A “barebone” PC is sort of a starter kit for building a computer yourself. It’s a pre-assembled machine that includes an enclosure (case), a motherboard, and sometimes a power supply. Buyers select, purchase, and install their own processor, memory, storage drive, and an operating system, plus any extras like a disc drive, discrete graphics card, or cooling fans. You’ll also need to supply a monitor, mouse and keyboard, and speakers or headphones.
Barebone PCs are a good place to start your first PC build, and not only because some of the most difficult assembly is already done for you. Having a motherboard already limits your choices of processor and RAM, narrowing down a seemingly infinite variety into a few variables. It’s an excellent compromise between a wide-open build and being locked into a pre-built machine. Here are five picks for the best barebone PCs currently on the market.
Bare minimum: Intel NUC
Intel is marketing its “Next Unit of Computing” platform as the future of everyday desktops. These kits include a super-tiny enclosure and custom motherboard with processors pre-assembled — you supply the RAM and storage, and that’s all.
These machines support Windows (you’ll have to buy your own copy) and Linux. The latest versions include HDMI and Mini DisplayPort for video plus Wi-Fi and (sometimes) Bluetooth, but their expansion options are extremely limited, usually with only two USB ports on the front and back.
The cheapest Intel NUC kits come with low-end Pentium, Celeron, or Atom processors, and can be bought for below $150. More expensive options go up to a Core i7 processor, but if you need that much power, there are better options further down this list.
Related: Intel NUC (early 2015 model) review
Super compact: Gigabyte BRIX
Gigabyte is known primarily as a graphics card vendor, but lately the company has been branching out into more diverse PC products. The BRIX line of miniature PCs come with a tiny enclosure less than five inches across with a motherboard and processor included along with integrated graphics and Wi-Fi. Choose your model from efficient and cheap to powerful and expensive (some of the pricier options can accommodate a low-profile discrete graphics card), then add RAM and a storage drive. The BRIX can even be mounted to a VESA monitor for a modular all-in-one setup.
The bottom rung of the BRIX line starts at around $130. More expensive models that support high-end Intel processors, discrete graphics, and extras like more USB 3.0 ports and an integrated Pico projector can reach the $400-500 range.
Compact: Zotac ZBOX
Zotac’s Zbox series encompasses a wide variety of barebone PCs, mostly designed to pull duly as home theater PCs. Most models include integrated wireless networking, and they offer a range of graphics options from Intel’s integrated HD systems to video-focused Nvidia ION GPUs all the way to gaming-laptop grade GeForce graphics for full-blown PC gaming. Some also include RAM and a hard drive in the box, while others need the user to install it afterward — for a greater degree of customization (and some possible savings) go for a model that’s empty.
Zbox models start at around the $150 mark and go up to more than $700 for a fully-loaded version. There are a wide variety of models available, so make sure that the PC you want is compatible with the processor and RAM you intend to buy, or vice versa.
Midsize: Shuttle XPC
This computer from the long-running Shuttle brand of small form factor machines can accommodate some full-sized desktop components. The latest models support fourth-generation Haswell Core i3, i5 and i7 processors, and the interior is roomy enough for a full-sized dual-slot graphics card if you want one. If you’d rather save the money, the Intel Z87 motherboard includes both DVI and HDMI ports. A 500-watt power supply will support future upgrades if you ever get in the mood to tinker, and four DDR3 RAM slots give you a maximum capacity of 32GB of memory.
Shuttle XPC models start at around $200 and go up to around $400, depending on options. Shuttle’s supply seems to be inconsistent, so shop around at multiple retailers to find different configurations at different prices.
Gaming or workstation PC: ASRock M8
ASRock makes its name with motherboards, but this chassis-board-power supply combo is meant to be an easy-to-assemble small gaming machine. Unlike some barebone systems, it includes a DVD-RW drive — a rather snazzy one built into the steel case. The system includes HDMI and DisplayPort for video, but the creators really expect you to go for a dual-slot graphics card. Other goodies include no less than eight USB 3.0 ports split between the front and the back, plus another four USB 2.0 ports for good measure, and integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
The ASRock M8 is only offered in a single configuration with a retail price of $500, though sometimes it can be found at a discount. Keep in mind that the M8 is technically a compact system — if you want to upgrade it with dual graphics cards or high-end CPU coolers in the future, you may be better off building a conventional gaming PC from the ground up.