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Do bite-sized Windows PCs still leave a bitter taste? We tested 3 new models

Today’s laptops are smaller than ever before. Even powerful quad-core systems like Dell’s XPS 15, Acer’s Aspire V15, and Apple’s MacBook Pro 15 routinely come in under an inch thick. Progress has been so rapid it’s undermined the Ultrabook concept Intel put forward. Now almost everything is thin enough to qualify.

Traditional desktops have not shrunk at the same pace. Sure, they’re a bit smaller, but most towers still eat up plenty of desk space. There are, however, a few Windows mini PCs that push the limit. The smallest is barely twice the size of a USB drive.

Are these tiny machines a viable alternative to a tower desktop? Or are they just novelties? We rounded up three unique options and put them to the test.

The competitors

A few guidelines informed our efforts to herd several mini PCs into our office. First, it must be a stand-alone desktop — no all-in-ones allowed. Second, it must be capable of running Windows 8. Third, it must be smaller than any mini-ITX desktop. And finally, it must cost no more than $600.

CTL’s Compute Stick looks like a USB drive that ate all the pies.

After some research, the options were narrowed down to three that meet every criteria: the CTL Compute Stick, the Acer Veriton VN4620G, and the Zotac Zbox-Oi520. All three of these systems fit our criteria perfectly.

At a glance, the bulbous Zotac Zbox-Oi520 stands out from the rest. Its orb-shaped body and glowing blue ring proved divisive in our office. Some liked the unique look; others thought it was ridiculous. There’s nothing ridiculous about its specifications, however, as it comes equipped with an Intel Core i5-4200U, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB mechanical drive, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Most retailers charge about $350.

Acer’s Veriton is a more conventional, boxy system that ships with an optional stand, but its innards are almost identical to the Zbox. The processor is the only difference: It’s an old Core i5-3337U rather than the new Core i5-4200U. Note, though, that the elder Core offers a base clock of 1.8GHz, which is 200MHz higher than its younger sibling. The Veriton flirts with our price cap, but slightly slower models start as low as $400. While it’s the most expensive of the three, this is also the only system to come with a keyboard and mouse.

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Then there’s the Compute Stick. Imported by CTL, this mini-PC looks like a USB drive that ate all the pies. It’s only four inches long and barely an inch thick, yet it runs Windows 8.1 just like the rest. To accomplish this it equips an Intel Atom Z3735F quad-core processor with just 2GB of RAM and 16GB or 32GB of storage. Connectivity is limited to HDMI for video, one USB port, and 802.11n Wi-Fi. The 16GB model is $150 and the 32GB model, which also has Windows 8.1 Pro, is $300.

Benchmarking

While these three systems have many similarities, their processors are quite different. The CTL Compute Stick’s quad-core Atom sounds powerful, but it’s not built for strong per-core performance. A dual-core Intel Core can be found in both the Zbox and Veriton, but the latter has an older version of the architecture with a faster base clock. We had no idea which one would win going into this test.

The results, however, clear up the picture nicely. The Compute Stick’s may have four cores, but the slower performance of each results in numbers far below the competition. The Veriton, meanwhile, takes the win, beating the Zbox OI520 by over 300 points in the single-core test and 1,000 points in the multi-core test.

Geekbench

The Verition actually nips at the heels of far more expensive systems like the Lenovo Horizon 27 2, the HP Envy x360, and the Lenovo IdeaPad Z40, all of which score just a few hundred points better.

With the processor accounted for, we decided to put each system’s hard drive to the test. All three make do with storage picked for performance rather than speed. Just how slow are they?

All three results are rather slow, though the Zbox’s figures are at least mediocre for a mechanical hard disk. The Veriton, meanwhile, descends from first in the processor test to last in this benchmark. Its score of about 79 megabytes per second in reads and writes is among the lowest we’ve seen in 2014. That means programs load slowly and large file transfers require patience.

CrystalDiskMark

Last, but not least, is each system’s graphics chip. All three use Intel integrated, of course, as they have neither the budget nor the thermal capacity for quick, power-hungry GPUs. Does that mean gaming is hopeless? We fired up 3DMark to find out.

3DMark

Once again we see the competitors switch places. In this test, the Zotac takes first. While its processor is slower than the Veriton, its more advanced architecture includes Intel HD 4400 graphics. Acer’s 3rd-generation Core only has Intel HD 4400. Of course, the CTL Compute Stick once again falters. Its Intel HD graphics chip manages a third of the others’ performance.

Not that it matters. In truth, none of these systems are capable of playing even relatively simple games, such as Diablo 3, at 1080p and 30 frames per second. A trip down to 1366 x 768 resolution is needed to ensure that even old titles play smoothly. If you want to game with a small system, you’ll need a PC console like the Alienware Alpha or the iBuyPower SBX.

These numbers tell only part of the story. The rest is told by how each system feels in real-world use. We fired each up and put them through a battery of modest trials that any budget tower desktop can complete.

Browsing for trouble

Our tests started simple. A single instance of Internet Explorer was opened and used to browse the Web leisurely, visiting sites like the New York Times, Ars Technica, and of course, the famous Digital Trends. Along the way, any streaming videos found were opened to add a bit more load to the test. None of this stressed this trio of mini PCs. Even the Compute Stick hummed along nicely, though it did suffer an occasional hitch in scrolling or delay in playing a video. It’s noticeable on close examination, but not something that’ll bug most users.

The Veriton nips at the heels of far more expensive PCs.

Most people don’t open just one browser instance, though. They open at least two or three, so that was the next step. Tab after tab was added until the experience became annoyingly sluggish. This is not a scientific metric, of course (that’s what benchmarks are for), but it’s not a bad way to see how test scores translate to everyday use.

The Compute Stick was quickly overwhelmed. More than a few tabs resulted in several seconds of delay when switching between tabs. Videos hesitated during playback, too. Opening ten tabs ground the browser to a halt. Technically it still worked, but the experience was grating.

Related: Asus unveils router-sized fanless mini PC

Acer’s Veriton and Zotac’s Zbox performed better, showing little sign of slowdown until we hit seven or eight tabs, one of which was streaming video. Ten tabs were usable but approached the limit of what we think most users would find acceptable. Both systems handled about 15 tabs before we halted the experiment out of annoyance. We think that’s more than adequate.

The halting hard drive

Attempting to edit photos alongside Web browsing threw a wrench into our enjoyment. At times loading a photo would cause a momentary freeze, but the file was not at fault. The problem was the hard drive. As seen in the benchmarks, every system scored poorly in sustained transfer speeds. The mechanical drives in the Acer and Zbox also have slow access times, which means opening a file or program can result in several seconds of hesitation, as the hard drive struggles to find it.

Whether this will bother you depends on what you do with your PC. This point is almost entirely unrelated to Web browsing and mostly unrelated to how well a program runs after it loads. If you spend all your time using the Internet and a few other programs that are constantly open, you may not notice an issue. If you’re constantly loading, saving and moving files, though, the hard drive is going to become a problem.

That goes double for the Compute Stick. Most of its 16GB drive is already filled by the Windows installation. While it’s technically the cheapest here at $150, it’s massive price advantage narrows if you count the cost of an external hard drive — and you’re going to need one.

Making the connection

Speaking of external devices, connectivity is always a concern with small devices such as these. Users want to know they’ll be able to add the peripherals they need.

CTL’s Compute Stick obviously has the short end of, uh, the stick. With only one USB port, an SD card slot, and HDMI for video output, it can’t accept any devices besides a keyboard and mouse in its default state, and that’s assuming you find a bundled set that can run both devices off the same dongle. A USB hub is almost mandatory, and it turns the Compute Stick, which should be the simplest of this trio, into a messy tangle of cords.

All three mini PCs struggle with the most basic 3D games.

Zotac’s orb is in much better shape. It offers four USB 3.0 ports and three USB 2.0 ports, alongside a DisplayPort HDMI and an Ethernet jack. Bluetooth 4.0 is included, as well, so it’s possible to use wireless peripherals without eating up USB space. SD card, headphone, and microphone jacks round out the options. The only problem with this healthy selection is the fact that all of it, with the exception of one USB 2.0 port, is located on a tiny portion of the system’s rear. Connecting and disconnecting peripherals can become messy.

The Vertion has a decent selection of ports, too, but offers different options. Four USB 2.0 are joined by only two USB 3.0. That’s a symptom of its older platform. Video output is robust, though, and includes HDMI, DVI, and VGA. This is a more sensible approach than the Zbox, as DVI is still common among budget monitors. An Ethernet port, SD card reader and front-facing headphone/microphone jacks are present, too.

While the Compute Stick obviously comes up short on connectivity because of its size, the Zotac and Acer systems compete well with basic tower desktops. Most towers will include a couple more USB ports and have audio jacks both front and back, but such advantages are minor. An average user won’t have trouble finding space for peripherals with either.

Take a bite

Putting these three systems to the test told us a lot about the state of modern mini-computers. Once known as nettops, and burdened by the poor performance that name implies, bite-sized Windows PCs have matured over the last half-decade. Even the Compute Stick, by far the slowest of the trio, is adequate for browsing the Web, editing documents, and enjoying video. The Zbox and Veriton, meanwhile, are on par with a mid-range laptop (and in fact use the same kind of processor).

There are a few drawbacks. 3D gaming is essentially out of the question. A few aging titles will run, but modern games will chug even at their lowest settings. Heavy multi-tasking can hinder performance, and file transfer times are quite long.

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We don’t think most users will actually butt up against these problems, however, and most tasks are no chore. 1080p video? Fine. Browser games with 2D graphics? No problem. Web browsing with a few tabs open? Piece of cake.

Any of these systems could serve as an adequate home PC for people with modest needs, and the Zbox and Veriton are capable enough for most users. If you’re looking for one winner, though, then look no further than the Zbox OI520. Available for less than $400 online, the odd orb offers strong performance and plenty of connectivity. Give it a chance. You might be surprised by how good it is.