There have been few watershed moments in the history of the PC formfactor: There was, of course, the tectonic-plate shift that moved us from AT to ATX. And there was the meteor-strike from Shuttle that created powerful and fast yet small computers, legitimizing the small-formfactor PC in power-users’ eyes.
AOpen’s new Mini is far too new to declare it a major shift in PC formfactors, but our experience with this wee machine leads us to believe it has the potential to spark a revolution.
That’s because this AOpen Mini PC is just so frickin’ cool. Not cool in the way that two burly 512MB GeForce 7800 GTX cards slicing through a game is cool. Not even cool like a dual, dual-core machine transcoding a DVD in five minutes. No, the AOpen Mini is more like the cool of those miniaturized RC cars, or cool like, well, Apple’s Mac Mini.
In fact, the similarities between Apple’s and AOpen’s Minis are so uncanny, we’re seriously wondering when Steve Jobs will let loose the lawyers of war. (Apple successfully lawyered a clone of the iMac off the market years ago.) That the AOpen Mini was code-named Pandora might have special significance if the Apple legal SWAT team shows up.
Be that as it may, the AOpen Mini PC is an amazing balance of miniaturization and user-friendliness. We expected the Mini to be horrible to wrench on, but it’s an easy unit to crack open. To get at its innards, you unfasten four screws on the bottom and pry off the aluminum shell. A slot fed DVD drive and parallel ATA hard drive are attached to the lid. Inside, a motherboard sporting Intel’s 915G chipset, a SO-DIMM slot, and a Socket 479 CPU give you some upgrade options—including whatever you can jam into the PC’s single mini PCI slot.
AOpen is selling the unit two ways: as a standard bare-bones configuration, to which you add your own CPU, RAM, and HD; or as a fully outfitted machine, such as the one reviewed here, sold by resellers such as Voodoo PC. AOpen expects Mini machines with a Celeron M and Windows XP to cost around $500, while open-source aficionados can shave off about $100 from that price by going with Linux.
We tested the Mini with the hottest processor it’ll take: a 1.73GHz Pentium M 740 riding the 533MHz front-side bus. A 60GB 2.5-inch parallel drive and half a gig of DDR RAM completed the configuration.
Our Mini’s performance wasn’t great when compared with our zero-point Athlon 64 FX-55 box, but we didn’t expect a rig this small to really compete with a full-tilt SLI Athlon 64. In SYSmark2004 it turned in a decent, but by no means great, 123 score. To add some perspective, the Pentium M-equipped Puget Systems PC we reviewed in our Holiday 2005 issue pulled down 179, while our October 2005 Lean Machine with its Athlon 64 3000+ and 1GB of RAM spit out just 155. (Amazingly, the Mini managed to run our Divx encoding gauntlet faster than our Lean Machine.)
Clearly, this isn’t just some pathetic Transmeta CPU machine. It’s more than capable as an Internet browsing box, can handle most office chores, and is even capable of some photo editing—if you add more RAM.
The Mini is far from perfect, but as a version 1.0 product, it’s pretty compelling. We can think of at least one improvement for the second version: more USB ports, especially on the side or front. Two USB ports aren’t enough—that limits your peripherals to just a mouse and keyboard. We’d also like to see a design that includes an nVidia MXM module slot, so a graphics upgrade is possible. As is, the Mini’s not a viable gaming rig, but it could be with a GeForce Go 7800 Go GTX. (Talk about a lightweight LAN party companion!) Our final suggestion is that future versions of the Mini have separate channels for the optical and IDE drives, to eliminate the potential for a performance bottleneck during heavy use.
But who are we kidding? You’re not going to buy the Mini to play Quake 4 or rip your entire DVD collection. You’re going to buy it to connect to your HDTV, or to hide in a corner of your living room. And to those ends, the Mini is ideal.
--Gordon Mah Ung
Month Reviewed: February 2006
+ Blue Bubble Gum Soda: Small and capable of a few upgrades.
- Turkey and Gravy Soda: Not enough USB ports and lacking a discrete graphics option.