro ATX.
What is a Micro ATX PC?
Micro ATX refers to the size of the processor board inside the PC, which is purposely limited to 9.6 x 9.6 inches. This means the case sizes are typically between 12” and 15” in length, so they’re at the large end of the micro PC scale. The additional space inside allows for powerful fan-cooled processors and separate graphics cards, so these are ideal micro PCs for gaming or high-end 4K TV streaming.
But before we take a look at which format of micro PC is best for you to buy, let’s deal with the other big question.
Have We Seen the End of Desktop Computers?
Today’s high-end laptops are very powerful machines, with ultra-fast 12-core processors, displays capable of 4K UHD, and terabytes of SSD storage. But all of this comes at a price and, let’s face it, not too many of us can afford upwards of £2,000 for such high-spec hardware. Micro PCs might be less powerful on the whole, but they’re small and they’re cheap. In many circumstances, that can be very attractive.
Micro PCs for the Office
Micro PCs work as desktop PCs that don’t take up desk space: some are so small that they can go virtually unnoticed. In situations where space is at a premium, such as a receptionist’s desk or a home office set-up, an unobtrusive, reliable workstation is an ideal solution, especially if you add a swing-away monitor and an under-desk mounted keyboard.
A laptop might be more powerful, but it would take up a lot more room. And there are some added benefits too, such as low power consumption and no intrusive fan noise.
Micro PCs for Home Entertainment
The best argument for micro PCs is in the area of home entertainment. A high-end laptop might have a great graphics card, but it’s restricted to a laptop-sized screen. With a micro PC, you can run a 49-inch ultrawide curved monitor at 5K resolution and hide the actual PC behind the screen.
A mid-range micro PC will stream HD YouTube in a browser or via an Android app, and you can also use it for Kodi, Plex and other media servers. If you’re running a Windows 10 PC, you’ll get apps for Netflix, BT Sport, Hulu and even Skype, although a TV screen is sometimes too far away for video calls.
Do We Need Micro PCs?
Our answer is a resounding “yes”. Micro PCs solve a lot of problems and can result in a huge saving where a full tower PC would be overkill. They are compact and easily deployable, and there’s a huge range of processor and memory options available.
Laptops can and will get lighter and more powerful, and there will always be a need for specialist full-size tower PCs. But for every other requirement, there’s always been the micro PC.
Choosing the Best Micro PC
It might sound obvious, but the best micro PC for you to buy depends on what you need it for. We’ve recently run a review on the best micro PCs for 4K TV, so we’re going to use the 4K UHD performance standard as our base point.
If you’re into gaming, then you’ll want to choose a higher-specced machine — ideally one that lets you fit a separate high-performance graphics card. The Intel NUC 8 micro is a great example of this as it comes without a GPU, allowing you your own choice of graphics. And, with a case size of only 8.2 x 5.5 inches, you can mount it practically anywhere.
If you’re only going to be using your micro PC to run day-to-day home office tasks, then a less powerful device will be fine. For Google users who store a lot of documents in the cloud, we recommend a Chromebox (like the Acer CX13 which we recently reviewed). These cheap Chrome OS micro PCs are great for working in the browser, and their small form-factor makes them easy to set and forget.
Choosing the Best Micro PC for 4K TV
Choosing the best micro PC for 4K streaming is all about two things: a powerful graphics card, and the correct video output ports.
Don’t get us wrong: the processor, RAM and storage are all important — but without the basics in place, you won’t be able to stream video at full 4K UHD.
Over the next few minutes, we’ll tell you exactly what you need to play and stream jitter-free true 4K UHD video. We’ll cover the minimum specifications, and why some components are better than others.
Once you’ve read this through, you should head straight to our updated list of the best micro PCs for 4K TV and check out the specs and prices available.
But first, we need to get our definitions straight.
The Difference Between HD, FHD, UHD and 4K
HD is an abbreviation meaning High Definition, which specifies a resolution of 1,280 x 720 pixels, often shortened to ‘720p’. FHD, meaning Full High Definition, is 1,920 by 1,080 pixels (or just ‘1080p’). When people say ‘HD’, they usually mean Full HD. It’s a moot point, as hardly anyone uses the 1,280 x 720 format any more.
UHD is short for Ultra High Definition, which refers to a pixel depth of 3,840 x 2,160. 4K was originally a cinema screen resolution, which only defined the long edge as 4,096 pixels wide. However, it’s now come to mean the same as UHD. So, as far as computer monitors and resolutions go, 4K and UHD are the same thing.
The only other resolution you might see is 5K. This means any type of resolution where the long edge is at least 5,000 pixels, and typically you’ll see 5,120 × 2,880 which conforms to the popular 16:9 aspect ratio.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, we need to look at the two different types of micro PC: bare bones and ready-to-go.
Bare Bones or Ready-to-Go?
A barebones micro PC just includes the case, the motherboard, and the processor. The memory — meaning storage space and RAM — is not included and you’ll need to purchase these separately.
Although this takes a bit of assembly, it does give you the chance to spec the computer to your exact requirements. This is great for streaming 4K, as you can choose to fit a separate GPU, which will definitely improve image quality. Gaming graphics cards, such as the Nvidia GeForce GTX range, are all excellent for 4K playback, especially on a large UHD monitor.
You’ll also need to install your choice of operating system. This has no practical effect on video streaming, as every modern OS (meaning Windows, macOS and Chrome OS) are all capable of supporting 4K applications. But bear in mind that there may be a license cost involved, so you’ll need to budget accordingly.
Of course, you may not want all the hassle of setting up everything yourself. If so, the ready to go option is for you. It’ll be more expensive than fitting your own components to a bare bones micro, but you’re guaranteed that it will work straight out of the box.
Now let’s look at the components under the hood, starting with the most important part of a micro PC for 4K: the graphics card.
The Best Graphics Cards (GPU) for 4K Streaming
All micro PCs are small form-factor compact designs, with the largest models not much bigger than a paperback book. And whilst this is great for saving desk space, it also means that there’s not much room inside for a separate graphics card.
Some models get around this by building a bigger case, which means a discrete graphics card can be fitted. If your micro PC is one of these, then you’re in luck: you have a great range of GPUs to choose from. (Our Buyer’s Guide to High-Performing Graphics Cards can help you decide.)
But most small form-factor machines opt for processors with integrated graphics, meaning both the graphics and the main CPU share the same RAM. So for micro PCs, we need to take a closer look at the processor.
The Best Processors (CPU) for 4K Streaming
Approximately 80 per cent of the world’s computers are powered by Intel chips, and for micro PCs this usually means the Intel Core range. This is important for 4K playback, as only the Intel Core processors can handle true 4K UHD data. Micro computers with Intel Pentium, Celeron or Atom chips can only output FHD (1,920 x 1,080p), and so you should avoid these processors if you want 4K UHD.
The Intel Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 all have versions that come fitted with integrated graphics, but some manufacturers cut costs by fitting older versions. A lot of these versions (6th generation and older) can only support FHD, not 4K. To make sure, check that the integrated graphics card has the letters ‘UHD’ in its name. If it says ‘Intel UHD Graphics 620’ (or the newer ‘UHD Graphics 630’), then you’re good to go for 4K UHD playback.
If in doubt, you can always consult Intel’s list of processors, which makes everything completely clear.
Using the Correct I/O Ports and Jacks
There are three ways to hook up your monitor to your micro PC: HDMI, DisplayPort and USB Type-C (Thunderbolt 3). Life would be simple if that’s all there was to it, but we need to drill down a bit further.
An HDMI port is the most common way to connect your screen to your PC. It’s quite an old connection standard, and many different versions co-exist. Version 1.4 is still used, but it can’t carry the data at the speeds needed for 4K. Version 2.0 is faster, but it can only handle 4K at 30 fps (frames per second). This makes for very jerky playback, and you should definitely avoid it. However, HDMI version 2.1 (and above) can handle full 4K UHD at up to 120 fps, and so that’s the version you should check for.
DisplayPort, or DP, is used for large monitors at high resolutions, up to and including 5K. The current version is 1.4 which supports every resolution. Version 1.3 can handle 4K UHD, but anything lower won’t be able to handle 4K. It’s very unlikely you’ll find the older versions in a new micro PC, but you should always check the specs carefully just to be safe!
We’re aware that there are still a lot of DisplayPort 1.3 cables available, but these are not a good idea as they’ll need replacing when 5K comes along. Always use a DisplayPort 1.4 cable, like this 3m VESA-certified cable from KabelDirekt.
At a pinch, you can also use a USB Type-C port for playing back video. You’ll need a converter cable with either an HDMI 2.1 or DisplayPort 1.4 jack on the other end, but it’s definitely possible. It’s also how a lot of micro PCs provide a second or even third independent display output.
Whilst the ability to stream 4K video has little to do with how much storage space your machine has, you still need as much as you can afford. There are two reasons: firstly, you’ll need space to store any downloaded media, and secondly, the OS you choose will take up space on your hard drive. Windows 10 Pro, for example, will steal up to 15 GB of storage.
It’s a good idea to have an external drive for backing up all your downloads, and for that you can use any old-style SATA hard drive. But the storage inside your micro PC should always be SSD (Solid State Drive) — it’s fast, reliable and generates hardly any extra heat inside the case. If possible, you should aim for M.2 SSD, which is a lot faster than the older SATA standard.
Most micro PCs come with at least 64 GB of storage space, which we think is the absolute minimum you should accept. 128 GB or even 256 GB is often available as an upgrade at the time of purchase, and you should take advantage of this if you can. Upgrading the storage yourself is possible on some machines, but it can be difficult.
Which brings us neatly to the last section in this guide: upgradability.
Faster and more powerful components are being released all the time, meaning older versions come down in price. Being able to afford a graphics card that was out of your price range a month ago is great, but you need to make sure you can actually open the case to make the upgrade.
Bare bones kits are ideal for this, as they’re designed to be opened up and have their parts replaced. Everything is accessible and easy to replace, even down to the Wi-Fi card or the type of USB port.
However, some ready to go micros are practically sealed units, and upgrading something like the RAM or the SSD is either difficult or practically impossible. So if you’re likely to upgrade some components in the future, make sure that you can actually get into the casing for access.
We hope we’ve helped make the case for micro PCs, and that you now have all the information you need so you know what to look for when buying a new micro PC.
If our guide has been useful then we’d love to hear from you, so please send a comment, or get in touch with us on social media.