3 ultra-small PCs are ready for business

We review three of the latest tiny Windows 7 computers -- and consider Apple's Mac Mini too

The next time you're in a library, Internet cafe or hotel lobby, look around: There's a good chance you'll see more than a few people using ultra-small form factor PCs -- computers that have been shrunk down to as little as one-fiftieth the size of a typical tower PC.

While many models are designed for consumers, these tiny computers are making their way into the business world, gracing reception areas, meeting rooms and even workers' cubicles. Some are no bigger than a paperback book, but unlike their underpowered predecessors, today's models provide enough performance for typical business tasks and can even support streaming high-definition video smoothly.

At the same time, they consume only about 25% as much electricity as a typical tower PC does, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (see PDF). That can add up to solid savings, with some of these tiny PCs saving more than $25 on electricity over a year of 10-hour workdays.

But for many businesses, the real payoff is that these computers are so small that they can be stashed in out-of-the-way places, such as a desk drawer, underneath a table or on the back of a monitor.

I put three of these tiny computers to the test to see how they stack up, but before we get to the reviews, let's look at how these PCs are being used in business today.

In classrooms, boardrooms and beyond

Although these tiny PCs account for less than 1% of total computer sales, their sales are growing rapidly, says Stephen Baker, an analyst at market research firm NPD Group. "These systems are perfect for uses where you're squeezed into a tight space, want to save on power or just not see a clunky tower case. They pack a lot of power in a small package," he says.

Tiny PCs are particularly apt for organizations that require lots of basic computers but are short on space. A case in point is the Greenfield-Central Community School Corporation in Greenfield, Ind., a school district with eight facilities and 4,700 students. In December 2009, the district purchased 300 cigar-box-size Acer Veriton N260G systems for classrooms in its recently renovated Greenfield-Central High School. The district added 400 more this April for its new junior high school and now has a total of 700 tiny PCs.

Acer Veriton N260Gs in a school
Small Acer Veriton N260Gs cling to the back of monitors at a school in Greenfield, Ind.

The devices are used in everything from biology labs to English classrooms. "They're the equivalent of traditional PCs but smaller and use less power," explains Greg Thompson, the district's technology operations director. Over the course of a year, Thompson figures the district saves as much as $10,000 a year in electricity bills. "A big bonus is that they run cooler and quieter," he adds.

RevelDigital in Fargo, N.D. sells digital signs -- computer-driven displays that companies can use to show advertising, Web content, live video streams and more. The company has assembled 1,500 digital signs using ViewSonic VOT132 PC Minis and its own software, which feeds data to the display. Behind the scenes, the tiny computer does the heavy data lifting for the sign's text, video and special effects.

"The VOT132 is about as small as a PC gets these days," says Theodore Rosenbaum, Revel's CEO. "It lets us put it in a lot of places where a traditional PC won't fit, like behind a wall." Revel is evaluating the newer VOT125, which is reviewed in this story.

Some of RevelDigital's signs are used as digital menu boards in restaurants, where the offerings can be changed at a moment's notice if, say, the chef changes his mind or a special sells out. Others relay vital information to workers on oil rigs or play digital advertisements to travelers in train stations.

Putting tiny PCs to the test

As small and efficient as these petite PCs are, some companies may be reluctant to spend money on them. While some models are inexpensive, others can cost as much as two lower-priced desktop PCs. What's more, they often have limited configuration options and cramped interiors; you can change memory modules or the hard drive, but you can't pop in a PCI card or a new graphics processor.

To see if these trade-offs are worth it, I gathered three Windows 7-based micro PCs that are ready for business: Acer's Veriton N282G, Lenovo's IdeaCentre Q150 and ViewSonic's VOT125. I gave the machines a good workout by using them for e-mail, presentations, writing reports and memos, Web research and viewing high-definition videos. I also measured each PC's energy use and benchmarked it with PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 suite. (See "How I tested" for details.)

These three machines share a few limitations: No Bluetooth support for connecting peripherals and gadgets, no optical drive, no Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip for network security, and no expandability beyond 4GB of RAM. On the plus side, all three can be booted from a network, easing deployment for IT administrators, and they all include their own desktop stand as well as hardware for mounting on the back of a monitor or under a desk.

Another option for companies that aren't committed to Windows is Apple's Mac Mini. I got my hands on the newest Mini, which is the largest and most expensive of the bunch. The Mini adds support for Bluetooth, room for 8GB of RAM and a DVD player to the other machines' features, but it can't be booted from a network, nor does it include mounting hardware. PassMark's benchmarking software doesn't run on Apple's Mac OS X, so the Mac Mini is treated separately in this story.

All the systems acquitted themselves well, handling anything a basic computer can but in much less space. Don't expect to use one for high-end number-crunching or intense gaming, but for everyday computing -- even watching HD video -- they provide a practical, space-saving, energy-sipping alternative.

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