Gaming consoles like PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S and Nintendo Switch are great. They are small purpose-built computers that you can put next to your TV and play games on. The only problem? You lock yourself into the console’s game library, and these games often cost a lot more than they do on PC.
For this reason, geeks have been building their own tiny gaming PCs for years, sometimes with custom parts, and sometimes buying them off the shelf as in the case of Zotac and Alienware.
SteamOS 3 and HoloISO
The only problem was that the software just wasn’t there. Windows on the TV, even with some of the more popular third-party interfaces, is simply too difficult to manage. You can’t just hand someone a controller plugged into a Windows machine and expect everything to work. One User Account Control (UAC) error message and it’s all over.
But two things are completely changing this paradigm: Valve’s new SteamOS 3, and the rise of truly powerful integrated graphics.
SteamOS 3 is the operating system running on the Steam deck, and it’s basically an entire game console interface layered on top of Linux. Isn’t that what SteamOS has always been, you ask? Well yes, but with SteamOS 3, Valve has deepened this integration to the point where you almost never need a keyboard, and all the features you want to manage your games and the console itself are presented in a controller-compatible user interface. If you just want to play your Steam games, you’ll probably never see a desktop interface at all.
Before we continue, however, I should note that you cannot officially run SteamOS 3 on any hardware you want (at least not yet). For that, you’ll need to use HoloISO, a community project that lets you install SteamOS 3 on a wide variety of PC hardware. Is this ideal? No, but the reception online has been pretty brilliant.
Best gaming mini PCs
Since we’re trying to make something similar to an x86 game console, it makes sense to keep the price in the $500-600 range. That said, there are some small form factor (SFF) prebuilt gaming PCs that cost significantly more, but are just too cool not to mention, so we’re including them, too.
The devices we’ve selected are mostly powered by AMD Ryzen chips, specifically the AMD Ryzen 7 4800U and 5800U. These two share the same Vega 8 GPU, albeit clocked slightly differently, but the 5800U includes AMD’s updated Zen 3 architecture. To really boil it down, these chips can play many of the most advanced games at 720p, last-gen games at 1080p, and simpler games at 1440p and 4K.
That said, the Ryzen 6800U is likely to find its way into mini PCs late this year or early next year, and this chip features an integrated GPU with AMD’s new RDNA 2 architecture. This chip has only appeared on laptops so far, and initial tests show moderate gains at higher 1080p frame rates, plus a bit more eye candy.
Should you wait? It depends on the types of games you want to play. If you just want to play the latest, most demanding games, an SFF gaming PC would be better. But if you have a large Steam library full of new games, old games, and indie games, these devices will provide one a lot of these titles to the big screen.
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The ASRock 4×4 BOX-5800U SoC Fanned Embedded BOX is a bit pricey at $629.99 for a barebones mini PC, but it comes with the fastest AMD APU you can currently buy in a mini PC. You can equip this PC with up to 64GB of DDR4 RAM, making it a good candidate for a total desktop replacement.
Both Intel and AMD like to play games with processor names, and the Ryzen 5700U is a good example. You’d think it would be the same as the 5800U but clocked a bit lower, but actually it’s a Zen 2 part. It’s still a good processor; it’s almost identical to the 4800U, but with a slight bump in turbo clock speed.
Processor aside, the ASUS PN51-S1 Mini PC is really small. There’s barely enough room for a 2.5-inch drive, but this little guy has several high-speed USB ports plus a USB-C port that can also power a display. This is also a barebones device, so you’ll need to add storage and RAM.
Don’t want a barebones mini PC? Do you want something that is plug and play? The Beelink SER4 Mini PC includes 16 GB of DDR4 RAM and 500 GB of storage space. This one comes with the Ryzen 4800U, but you can save $100 and go with the 4700U model, which is only slightly reduced.
Gigabyte, a well-known brand in gaming PC hardware, has been making its Brix line of mini PCs for several years now. The Gigabyte Brix GB-BRR7H-4800-BWUS Ultra Compact PC Kit comes with a 4800U processor, but like the other barebones boxes, you’ll need to bring your own RAM and storage.
As you can see, the Zotac Magnus One has a larger form factor than the others on this list, and the extra space means you can configure this compact box with up to an RTX 3070 GPU. With this machine you can easily play the latest games in 1080p with high settings, or 4K with some modest concessions here and there.
Look, sometimes you just want the baddest mini PC you can get your hands on, and that’s where Intel’s NUC11 Mini Desktop comes in. Not only does this roughly shoebox size have a desktop-class processor, but it also has room for a discrete GPU (which isn’t included in the price).
The MSI Trident series has been a sleeper hit over the years, providing gamers who wanted an SFF gaming PC without having to source expensive exotic parts. The price tag may seem excessive, but the MSI MEG Trident X 12VTE-029US is ready for 4K gaming right out of the box.