Computers / Hands-on Review

Five Alternative Uses for a Mini PC and How to Build One in Minutes

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Everyone knows by now that the PC desktop market is on shakier ground than central California. For years, advances in tablets and mobile computing have taken a bite out of the traditional tower-based market. True, PC gaming is sustaining the need for big, powerful, large-footprint machines, but laptops, smartphones and even (to some extent) personal smart home devices like Amazon Echo are making the need for a large computer harder and harder to justify.

We are also riding in the curl of a wave of an aesthetic in technology, where smaller is considered better. Small machines are easier to hide, giving you more flexibility when creating clean, compact work spaces. But with that small space comes great responsibility—some consumers don’t want to sacrifice the power of a tower for the clean lines of a portable.

Enter all-in-one computers. They serve the dual purpose of giving you a slim profile and providing enough muscle to handle your workload, depending on which one you buy. You can show off your stylish, sleek workspace without a bunch of wires running everywhere. You could be the alpha tech in your home.

And you can build it yourself for less than $1,200.

Why build it yourself? Flexibility of options. You can add whatever RAM you want (most all-in-ones can’t be configured out of the box—you must buy the options the manufacturer wants you to have). You can add whatever monitor you want. You can customize it for whatever space you want. And that’s where the information in this article comes in handy.

But first, let’s go through building this. Trust me, this is going to take five minutes. As a matter of fact, I was so amazed at how fast I was up and running that I took the computer apart and had my ten-year old niece do it, and she put it together even faster than I could. You start with the following shopping list:

What you end up with is a 7th-Gen Kaby Lake™ Intel® Core™ i7 computer running at 3.5 GHz with a 4MB L3 cache, with 16GB of RAM and a 500+ GB SSD. This includes a Full HD 1920 x 1080 screen, capable of handling intense web surfing, hardcore Microsoft Office applications, and even some mid-range CAD apps. All for less than $1,200 (as of this writing). One drawback: as with most all-in-ones, your options for high-end graphics will hit a dead end until Thunderbolt-enabled external graphic cards become a cost-effective thing. The integrated Intel HD 650 Iris Plus graphics are comparable to the GeForce 930M and can handle gameplay for most hot titles in low to medium settings.

So, how easy an assembly are we talking about? Even tech deadweights who have trouble accessing their email on a smartphone can do this.

  1. You simply screw open the bottom of the Intel NUC unit, lift the drive cage (you won’t miss it—it’s the rectangular cage that greets you when you open the unit).
  2. Insert the RAM module. Line up the notch, gently press it in, and the RAM is good to go.
  3. Now insert the SSD into the drive-cage enclosure, making sure the end of the drive pins line up with the cage adapter, and then reseat the cage into the unit.
  4. Screw the four retaining screws on the bottom plate back, and you’re finished.

Yes, finished. Power it up, attach the monitor via HDMI, and insert the Windows 10 USB stick (I love these things; they eliminate the need for an external drive). Load up Windows, attach the USB dongle for the keyboard and mouse, and you now have a PC the size of small portable speaker.

Intel® NUC7i7BNH Mini PC NUC Kit

The NUC also comes with a VESA plate adapter for most monitors. While the monitor used in this review wasn’t compatible in that regard, direct mounting is an option for select monitors. You attach the VESA plate to the back of the monitor, insert two included pins, and slide the whole mini PC onto the back of the monitor, and voilà!—an all-in-one for less than you would pay for it assembled.

Lets’ go back to the specs for a minute. The Intel NUC 7i7BNH also sports several amenities that will let you expand the capabilities of this computer further. With four USB 3.0 ports, a USB Type-C port with Thunderbolt 3 technology, built in 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, a micro SDXC slot (for a further expansion of storage up to 2TB) and an HDMI slot. You also have choices to expand—the RAM slot can accept two SO-DIMM memory modules up to 32GB of RAM, the storage options include an additional M.2 2280 slot, and there’s a hardwired Ethernet port if you need more reliable web connections.

So, what? Now you have this amazing mini PC, and you don’t know where to put it? Here are a couple of new non-traditional ideas about where such a compact and powerful PC might be put to good use.

The Kitchen

Everyone who loves to cook knows how complicated looking up recipes and watching videos can be on a small tablet in the kitchen. The constant rewinding of video files to catch the right ingredients, getting flour all over everything and coating your expensive tablet in egg whites (especially when you crawl into bed later and want to read). In other words, you might want something more powerful in the kitchen. Let’s say, something that can play web-channel cooking shows without dodgy connection issues, or something that can help you look up what spice is conflict-free for all your conscientious dinner guests. Maybe you need a database of what’s in your pantry, including calorie counts and ingredient information for the allergy-prone. Or maybe you want to order in and watch movies. Either way, a mini PC in the kitchen won’t ruin your evening plans, or the aesthetic of a well-organized kitchen.

The Home Theater Enthusiast

Home theater in a desktop? There’s a whole industry centered around home theater in a box, known as HTPC. The condensed versions is this: the Intel NUC 7i7BNH kit is capable of 4K output, it’s RAID compliant, and with its numerous USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3 connections, you can attach additional storage units with all your movies, music, and pictures to have at your fingertips. Again, with the compact size and the VESA mount, you can even attach this unit to the back of your 65" TV and use it as a massive living room home computer.

The Workshop Pro

A friend of mine recently upgraded his workshop and tools after years of disorganized piles reduced him to a blubbering, swearing, angry homeowner. At one point, he decided to log all his tools in a database, but then had a corrupt hard drive in his laptop give out. He didn’t like the idea of having his expensive laptop around his table saw, either, so he decided to invest in a mini PC. Now, not only does he have a database of all his tools, he has PDF files for all his tool manuals, downloaded videos on how to make simple house repairs which he refers to on a regular basis, and bookmarks to every woodworking site on the Internet. He placed the mini PC in a secured area of shelving so that it never gets sawdust or paint on it.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Another friend is very into fashion and makeup. She wanted beauty tips on applying her eyebrows correctly (she lost hers in a terrible over-plucking incident that now gives her a permanent surprised expression wherever she goes), and she had a hard time continually referencing her tablet. She decided to install a mini PC in the enclosed vanity next to her mirror (careful not to let any towels or cleaners or liquids get in the way), and then mounted the PC monitor to the wall next to her mirror. Using a microphone attached to the front of the NUC, she voice-commands her YouTube searches and various other features. Hands-on, hands-free, and her eyebrows are looking much better.

The Bedroom

I recently was thinking about buying a cheap TV for the bedroom, but I don’t have the room for a great honking big set, and I didn’t want to run the cable wires upstairs through the walls, and I don’t like falling asleep with my expensive MacBook on my lap when writing or researching. A mini PC solved a lot of the issues—the monitor is more portable than a TV so I can change it as the décor changes, I can watch all my favorite shows through Google Chromecast or an Amazon Fire Stick, and I can get work done while surfing the Web quickly, thanks to the i7 processor. I also have my iTunes account, which I can easily access. I tried this without the PC once and, when surfing with the Chromecast through a TV, the connection was so slow and the searches took way too much time.

So, there you have it—five new uses for a PC, with a bonus chapter on how to build one in minutes. The next time you’re thinking about a DIY tech project, make it this small, compact, and very powerful PC. You’ll save some money and can expand later if you like.

Have you built your own all-in-one mini PC? Tell us about it in the Comments section, below.

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Cris,

Good article. As a Network Administrator, I can say that it is almost totally correct. The one glaring error is that this is NOT an 'All-In-One' as you call it in the article. This is a Mini-PC (or a Micro-PC, etc.). An All-In-One is a computer like the Osborne1, the original Macintosh, IMac (or, more recently, the Dell Vostro), where the System Unit (the actual PC) is inside the monitor. This gives you fewer cables and a smaller footprint. All that is outside the monitor case is the keyboard and mouse.

I realize that terminology can change with updated technology, but this hasn't happened here.

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