[Step 2] Size doesn't matter?

#1


Hey community,

It’s time to take the next step for our mini-PC project! We’ll go over what we’ve learned from the previous step, and ask some more questions based on our conclusions. Just a heads-up, there’s lots of reading ahead! Because we want you to make informed decisions, we’ll give detailed descriptions of the available options before each vote. But when all that is done, we’ll end on a lighter note by choosing a project code name!

Summary of Step 1 results

We were surprised to see that the reasons people would pick a mini-PC over a full-sized desktop computer were mostly practical: hardly anyone would choose it just for its looks. But the small size clears your desktop and makes it easier to stow away out of sight. Another unexpected result was the sheer amount of people who appreciated the ease of moving the entire computer between work spaces. Based on your responses, we’ve also set a few new guidelines for the project going forward:

Size doesn’t matter (as much as some other things)

That’s a funny thing to say about a PC whose main descriptor is ‘mini’, of course. But hardly anyone feels that the current mini-PCs aren’t mini enough. Instead, they aren’t PC enough for your tastes! More processing power, more ports, and a more modular approach seem to be the things that could most improve the existing mini-PCs on the market. And all of those things have one thing in common: they take up space. So in Step 2 we’ll focus on finding the balance between size on one side, and performance and upgradability on the other.

  • :+1: That sounds about right
  • :-1: That doesn’t sound right

0 voters

The kind of performance we need (and the kind we want if we can get it)

Keeping in mind that a more powerful PC can handle any lighter tasks you throw at it, and based on the poll results, we see that about half the respondents would be well-served with a powerful CPU, but the other half would really like some graphics horsepower in there. The final seventeen-or-so percent won’t be content until our cooling solution can also handle sustained, maxed out processing power. Since cooling can be quite the space hog, we’ll see how far we can get with that.

We’ll need a device that can handle office work, media playback, and sound and image editing without a hitch. We then also do what we can to add the required power to handle light gaming. And finally, only if it doesn’t add too much in size or cost, we try to increase sustained performance!

  • :+1: That sounds about right
  • :-1: That doesn’t sound right

0 voters

Step 2: The cost of performance and upgradability

Every choice we make along the development process in some way determines what our end product ends up like. That’s why it’s important that we make informed choices. The following questions will be prefaced with explanations of what each poll option entails, and though it may be a longer read than you have seen in previous surveys, we ask that everyone please carefully read the available options before voting on the polls.

Performance and upgradability seem to go hand in hand: memory slots, CPU sockets and the like, offer the possibility of equipping our mini-PC with performance parts that can provide power that embedded solutions can only dream of.

Performance and upgradability also both add size. Performance comes with higher power draw and heat generation, necessitating a beefier power supply and larger cooling solution. Upgradability also comes at the cost of size. For example, the infrastructure involved with adding a memory slot (even for a smaller laptop SODIMM module) takes up significantly more space than memory chips soldered directly onto the mainboard. After all, those same memory chips are now soldered to a modular circuit board instead, which needs to be mechanically held in some contraption that allows it to be removed or replaced, and needs to be somehow electronically connected to the mainboard itself. (Those extra components also don’t come for free, so the modular version is also likely to be more expensive!)

To a degree, the size increase that comes with performance can be countered by throwing more money at the problem. A more efficient power supply may be able to provide the power we need in a smaller package and with less need for cooling, but it will cost more money. This is a trade-off that we’ll go into at a later date, when we have more concrete feedback form our suppliers. For now we’ll only focus on the cost in size when discussing performance and upgradability.

CPU

The brain of the computer sets the tone for the overall size of the components inside. On one end of the spectrum we have SoCs that implement the processor and a host of controllers into a single chip, on the other end we have high-end performance parts at the limits of modern consumer computing.

Some options offer modularity in the form of a socket, allowing a CPU to be removed and replaced, which allows for easy repair or upgrades (though keep in mind that newer generation CPUs often also require a newer companion chipset to actually function, even if they physically fit in the socket).

Option A: System-on-a-chip

pros: most ‘mini’, passive cooling possible, very low power usage
cons: not suitable for heavy tasks, limited features, not modular
examples: Eve V, MacBook Retina 12-inch

The smallest solution is the system-on-a-chip or SoC. Combining the processor, chipset, and other components into a single component saves a lot of space. It also leads to fewer available features as PCI Express lanes are limited, and a much smaller power envelope. Being soldered directly to the mainboard saves additional space. These can be passively cooled, and allow for very small devices that still offer plenty of power for everyday tasks like office work and media playback. Heavier tasks are possible, but the user experience can suffer as these chips are not designed for delivering sustained performance.

Option B: Notebook CPU

pros: reasonably ‘mini’, no large cooler needed, low power usage
cons: not ideal for heavy tasks, not modular
examples: MacBook Pro, most laptops, Intel NUC, Mac mini, iMac 21.5-inch

One size up are the notebook class CPUs. In the past, these came with significant reduction in performance compared to their desktop counterparts. Though they still aren’t as powerful today, the gap has closed and you can nowadays get notebook processors of up to eight cores with almost desktop-level performance. Like SoCs they are soldered to the mainboard, but unlike SoCs they require a companion chip to handle things like storage, networking, and connectivity. This takes up a bit more space, but offers features on par with desktop CPUs. It also requires active cooling, adding size to our device for a fan and to allow for air flow, and draws more power which increases the size of our power delivery solution.

Option C: Desktop CPU

pros: good all-round performance, modular
cons: not as ‘mini’, draws more power, needs larger cooler and fan
examples: most desktops, iMac Retina 27-inch

Taking up a lot more space, desktop CPUs offer the best performance and modularity. They are not soldered to the mainboard, but instead are placed in a modular socket that allows the processor to be removed and replaced, allowing for easier repair or upgrades They also require more and/or larger components to deliver the power they need to do their work, and require considerable cooling.

Option D is not an option: Performance/HEDT CPU

pros: awesome all-round performance, modular, overclockable
cons: not at all ‘mini’, draws lots of power, needs extreme cooling solution
examples: enthusiast gaming desktops, performance workstations

Offering the bleeding edge of performance, these ‘high end desktop’ (HEDT) parts come at a serious price and take up the most room. We’ve added them here just so you know we haven’t forgotten them, but they are well outwith the scope of the mini-PC we’re developing here…

:fire: Time to choose a CPU type

  • Option A:
    A SoC is enough for me
  • Option B:
    A good notebook grade CPU is enough for me
  • Option C:
    I need a full-fat desktop CPU for my needs

0 voters

GPU

Sometimes one brain just isn’t enough. Graphics (and some other tasks) benefit from parallel processing, a different way of thinking. (The Mythbusters did a presentation on it once if you want a more graphical example, or if you just like to see paint explode :slight_smile:)

There are options that offer modularity in the form of PCI Express slots and PCIe 6- or 8-pin power cables. Whilst these expansion slots allow for the use of high-performance, off-the-shelf graphics cards that can be removed and replaced for repair or upgrades, the size these cards take up and their requirements for power, cooling and airflow make them unfit for the kind of device we’re developing here.

Option E: Integrated graphics adapter

pros: most ‘mini’, passive cooling may be possible, low power usage
cons: not suitable for heavy tasks, not modular
examples: Eve V, MacBook Pro 13-inch, most notebooks, Intel NUC, Mac mini

Can we get something smaller than ‘no extra space required’? Many modern CPUs have a part of their transistors dedicated to graphics processing, and because of that no additional chips have to be added to the computer to get a picture on the screen.

Historically, integrated graphics have been considered good enough to put an image on your screen and not much more. Over the past years though, integrated graphics have come a long way, and many games are now playable – even if not in all their splendor – without adding any separate graphics chip. Digital Trends did an article about the gaming experience you can expect from modern integrated graphics, and there are various Reddit threads and other resources out on the internet listing what can be done with integrated graphics alone.

Option F: Dedicated GPU

pros: reasonably ‘mini’, decent graphics performance
cons: requires more cooling, higher power draw, not modular
examples: MacBook Pro 15-inch, most ‘gaming’ laptops, iMac Retina 27-inch

Though most modern CPUs have a graphics adapter inside already, the best performance comes from dedicated graphics processing units (GPUs). Being a whole separate processor these require extra power (as much as or even more than the CPU!) and produce a lot of extra heat. But they offer an indisputable performance boost to gaming, photo- and especially video editing, and other tasks that benefit from parallel processing. Being soldered directly to the mainboard means they don’t add a lot of bulk, but are also not replaceable.

Option G is not an option: Discrete graphics card

pros: awesome all-round performance, modular, overclockable
cons: not at all ‘mini’, draws lots of power, needs extreme cooling solution
examples: enthusiast gaming desktops, performance workstations

As with CPU non-option D, these high-performance graphics cards come at a serious price and take up the most room. We’ve added them here just so you know we haven’t forgotten them, but they are well outwith the scope of the mini-PC we’re developing here…

:fire: Time to choose a GPU type

  • Option E:
    I’m perfectly fine with an integrated graphics adapter
  • Option F:
    I would like a dedicated graphics processor

0 voters

Bonus option H? Thunderbolt 3!

It is also good to keep in mind that if we equip our mini-PC with a Thunderbolt 3 port, it will also be possible to boost the performance by adding an external GPU (eGPU). This allows those who need extra graphics processing power to get it when they need it, and doesn’t increase the size, power draw, or cost, for those who don’t.

  • I have no interest in adding an eGPU to my mini-PC
  • Option E + Thunderbolt 3:
    I’m okay with integrated graphics as long as there is Thunderbolt 3 for an eGPU when I need it
  • Option F + Thunderbolt 3:
    I want the Thunderbolt 3 option, but still want a dedicated GPU built into the PC

0 voters

RAM

Memory modules are among the smaller components inside a modern computer. Even so, there is a significant difference in size between the available options.

Some options offer modularity in the form of a DIMM or SODIMM slot, allowing a memory module to be removed and replaced, which allows for easy repair or upgrades.

Option I: Soldered RAM chips

pros: most 'mini’
cons: not modular
examples: Eve V, MacBook Pro 13-inch, some small notebooks, iMac 21.5-inch

With memory chips and their controllers soldered directly to the mainboard, they only take up as much space as the chips themselves. This does not allow for them to be replaced for repair or upgrades, but saves most space.

Option J: Notebook RAM modules

pros: modular
cons: not as 'mini’
examples: most notebooks, Intel NUC, Mac mini

As mentioned before, adding a memory slot takes up significantly more space than memory chips soldered directly onto the mainboard. Those same memory chips are now soldered to a modular circuit board instead, which needs to be mechanically held in place (but must be released at will) and needs to still be electronically connected to the mainboard. Though large when compared to soldered chips, by themselves even these modular memory modules are still among the smaller components inside the PC.

Option K is not an option: Desktop RAM modules

pros: slightly higher performance over notebook modules, modular
cons: not at all 'mini’
examples: most desktops

Because the performance gains of full-sized desktop-grade modules over their notebook-grade counterparts will be negligible in a computer of our overall performance level, we do not feel that they are worth taking up twice the space as they do. We’ve added them here just so you know we haven’t forgotten them, but they are outwith the scope of the mini-PC we’re developing here…

:fire: Time to choose a RAM type

  • Option I:
    Soldered memory chips are good, just don’t skimp on the specs
  • Option J:
    I need to be able to swap out my RAM for upgrades

0 voters

Storage

Traditionally, storage required a lot of room inside the computer, and even today the largest storage solutions will still require a 3.5" expansion bay. That said, notebook-grade hard disk drives (HDDs) have gained a lot in performance and storage space, and take up significantly less space.

Then there’s the rise of the solid-state drive (SSD). With speeds that shame even the most performant HDD, SSDs quickly became popular as boot drives despite their relatively higher price. Initially these were built to fit the 2.5" expansion bays used for notebook hard drives, allowing for easy upgrades and wide compatibility. But since they have no need for spinning disks and other moving parts, they can be made even smaller than a traditional mechanical hard drive.

Modularity here can be achieved through standard-sized expansion bays with SATA power- and data connectors to fit 3.5" desktop grade HDDs, 2.5" notebook-grade HDDs and SSDs. A popular modern option is the M.2 slot. Though it only fits SSDs and no mechanical drives, these drives take up much less space and the connector enables higher speeds than a traditional SATA port.

Another important note here is that additional storage space can easily be added to any computer with off-the-shelf external USB drives. These are affordable and widely available, and may be a better mass storage solution that keeps the size of the components inside our mini-PC down.

Option L: Soldered SSD chip

pros: most 'mini’
cons: not modular
examples: MacBook Pro 15-inch, some ultra-small notebooks, Mac mini

Flash storage can be directly soldered to the mainboard, they only take up as much space as the chips themselves. This does not allow for them to be replaced for repair or upgrades, but saves most space.

Option M: M.2 slot

pros: still pretty ‘mini’, modular
cons: does not allow for mechanical drives
examples: Eve V, many modern notebooks, Intel NUC

Adding an M.2 slot takes up significantly more space than an SSD chip soldered directly onto the mainboard. But though large when compared to soldered chips, by themselves even these modular SSDs modules are among the smaller components inside the PC. An M.2 slot can be used to connect SSDs through PCI Express using the NVMe protocol that was developed with flash storage in mind, allowing much higher speeds than traditional SATA storage.

Option N: 2.5" expansion bay

pros: modular, allows for both SSDs and mechanical drives
cons: not as ‘mini’, not compatible with the fastest SSDs
examples: most notebooks

For many years, the 2.5" expansion bay has been the go-to solution for adding storage to a notebook. Though it takes up more space than an M.2 slot and doesn’t offer the benefits of the faster PCIe connection it does allow for the addition of a mechanical hard drive. These can be had in capacities of up to 5TB at the time of writing, and though they are relatively slow compared to flash storage they offer a much better price-per-Gigabyte. Of course they also fit SSDs, and though these aren’t the fastest drives on the market, they will still outperform any HDD.

Option O: M.2 slot and 2.5" expansion bay

pros: modular, allows for both SSDs and mechanical drives
cons: slightly less ‘mini’ still
examples: some modern notebooks, some Intel NUCs

It takes a bit more room, but why not have both? This allows for the combination of a fast, smaller boot SSD in the M.2 slot and a slower, but much larger storage drive in the 2.5" expansion bay.

Option P is not an option: 3.5" expansion bay

pros: allows for higher performance or capacity mechanical drives, modular
cons: not at all ‘mini’, produces more heat, uses more power
examples: most desktops

Though desktop-grade hard drives are available in great capacities, they also take up a lot of space and need some airflow to keep cool when used heavily. With the ability to cheaply and easily add external storage through USB or other ports, we do not feel that reserving this much room in our mini-PC is worth the gains. We’ve added them here just so you know we haven’t forgotten them, but they are outwith the scope of the mini-PC we’re developing here…

:fire: Time to choose a storage type

  • Option L:
    A soldered SSD is fine for me, just don’t skimp on the specs
  • Option M:
    I need an M.2 slot to be able to swap out my SSD for upgrades
  • Option N:
    I need to be able to add a laptop-grade HDD for additional storage
  • Option O:
    I need both an M.2 slot for my SSD and a 2.5" bay for my HDD

0 voters

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far (and haven’t skipped or skimmed over everything), thanks for your persistence and dedication to crowd-development! We know it’s been a long read, but the end result will be all the better for the extra effort. We’re looking forward to seeing where you all think the best balance lies between size and performance/modularity!

Let’s name this project!

With all the serious matters out of the way, it’s time for something more lighthearted. Time to pick a code name for our mini-PC project! As a reminder, this name will be used to refer to the crowd development project, the final name will be decided later when we know what the end product will actually be.

  • Project: Genie
  • Project: Diamond
  • Project: Phoenix
  • Project: Mini
  • Project: Mini-V
  • Project: Micro
  • Project: Nano
  • Project: Quantum
  • Project: Tater Tot
  • Project: Dice Roller
  • Project: Minnie PC
  • Project: Pluto

0 voters

5 Likes

[Step 1] A big step for a small computer
#3

I miss the constant correlation to size here. What is big? I could vote a lot here, but in the end it will become a desktop pc maybe. If I choose Option C and Option F what will be the size in the end???

Maybe you can add the “miniPC header” pic to the polls to show the sizes of the components…

4 Likes

#4

If the performance chart above is graded on how much performance is needed, I’d argue that gaming should top the chart since it’s way heavier on a pc then video editing. After a 1060 , (and some could even argue a 1050ti) you hit the point of diminishing returns performance wise with video editing.

Also what about APUs? Isn’t AMD offering some interesting parts there for mobile?

4 Likes

#5

Something we might consider as a cooling solution is copper foam. It’s pretty cheap, has an incredibly large surface area and looks funny. There was a crowdfunding project that failed due to PayPal not paying the funds (this reminds me of something… Not sure what though :thinking:) called SilentPower. They did a fanless mini-PC with copper foam on top as a cooling solution. We might go a similar path.
silentpower-il
The only thing I could imagine is that it’ll increase noise, if combined with a fan, but it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to get a piece of copper foam for 20$ and blow at it with a large slow turning fan to try it.

10 Likes

#6

Not sure about the design but i like the concept

1 Like

#7

I would really like a modular version (Option G), even with notebook-like (Option F) performance, so I know I could upgrade it later. Having a soldered GPU with no upgrade path would be a dealbreaker for me. Basically I want the ability to replace the GPU with an off-the-shelf dGPU, even if its not high performance. (e.g for AV1 codec in the future)

Thunderbolt 3 is a nice-to-have, but not something I would pay extra. For a mini PC with a dGPU, I would imagine the uses of TB3 would lean more towards portable SSD and the like, rather than an eGPU.

TB3 honestly should be avoided for eGPU uses unless there is no other choice (e.g a laptop needs it for daily attach and detach). For a mini PC that doesnt need attach and detach process on a daily basis, I would propose something like an Acer Revo Build where you could use a standard PCIe x16 protocol. Extra points if the GPU inside the graphic block is a standard off-the-shelf PCIe unit that can be replaced easily.

4 Likes

#8

re performance would expect minimum of suitable 16gb ram with 32 gb option and SSD of 512gb at least - depending on price - probably more like 1tb as base level

1 Like

#9

thx for the edit @Helios now it’s clear for me (one of the guys who don’t really know how big a desktop gpu is)…

1 Like

#10

Those are now in there. I had already put in a request for them, but it took me a while to get the mock-up example image and reference sizes ready, and we wanted Step 2 to go live yesterday… Sorry for the delay, but great idea! (Great minds think alike? :wink:)

The original poll more specifically specified the light kind of gaming we’re looking at as ‘e-sports games, older games, maybe newer games on low settings’. With that in mind, anything above a 1060 wouldn’t really apply anyway. We put video editing at the top mostly because especially video transcoding may max out the CPU or GPU for extended periods of time, moreso than gaming would (though that would still be pushing the GPU). In the end the exact order won’t matter too much, as any sustained or graphics performance, as it turns out, will be more of a ‘we’ll get as much as we can, and that’s what we’ll get’ use case.

APUs really are just what AMD calls their CPUs with integrated graphics. In a way, many modern Intel CPUs are also APUs… Of course we’ll look into options from both manufacturers, especially now that AMD is back in the game ‘for real’!

I’ve never seen copper foam used as a heatsink, but it does make sense with the great conductivity of copper and the high surface area the foam offers. I think that yes, the main drawback over a traditional heatsink is that it’ll be harder to force air through, but it’s an interesting concept!

I too, want to both have and eat my cake. An ideal solution would be – I think it was called ‘MXM’? A much smaller variant of PCIe that was supposed to serve as a standard for replacable discrete GPUs in laptops. It never took off, though…

You thank me before I can even say I changed it. You’re welcome :smile:

Also, credit goes to @Dario for the artwork! When I do it, it doesn't look nearly as good...

mock-up

3 Likes

#11

Yeah thats the problem. The upgrade path is only as good as what you can buy on the market. At this point, you cant buy an MXM card as a customer, at least without a huge premium, so the point is largely moot. ASRock even went as far as bundling the MXM card themeselves in their DeskMini barebones.

In addition, MXM also has some compatibility issues for some reason, just because you have a PC with MXM slot and an MXM card, doesnt mean they will work together, while PCIe will work basically 99.9% of the time

1 Like

#12

Another thing that I would push for is a standardized motherboard format, so we can swap the motherboard later. At the moment, the smallest motherboard with a PCIe x16 slot is mini-ITX (17x17 cm / 6.7x6.7 in). However, if you are willing to trade it for an x4 or MXM, then you could downsize to mini-STX (15x14 cm / 5.8x5.5 in), which IMO is not worth the trade-off.

Left: Mini-STX (15x14 cm / 5.8x5.5 in). Right: Mini-ITX (17x17 cm / 6.7x6.7 in)

As a bonus point, there are also some mini-ITX motherboards for the Intel HEDT platform (AMD is not possible due to physical size of Threadripper CPUs), so it would even make Option D possible.

3 Likes

#13

I strongly agree with this!

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#14

If its possible, it would be nice for the mini pc to have a cheaper customization, as nice as it would be to have a dedicated gpu and and tons of ram and storage, myself and many others are looking for alternatives to the Mac mini mainly due to its expensive pricing. Something ~$300- $350 base would make it a lot more open for much of the market

3 Likes

#15

The problem seems to be that you allready can buy a shutle case and build what is hoped for… there Are Many cases that can do that. But we don`t have too Many really small but still reasonable fast mobile parts based htpc devices. We have some really small and those ”really big” but not much in between. This is getting to sound a one of those big ones that we allready have a plenty where to chose.
I did like yhe original in between model, because there just another not those in the market.

0 Likes

#16

There are already really good options for itx mini-pcs on the market right now, such as the Dr Zaber Sentry, Dan a4, and the Loque Ghost S1. I think this pc should use the stx form factor at largest, potentially with pcie 4x support for itx graphics cards. I don’t think mxm is a great idea, because the availability of mxm upgrades is very uncertain, and even when they are available they are very expensive. Many manufacturers also use proprietary versions of the mxm spec that aren’t compatible with other motherboards. I see this pc as competing with the asrock deskmini gtx primarily. Also, as a side note, thunderbolt 3 is really mandatory these days. It is a very significant feature that will only grow in importance over time.

0 Likes

#17

There are already really good options for itx mini-pcs on the market right now, such as the Dr Zaber Sentry, Dan a4, and the Loque Ghost S1.

They are all basically just PC cases where they have to conform to all off-the-shelf products. I am more hoping for something like a Corsair One, where it has a healthy number of off-the-shelf and OEM components made specifically for this product. At the end, you get a product that’s both upgradeable, but more optimal/better than building a PC yourself.

I think this pc should use the stx form factor at largest, potentially with pcie 4x support for itx graphics cards. I don’t think mxm is a great idea

Is there a possibility to use two M.2/PCIe-x4 slots for one GPU?

I am thinking of 2x M.2 to PCIe x8 adapter so you can use a GPU with 8 lanes PCIe 3.0, which is sufficient for most uses.

0 Likes

#18

If it is a SOC based mini, I would like to throw the Intel Xeon D Series processors into the mix. They are a multi-core server/workstation based SOC dedicated to a micro platform scale. They would provide a really good amount of processing power, and come in a multitude of core/thread ranges from 4-56 cores (8-112 threads), but require a dedicated GPU for graphics. I would personally like an 8-core. and would be willing to pays extra for this type of mini.

Intel Xeon D-Series Processors

2 Likes

#19

I see a lot of people voted to have a dedicated GFX card… well if you really want that the PC ain’t gonna be small. The more reasonable option is to have a thunderbolt port or mini DP for a eGPU, which I think can be done and actually maintain the small (hence mini) size of the computer.

1 Like

#20

Sorry. When I considered mini PC from the beginning of the discussion, I was thinking of a size that is comparable / slightly bigger than PC stick, which is about $100 with Win 10 OS that allows you to plug into your TV and use it as a monitor on the spot.

0 Likes

#21

PC stick would lock us to SoC which cant do even any moderate lifting. GFX vote excluded cards so no fear on that. :slightly_smiling_face:

0 Likes