Size was key to the personal computing revolution. Suddenly, a device the size of a car became small enough to fit on a desk. And with smaller size came lower cost. With less computer to build, prices plummeted, making the computer an affordable home appliance.
Today, we’re on the brink of a similar revolution. Computers are transforming from desktop powerhouses into devices small enough to fit in our pockets. Smartphones and tablets haven proven that small computers can do a heck of a lot, leading some innovators to wonder why similar benefits can’t be enjoyed by the computers we use in our homes and at work.
If an adequate home system could be the size of a smartphone, and if it could be sold for less than a pair of sneakers, the vision of a connected human race dreamed of during the Internet’s inception could become reality. Almost anyone with a roof over their head could own a PC.
The first attempts to execute this vision are now available. These computers are inexpensive, accessible, and affordable, but are also made by small organizations instead of giants like Acer and Dell. Often called mini PCs or thumb computers, these newcomers achieve their bargain pricing by pairing inexpensive low-power processors with free operating systems.
But are they ready for primetime? To find out, we purchased three of the most popular models found on Amazon.com and tried to use them like an average desktop PC. Here’s what happened.
Out of the box
We purchased a Raspberry Pi and two Android mini PCs for our testing. One of the Android mini PCs is a single-core model running Android 4.0, and the other is a dual-core system with Android 4.1 and Bluetooth. The Pi and Android 4.0 products were about $35 each, though we also had to buy a $10 power adapter and $5 SD card for the Pi. The Android 4.1 hardware set us back $63.
The Pi, which is sold as a project more than a product, arrived stuffed in an almost paper-thin box without any instructions, information, or accessories. We also discovered the power adapter, listed alongside the Pi, was not the right hardware. We take blame, but it goes to show that even experienced users can make mistakes with the Pi.
Our Android mini PCs were a different (and better!) story. Both came with not only instructions, but also a power adapter and two extension adapters: one for USB, and one for HDMI. These aren’t even required (you only need them if the mini PC proves too wide to plug directly into your TV or monitor’s HDMI), so we were surprised to see them included at no extra charge.
While instructions ship with the Androids, they’re obviously written by someone who isn’t a native English speaker and can be hard to understand. Those found with the Android 4.1 system are better thanks to color screenshots that illustrate important features.
Both Android mini PCs booted directly to the homescreen within a minute and worked without any fiddling. After connecting to Wi-Fi we were immediately able to browse the Web and download apps. The devices detected our USB wireless keyboard instantly and the 4.1 model, which has Bluetooth, worked well with a compatible keyboard.
The Raspberry Pi was another story. Since it came with no storage, it had no operating system, which meant we had to image one to an SD card ourselves. Once done, we had to follow instructions on the Raspberry Pi website to initialize the operating system and boot the device. We had no problem following the steps, but the entire process took about 30 minutes and is likely beyond the average user’s comfort zone.
After installing an operating system, the Pi works more or less like a typical PC, albeit one with an ugly and intimidating login screen. Anyone familiar with Linux will feel at home, but Windows may find transitioning difficult even though the basics aren’t drastically different.
Can Android work as a PC?
Despite their similarities, our experiences with the Android mini PCs couldn’t be further apart. The less expensive, slower Android 4.0 system had several reoccurring problems. Interface performance was slow, Wi-Fi reception was spotty, and even basic stability was elusive. Services crashed and the network adapter randomly disconnected. A hardware reset fixed most of the stability problems but didn’t improve Wi-Fi connectivity.
Android’s simplicity made these problems frustrating. On a Windows PC, the user can troubleshoot a network adapter to see exactly where the problem lies. Is it the hardware, the driver, or the network itself? Android doesn’t support this, so we were out of luck.
When working properly, the Android 4.0 mini PC felt like an old Android smartphone blown up. The Web browser couldn’t handle complex Web pages without scrolling in jerks, and moving between different areas of the interface produced jarring, unattractive animations. Still, once YouTube’s website loaded and a video started, 720p video was smooth. Even 1080p was good enough, though we noticed occasional frame drops.
A look at the hardware explains why. Though clocked at 1.5 GHz, the processor is based on the old Cortex A8 architecture, which was cutting-edge hardware four years ago. Today’s smartphones are many times more powerful.
Moving over to the 4.1 system was a breath of fresh air. The more modern Cortex A9 dual-core processor provided a boost in performance that was noticeable from the start, but it’s not just the hardware that deserves recognition. Android 4.1 is the first version to incorporate “Project Butter,” Google’s successful attempt to optimize the operating system’s performance. We had no problem viewing complex Web pages, and 1080p streaming video was smooth. In some ways, the performance of this mini PC matched Windows desktops sold for hundreds more.
With that said, Android can’t hide its roots. The operating system was designed for phones and tablets, not PCs, and the same can be said for the apps it runs. Take YouTube as an example. We had no problem finding video, and no issue with performance, but the player’s controls, all of which were comically large on a large HDTV, annoyed us. A “play” icon should never be six inches tall. This same complaint carries over to every other app. As far as the apps know, they’re being used on a smartphone, and work as such.
This makes Android a poor choice for a “real PC,” but it’s good enough for users who want a streaming media player and TV Web browser.
Raspberry Pi is cute, but not capable
With Android out of contention for any serious work, only the Raspberry Pi is left to make mini PCs more than a novelty. At first glance, the Pi seems in good shape. It can run several versions of Linux and can also use productivity apps like LibreOffice, a popular offshoot of OpenOffice.
However, there’s a big problem: Performance. The Raspberry Pi runs an old Broadcom system-on-a-chip powered by a 700 MHz single-core processor and antiquated video solution. Storage is handled via SD card, which means load and installation times aren’t a strong point. We found that installing LibreOffice took nearly an hour on a 4GB card we normally use with digital cameras.
We attempted to use the Pi for productivity via the browser first, yet found this effort in vain because of the terrible default browser and poor performance. The Pi simply could not handle text entry or image editing in modern Web apps – most of which won’t even run because HTML5 and Flash aren’t supported by default.
LibreOffice lead to a somewhat better experience. Still, using the Pi is like using a time machine to step back into the Windows 95 era. Applications take forever to load, Web browsing is a chore, and streaming media is almost impossible (with the stock OS and browser). The Android 4.0 mini PC is a powerhouse by comparison.
Some fans of the Raspberry Pi might consider this criticism unfair because the Pi is not being sold as a mass-market PC. We understand that, but we also have read questions from and talked to people who assume the Pi would be at least on par with a decade-old Windows computer – which is why we bought one to try for ourselves. As we suspected, the capabilities of the Pi are limited. Experienced owners can use tricks like overclocking to maximum its performance, but most people will find set-up alone a harrowing experience, never mind more advanced tweaks.
More importantly, inexpensive computers like these could bring the power of computing to millions of people who can’t afford to buy, maintain, and store a modern desktop or laptop.
Mini PCs aren’t ready for primetime, but they’re close
Of the three options we tested, two struck out. The inexpensive Android 4.0 mini PC is too slow, unstable, and finicky for us to recommend. And while the Pi is a great toy for enthusiasts, it’s a terrible consumer product that we can’t possibly recommend to anyone unfamiliar with how to use the Linux command-line.
That leaves the Android 4.1 system. We thought this might be the underdog, given the price, but the better processor and newer version of Android are well worth the extra dollars. Though not useful as a true PC, the system is a good streaming media player and TV Web browser. If you’re looking for a streaming media product, yet also don’t like the proprietary software most devices in that category use, the Android 4.1 mini PC is a solid alternative.
We were also surprised by the power of the 4.1 mini PC. Yes, the hardware is technically much slower than anything in a modern Windows desktop, but it didn’t feel that way. Instead, the interface was snappy, Web browsing was smooth, and load times were short. Android’s mobile interface and app ecosystem, not the hardware, proved the real obstacle.
Hybrid computers may be a more realistic future for consumers flush with cash, yet a mini PC that costs less than $100 and can handle all basic computing tasks has appeal. More importantly, inexpensive computers like these could bring the power of computing to millions of people who can’t afford to buy, maintain, and store a modern desktop or laptop. The hardware is only lacking an affordable desktop operating system built for low-power ARM processors.