Looking for Linux Mini PC recommendations

Mintbox Mini

Even though I do most of my blogging from a MacBook Air and use a Windows 10 PC in the shack for SDR work, I’m a huge fan of Linux.

Over the past decade, I’ve used a number of Linux distributions including Puppy Linux, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and Raspian.

The past few years, I’ve been doing most of my Linux work with a Raspberry Pi running Raspian. I probably own ten or more Raspberry Pi models; some have one dedicated task (like the Raspberry Pirate, my ADS-B feeder, or one that feeds LiveATC) while others, like the Pi4 4GB models, are serving as primary personal computers for my daughters. I’ve been trying to up my command line game so I can continue teaching it to my daughters–the Pi has been perfect for this.

Why a mini PC?

While I love the Raspberry Pi, I would like a dedicated device in the shack that sports more horsepower and a better integrated sound card. I also want something compact.

In the past, I have, of course, resurrected old PCs by installing Linux and I’ve even turned my primary shack PC into a Windows/Linux dual boot system. I’m not the biggest fan of dual boot, though, because I have run into problems when I needed to do a full re-install of Windows and/or Linux–all of that partition management gets tricky for me. I’ve even found a few PCs (guessing it’s the BIOS) that reject the dual boot loading system.

I simply don’t have the desktop real estate for another revived desktop or tower PC.

Spoiled for choice

I like the idea of a Mini PC dedicated to Linux but there are a dizzying array of devices on the market ranging in price from $100-$700. I don’t need a lot of horsepower, just enough to run SDR apps, potentially playback spectrum recordings, stream videos, and occasionally manipulate graphics and images. The Pi can do many of these tasks to an extent, but it’s not always terribly stable.

I’ve been tempted by this mini PC because the reviews seem positive (although I don’t always trust Amazon reviews) and the price is right at $129.

The Lenovo ThinkCentre M90n IoT

I’ve also read positive comments from folks who’ve loaded Ubuntu on a base version of the Lenovo ThinkCentre M90n IoT.

Of course, I know I can also buy Mini PCs that have Linux pre-loaded and part of the proceeds support development of the distro like the Mintbox Mini pictured at the top of this page. I do like the idea of my purchase directly supporting the distro.

I also like the Intel NUC, but once configured it can be a bit pricey for my purposes. I don’t want to exceed $300.

Any recommendations?

If you have any advice, I’m all ears! I’m especially interested in any first-hand experience with a Mini PC model running Linux. Please feel free to comment with your suggestions and links.

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13 thoughts on “Looking for Linux Mini PC recommendations

  1. Franco Venturi

    Thomas,
    since you list “running SDR apps” as one of your main use cases in deciding the purchase of the mini PC, here are a few factors you may want to consider:

    – SDR apps typically perform a significant amount of DSP/FFT work (to display the spectrum, waterfall, for filtering, decimation, etc), which mostly means floating point calculations; because of this I would recommend that you consider floating point performance as an important factor in your decision

    – one of the most common libraries for FFT used by many of these SDR apps is FFTW; that library is extensively optimized to take advantage of special sets of floating point instructions only available on certain CPUs, namely the AVX set of instructions for the x86/x64 family, and (perhaps to a lesser extent from what I can tell) the NEON set of instructions on the ARM chips

    – I honestly don’t know much about ARM chips (I have my collections of Raspberry Pi’s too, but I never really looked at their floating point performance; other readers may know better)

    – for the x86/x64 chips, the problem is that the Celeron (and similar) processors do not have much for floating point, and I am afraid that a system like the Lenovo you looked at might disappoint you

    – if I were you, I would try to go for a system with an i3/i5 (or similar) processor, because they have the AVX instruction set; they will consume more power, but since you are looking at mini PC, you won’t have to worry about battery lifetime (but if you are looking at getting a fanless system, power consumption will be an important factor)

    – the i3/i5 systems cost a bit more, and for the maximum amount you want to spend the choices are rather limited, but there are a few tricks to try to save some money

    – one way is to go for a system with an AMD Ryzen, instead of Intel i3/i5
    – another way is to look for a refurbished system from a well known vendor like Dell or HP; I see Amazon now sells those too; the savings can be significant, and if they come with some sort of warranty, that might be a decent option too
    – another way is to monitor one of those ‘deals’ site, like slickdeals; some times a very good bargain pops up there, but you have to very quick to decide to go for it and act on that
    – finally, if you feel ‘brave’, there are some very cheap mini PCs from the usual asian sites (for instance AliExpress), but you have to figure out what to do if there is any problem with the hardware

    I myself have been using this fanless mini PC for about a couple of years (and the previous one was a mini PC as well), run Linux on it as my only OS, and I am pretty happy with it (it is my only PC so I splurged on it and got a system with an i7 CPU, so I paid more than $300 for it)

    Hope this helps, and let me know if you have any questions.

    73,
    Franco – K4VZ

    Reply
  2. Bob

    I use to build full size desktops. Several years ago I decided to try an Intel NUC. I will never look back! It is above your price point but you may find some with the earlier CPU models still selling on Amazon. Mine is a little larger than two decks of playing cards, has and abundance of USB ports, has an i5 processor, and runs anything I throw at it. It is small enough that you can mount it on the back of your monitor if you chose to do so.

    Reply
  3. Dan

    Just choose the distro you are comfortable with or has all the latest software packages you want. I personally use Arch Linux because it has pretty much any package you would want with the AUR. No fussing about with PPAs.

    Reply
  4. Bill Lee

    Skim the software bulletin Distrowatch.com every Monday,
    And see their vast indexing of types of LInuxes.

    Since you want the minimal box, most used computer shops are out.

    Skim back postings of https://liliputing.com, though it is mostly announcements of “new” announcements and some review.s

    Reply
  5. Kobaljov

    Maybe check the Fanlesstech, it is mostly about news of the new models (of fanless PCs) but includes some links to external reviews also.

    Reply
  6. Dan

    I would like to get the PC counterpart to my Mac mini. The AT desktop I built needs to go away. I run radio apps with it and that’s about it, I have the need for at least 8 USB ports. I will be interested reading the replies. Thank you for the post.

    73, Dan KM6CQ

    Reply
  7. Arthur Ascii

    Trust in anything Lenovo has been long lost. Try Googling about it’s
    inbuilt spyware both it’s hard and software.

    Mintbox is probably your best bet.

    Reply

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