miniPC This is 2015 and thanks to miniaturation and something called ‘Raspberry Pi’ (the non-fattening kind), super low-cost PC’s are now reality. Some go for as low as $5, but most of the decent ones range between $50-100. Still, for the price of a pair of decent shoes, you can have a decent PC or, as they are called in the industry, a Mini-PC.   And, recently, HP began selling a $99 tablet.  Really!

We are talking about fully functional computer, capable of performing most home computing chores and fits in a chassis the size of a USB thumb drive. There is one catch: for some of these PCs, you need an unused monitor or TV with a USB plug to keep it below the $100 price range. But with a used or unused screen, you can get yourself an almost screaming PC.  However, the tablets and laptops don’t require monitors. All of them offer web browsing, cloud-based email and backups, most all apps that run on Android will work on these little powerhouses.  Add a webcam and you can use most video chat and calling services, seamlessly.

Tablets and Chromebooks

Chromebooks  (laptops that run on Google’s Chrome OS) have now begun popping up at $100 price points.  A number of low-cost Android tablets have also popped up on the market, including the HP 7 Plus,which boasts a 7-inch display offers a lowly resolution, at just 1024 x 600 pixels.  The HP’s ARM Cortex-A7 processor runs four cores clocked at 1 GHz each and runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. It is paired with 1 GB of RAM.  It also includes a 2-megapixel main camera and a 0.3-pixel (or VGA) user-facing camera. The tablet includes 8 GB of built-in storage and supports microSD memory cards up to 32 GB.   Among the downsides,  its battery only lasts for  5 hours…which is about half of most tablets.    Download a VoIP app, and you’ll have a low-cost wi-fi based mobile phone as well.  

A Little Bit of Pi

The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card-sized single-board computer developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation with the intention of promoting the teaching of basic computer science in schools.   According to this foundation, over 2 million of these boards have been built and shipped.   It has not only been a hit but it has spawned a surge of low-cost computer hardware applications, including home PCs.  In November 2015, it offered the Pi Zero for a price of ……are you ready for this?……$5.   At the heart of its 65 x 30 millimeter circuit board is a Broadcom BCM2835 application processor, the same as in the Raspberry Pi 1, with a 1GHz ARM11 core. The board holds 512MB of RAM, and the operating system is loaded from micro-SD card.    Earlier in 2015, it introduced a Pi2 version  that costs only $35  but offers better efficiencies, improved audio and smaller size, including compatability with Windows 10 and a substantially faster Quad-Core CPU which could make it a true PC replacement.   It could serve as a low-cost media center, gaming console or a download hub, among other purposes.

Using Raspberry Pi, one California company has fashioned a $9 computer.  It allows users to save documents, surf the Web, play games, and do other computer-y things . The device runs a 1GHz processor, and includes 512MB of RAM, 4GB of storage, and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities. If you attach a keyboard, mouse, or game controller for more functionality, or connect to a monitor via an adapter for VGA or HDMI cables. It soared past its goal of $50,000, earning an impressive $653,000-plus from almost 12,950 backers in its first week. For $9, supporters can get their own computer, expected to ship in December or January. An additional $10 will get you a 3,000mAh 3.7V LiPo battery pack, or the VGA adapter; an HDMI adapter will cost a total of $24.

 

How to Buy One

Currently, there are  number of flavors (and prices) of low-cost single-board PCs available. They run on a number of operating systems, but I recommend either a Linux-based system or, more preferably, Android 4.2.   Hey, I’m an Android fan!  Some of the decent Mini-PC bundles out there include:

Android Mini-PC MK802, is sold on Amazon for about $53 and is an all-purpose general computer that runs the Android operating system or open-source Ubuntu Linux. The Mini-PC by Rikomagic looks like a USB flash drive, and plugs directly into your TV.  The more powerful Android 4.2 version costs closer to $90.

Cozyswan –  Sold on Amazon for between $41-$76.  It is a  8G mini PC TV Dongle, Quad-Core RK3066 1.6GHz processor, 1GB RAM, 8GB Internal SD storage, Google Android 4.2, HDMI, 1080P, integrated WiFi and Bluetooth for $42.  (2GB RAM costs about $30 more than the base model)

CanaKit – Is also sold on Amazon and runs about $78.  CanaKit  includes everything you need to get up and running within minutes, along with the new 512 MB Raspberry Pi.  It comes with a 8 GB SD Card pre-loaded with “NOOBS” (New Out Of Box Software) that lets you connect and be up and running immediately.

UDOO offers a complete PC bundle but uses both Raspberry Pi as well as Arduino, which is a a type of processor used in network applications.

Utilite offers a more advanced and power processor that comes with a Single-core CPU, 512MB RAM, 4GB micro-SD, HDMI, GbE, although you need to spend an additional $50 to get WiFi capability.

Zealz GK802 Android Mini-PC is a bit more powerful and expensive quad-core Mini PC that runs between $70-$90 on Amazon.  It is especially adaptable for use with streaming video — sort of a Google Chromecast dongle on steroids.

Some additional Mini-PCs on the horizon include the Favi Smartstick which is also found on Amazon in the $50-$80 price range and the UG008 that includes wifi for about $50.  And there’s also the Chromebit…….yes, we aren’t making that up.  If you are looking for low-cost computing, you’ve got to acquaint yourself with Chrome.

Chromebooks

Google-devised Chrome OS is a low-cost challenge to Microsoft.  It relies upon the computing power of the Cloud to provide all of the functionalities that Microsoft historically offered with PC-based applications.  Google continues to add features, including Android apps, to make this a very functional OS.  Teamed up with a decent CPU, this operating system offers some of the best value propositions in the home computing sector.  If you are ready to part with closer to $200, you could snap up one of a number of Chromebooks, which are laptop computers that rely upon software found on the Cloud.  Walmart recently made the Hisense Chromebook available for $149.  It comes with a decent CPU that rates favorably with Intel’s Celeron chip.    Asus markets a Chromebit for about $100 which is the equivalent of a souped-up thumbdrive that, when connected to a monitor, effectively functions as a desktop computer.