May 22, 2015

The Five Best Linux-Powered Mini Computers

Linux mini PCsWhy should you be lugging around a bulky PC when you can get a decent computing power in a box no wider than 5 inch or a stick as big (or small) as the Chromecast?

Linux has become a dominant force in the consumer space, thanks to Google's Chrome OS and Android. While both Android and Chrome OS are Linux-based distributions, they can't run a majority of applications written for the traditional Linux-based distributions such openSUSE, Fedora or Ubuntu.

There are times when we do need the power of the traditional desktop-Linux. It's easy to buy Chrome OS or Android powered devices but one may struggle to get devices which come with distros like Ubuntu or Fedora pre-installed.

And that's where these mini-desktops enter the picture. I like these mini devices because they don’t claim much real estate in the office or living room. They sit quietly in a corner yet do the job very well.

These can be handy for classrooms, businesses (why should you have bulky PCs when you can have these beautiful mini devices), and many other set-ups. If I have to buy a PC for my son I will definitely get one of these Linux-powered mini devices; his room is full of penguins either way!

There is another important reason behind purchasing these devices. Every time you buy any Linux pre-installed system you send across a message that there is a demand for such devices. In addition to sending the message you also giving your dollars to those businesses who support Linux.

So without further ado, let's get started. The devices are listed in no particular order so don't assume that the one listed at #1 is the best device and the one at #5 is the worst one!

1. System76 Meerkat

System76 is one of the most Linux-committed companies around. They work closely on Canonical's Ubuntu operating system. All of their systems come with Ubuntu pre-installed and Meerkat is no exception.

Meerkat is a Mac Mini-like device and is a mere 1.9″ × 4.5″ × 4.4″ big (or small). It's powered by the 5th gen Intel processors i3 or i5. They have taken some pages from the books of Dell and offer complete customization of hardware.

You can choose the processor (2.1 GHz, i3 or 2.7GHz i5), RAM (from 4GB to 16GB), and storage - from 32GB SSD to 1TB SSD.

The box comes with four USB 3.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, Intel® Wireless-AC, Bluetooth 4, Mini HDMI 1.4a, Mini DisplayPort 1.2 Audio.

Just plug it to an HDMI monitor, connect peripherals like a keyboard and mouse and you have a full-fledged desktop within $500 (for the base unit).

2. Intel NCU

Intel is a good friend of Linux and open source; not only do they open source their drivers but they also actively sponsor and support many Linux and open source events and projects.

The company recently released a new family of their computers called NUC (Next Unit of Computing). Since it's a 'family' of these Mac Mini-like devices there is more than one unit to select from. The latest NUC to come out is NUC Kit NUC5i7RYH which is powered by the 5th gen 3.1GHz Core i7-5557U processor. It has Intel Iris 6100 graphics; two USB 3.0 ports and two USB 2.0 ports; and two internal USB connectors which can be accessed through headers. It also has an infrared sensor on the front panel for consumers.

The devices fully support Linux and any distribution of choice can be installed on it. The estimated price is $526.

3. MintBox 2

These small devices are becoming all the rage, and smaller companies are offering Linux powered mini desktops.

Mint Box is a fanless, miniature PC which is powered by one of the most popular Linux-based distributions, Linux Mint. The product is the result of a collaboration between the Linux Mint team and Compulab. There are two models of Mint Box available: MintBox Mini and MintBox 2.

MintBox 2 is powered by a 3rd generation Intel i5-3337U dual core processor. It comes with 4GB of RAM (supports up to 16GB), 500 GB of HDD. It has HDMI and DisplayPort for monitor connectivity. It comes with six USB 2.0 ports and two USB 3.0 ports.

MintBox 2 is available for $599.

4. ZaReason Zini

ZaReason is another company which sells Linux pre-installed computers. ZaReason Zini is a 'mini' desktop similar to Intel NCU and MintBox. It's available with Intel i3 and i5 chips. However, unlike its Intel and Mint counterparts, a user can choose the desired Linux distro from a list which includes the Ubuntu family as well as Fedora and openSUSE.

The base model comes with 8GB of RAM but it can be upgraded up to 16GB. It comes with 12GB of SSD and six USB 3.0 ports in addition to built-in WiFi, Bluetooth and mini-HDMI and mini-Displayport.

The base model is available for $549

5. Compute Stick

Google popularized the concept of an 'HDMI' computer with Chromecast. Though there was already a full-fledged computer on an HDMI dongle by FXI Technologies called Cotton Candy.

I saw a demo of the stick and talked to the FXI team at CeBIT in Hannover, Germany back in 2010. It was an extremely powerful and promising device. However, back then FXI didn't have the same influence or aspirations as Google. The device, which could have started a revolution similar to Raspberry Pi never splashed on the scene again.

Intel picked up where FXI left off and the company added yet another class of devices to its family of miniature computers. Intel Compute stick was announced recently and comes in two versions: one powered by Windows and another powered by Ubuntu.

The Ubuntu variant comes with a Z3735F Atom Processor and 1GB of RAM. It has 8GB of storage capacity (unlike the Windows model which comes with 32GB of storage). It has integrated 802.11bgn WiFi, one USB 2.0 port, Bluetooth 4.0 and a slot for a Micro SD Card.

While the Windows variant is already available for $149 on Amazon.com, the Ubuntu-powered stick will be made available in June this year.

It's certainly a great device as you can plug it into your monitor or TV, connect a wireless keyboard and mouse through bluetooth and start using it.

Conclusion

These are the top five Linux-powered mini-desktops that you can buy today, except for the Intel Compute Stick which will be made available in June.

All of these devices are ‘hackable’ so even if one comes with Ubuntu or Linux Mint pre-installed, you can easily format them to run Arch Linux, Fedora, openSUSE, etc

I am seriously considering getting the Intel NUC and retiring a bulk desktop PC that I use as headless file server. It takes way too much space for the job that it does. I wish they offered a 32GB model for Linux; though I will be running a minimal headless server, probably Debian, Ubuntu or Arch Linux so I don’t really need much space for root.

I am interested in your use case, what will you use these mini-desktops for?

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