What I learned when I replaced my cheap Pi 5 PC with a no-name Amazon mini desktop

Two cheapo Intel mini PCs, a Raspberry Pi 5, and an Xbox controller for scale.
Enlarge / Two cheapo Intel mini PCs, a Raspberry Pi 5, and an Xbox controller for scale.
Andrew Cunningham

I recently tried to use a Raspberry Pi 5 as a regular desktop PC. The experiment wasn’t a failure—I was able to use a Pi to get most of my work done for a few days. But the device’s performance, and especially the relative immaturity of the Linux’s Arm software ecosystem, meant that there were lots of incompatibilities and rough edges.

One of the problems with trying to use a Pi 5 as a regular desktop computer is that, by the time you’ve paid for the 8GB version of the board, a decent active cooler and case, and (ideally) some kind of M.2 storage attachment and SSD, you’ve spent close to a couple of hundred dollars on the system. That’s not a ton of money to spend on a desktop PC, but it is enough that the Pi no longer feels miraculously cheap, and there are actually other, more flexible competitors worth considering.

Consider the selection of sub-$200 mini desktop PCs that litter the online storefronts of Amazon and AliExpress. Though you do need to roll the dice on low-to-no-name brands like Beelink, GMKTec, Firebat, BMax, Trigkey, or Bosgame, it’s actually possible to buy a reasonably capable desktop system with 8GB to 16GB of RAM, 256GB or 512GB of storage, a Windows 11 license, and a workaday x86-based Intel CPU for as little as $107, though Amazon pricing usually runs closer to $170.

In a fit of curiosity, I bought two of these systems to experiment with. We’re still talking about no-frills, low-performance computing. But can these little PCs succeed where the Pi 5 let me down?

Oops! All E-cores

The "Intel Processor" branding has replaced Pentium and Celeron in these kinds of low-end systems.
Enlarge / The “Intel Processor” branding has replaced Pentium and Celeron in these kinds of low-end systems.

Junky, low-performance, generic mini PCs have been a thing for a long time, but within the last year or so, they’ve gotten a lot better because Intel’s cheapest, slowest processors have also gotten a lot better.

The one you’ll see the most often is the Intel Processor N100 (remember, Intel now uses “Intel Processor” for Intel processors that might have been called Pentium or Celeron in years past). They’re quad-core chips that use a cluster of four small, high-efficiency E-cores, the exact same cores Intel uses in most of its current-gen desktop and laptop processors. Unlike the Intel Core chips, these Intel Processors don’t include any large, fast P-cores to do heavy lifting.

But those E-cores are surprisingly decent compared to the old Atom or Celeron chips that used to go into these kinds of systems.

Intel has compared its E-cores’ performance to those of its 6th-generation Core CPUs, codenamed Skylake (head-to-head performance comparisons show the N100 running a bit slower, generally). But Skylake-ish performance is plenty for browsing and office work even in 2024, and the N100 is faster than older 4000-through 6000-series Pentium and Celeron chips by double-digit percentages in both single- and multi-core benchmarks, and they’re significantly faster than a Pi 5. All this while still being considerably more power-efficient than Skylake (or its many, many iterations) ever was.

The GPU is also an improvement; with just 24 of Intel’s GPU execution units (EUs), it’s significantly slower than the three-year-old Intel Iris Xe integrated GPU (80 or 96 EUs, depending on the processor you get), and even an eight-year-old integrated GPU like the Intel HD 520 can beat it sometimes. But it’s at least a reasonably modern graphics architecture that benefits from the same ongoing driver improvements as other Intel GPUs.

There are a few other riffs on this same basic chip that can be workable when the price is right. The Intel Processor N95 is the same chip but with 16 graphics EUs instead of 24; the price difference is usually small enough that I’d just go for the N100, but you’re talking about the difference between a “very, very, very slow” GPU and one that is merely “very, very slow.” Losing those EUs is not likely to break the experience.

There’s also the Core i3-N300 and N305, which jump from four E-cores to eight and 24 EUs to 32. That’s a performance gain worth considering if you can get it, but both chips are rarer in mini PCs and quite a bit more expensive when you can find them. Our goal is to be price-competitive with a Pi 5-plus-accessories, and $240$300 is well outside that. Once you get above $200, chips like the Ryzen 5 5500U also become an option; they’re older and use more power, but they still include better CPUs and GPUs than any of the Alder Lake-N chips.

Other iterations of the chip include the N97 (same CPU and GPU core counts but higher CPU and GPU clock speeds than the N100, for some reason), and N200 (same CPU as the N100, 32 GPU EUs). These tend to be rarer and/or more expensive than the N100 or N95, but if the price is the same or similar, they’re slightly better chips. Stay away from the N50, which only has two CPU cores.

Assuming, as we did, that you zero in on the N100 as the most-prevalent of these processors, you’ll also find configurations that use either DDR4 or DDR5. We picked one of each to see what, if any, difference the extra RAM made, though again, the GPU is so slow that extra memory bandwidth won’t necessarily speed it up a ton.

Why a low-end mini desktop?

The thing I ultimately like about a low-end bargain-basement desktop compared to a low-end bargain-basement laptop is that as long as it’s fast enough, you the user retain enough control over how the system looks and acts that it doesn’t have to feel cheap and bad in day-to-day, minute-to-minute use. On a cheap laptop, you’re dealing with cheap construction, a cheap screen, a cheap keyboard, and a cheap trackpad. The consequences of your low budget are always staring you right in the face.

With a desktop, you still control your external accessories, and you can have a comfortable experience at a wide range of prices. Spend $80-ish on a decent keyboard and mouse—I like the Logitech M650 mouse pretty well, and you could go with either a wired mechanical keyboard like the Keychron C3 or a Bluetooth keyboard like the Logitech K380s—plus $120$200 on a 24- or 27-inch USB-C monitor, and you’ve got an affordable all-in-one system that looks and feels fairly pleasant to use (and is also more modular and flexible than a budget all-in-one).

Even within a severely constrained budget, you do have other choices when it comes to low-cost computing. Used, open-box, and refurbished desktops are readily available at or under this same price and can be more powerful and eco-friendly.

But these N100 boxes and their ilk do have the benefit of being fully modern computers that meet Windows 11’s system requirements, if that’s important to you. And it’s also easier to buy a whole bunch of them if you need them in bulk, whereas used and refurbished PCs are usually more limited in quantity. And for lightweight home server use, having a pair of built-in Ethernet ports (as some of these systems do) can be useful.

Personally, I mostly like to play with these things because I find them entertaining. Not that these systems are remotely comparable to a Mac mini, but I think it’s sort of grimly hilarious that there are full-fledged, brand-new self-contained desktop systems with 16GB of memory and 512GB of storage sold for less money than the $200 Apple will charge you for either of those two upgrades (let alone the $400 it costs to do both). They’re not good for everything, but if you’re willing to experiment a bit, they give you a lot for your money.

What I used

My favorite of the two PCs I tried was the Bosgame B100. There are lots of subtle differences to consider.
Enlarge / My favorite of the two PCs I tried was the Bosgame B100. There are lots of subtle differences to consider.
Andrew Cunningham

There are truly dozens of these mini PCs, even once you exclude the ones with older Pentium, Celeron, and Atom chips in them (and you really should exclude them; no amount of money they save is worth the performance you give up, since the N95/N97/N100 don’t have a ton of speed to spare).

I’ll tell you about the ones I bought, but in case those models go away or aren’t quite what you want, here are a few of the differentiators:

  • USB-C and power: Most of these come with a USB-C port, but pay attention to what it does. On some boxes, it’s used exclusively for power and can’t be used for data or display output. In others, it can be used to power the box while also handling DisplayPort and USB speeds. Some of the latter type also have a separate proprietary barrel-style power jack that you can use instead of USB-C if you want to keep the port free. I have USB-C monitors with USB hubs built in, and I prefer boxes that can do everything over USB-C so you only need to connect one cable to the box to make it work.
  • RAM capacity: These usually come with 8GB, 12GB, or 16GB of RAM, typically installed in a single RAM slot or in some cases soldered to the motherboard. For people who are just doing browsing and email on a single monitor, 8GB is still fine. But the price difference is small enough that it rarely costs much to buy a little more.
  • RAM type: Most of these desktops still use DDR4, but a few use DDR5. In theory, DDR5’s extra bandwidth will help a bit with graphics performance. In practice, these GPUs are so slow (and already so bandwidth constrained by single-DIMM memory setups) that it’s probably not worth paying much for DDR5.
  • Storage type and capacity: 256GB and 512GB SSDs are the most common; buy what you need, but as with the RAM, the price difference between the two is often as little as $10. Stay away from eMMC storage—look for either SATA SSDs or (ideally) PCIe/NVMe SSDs. What you get won’t be name-brand or high-quality, but you might as well get all the speed you can.
  • Wi-Fi and Bluetooth: You’ll find systems that advertise both Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6, and they rarely get more specific about it. The Wi-Fi 5 adapters will be older and slower but potentially better-supported if you’re going to load Linux or some other non-Windows OS; the Wi-Fi 6 adapters are newer and faster but can be from more obscure, non-Intel companies.
  • LAN ports: Most boxes have at least one and many have two, which is potentially useful if you’re looking to turn one of these into a networked appliance. You’ll also find both 1Gbps and 2.5Gbps ports.
  • Other ports: Three or four USB-A ports and a pair of HDMI ports are nearly universal on these boxes, most of which advertise their ability to work with up to three monitors. The third display output is more flexible—it’s a USB-C port on one of the models I bought and a full-size DisplayPort on one of the others.
  • Design: This is the most subjective of these categories, and it’s also probably the biggest compromise you’ll make. Nearly all of the boxes are ugly or ergonomically awkward in some way, and some use rough 3D-printed parts with visible layer lines. You can at least try to find one where the no-name logo on the top is confined to a small corner rather than big enough to be seen from space.

The two systems I ended up settling on were the Bosgame B100 ($170 shipped, after coupon) and the GMKtec NucBox G2 ($180 shipped). The main difference I was looking for was DDR4 and DDR5 so I could measure the performance difference between the two, but both ended up demonstrating a lot of the other differences between these little computers.

The Bosgame system ended up being my favorite of the two, with a single USB-C port that could handle power/display/data and a design that, while not great (why on earth do so many of these systems put a CLR CMOS pinhole on the front of the computer), is reasonably understated and inoffensive. It used an older Wi-Fi module that ended up agreeing better with the various Linux distributions I tried, and had a full-length M.2 2280 NVMe SSD (from “GOFATOO,” whoever that is) that wouldn’t be hard to upgrade if you ever needed to.

The GMKtec system has the benefit of a pair of LAN ports and DDR5, plus an LED ring around the bottom that was (surprisingly!) customizable in the BIOS. But its USB-C port only handles power, and it’s a lot chunkier and more awkward-looking; its lid is also clearly 3D-printed, giving it a rough, homemade look. It also used an oddball M.2 2242 SATA SSD and doesn’t leave room for something longer, which will make upgrades or replacements more difficult.

Comes with Windows 11 Pro!

One of the neat things about all of these mini PCs is that they tend to come with a Windows 11 or Windows 11 Pro license, despite costing around what a retail copy of Windows 11 Pro currently goes for. Both installs on my systems were activated out of the box just like any prebuilt Windows PC.

That said, there are good reasons to re-install a fresh copy of Windows 11 from a USB drive instead of using the installation that comes preinstalled.

Very occasionally, these mini PCs will ship with malware installed out of the box. But even without that, you’ll sometimes encounter weirdness; neither of my boxes asked for Microsoft account sign-in. I’m not complaining, but it’s a sign that these installs have been modified, even if there are totally easy and innocuous ways to make that particular tweak (contrary to what some online influencers would have you believe). The GMKTec box also seemed to believe it had a touchscreen installed, possibly a sign that the install image had been built on a touchscreen-enabled PC and then installed on the mini PCs (there’s nothing nefarious about this; it’s just weird and a bit careless). The GMKTec box also had Secure Boot disabled out of the box—I could enable it, but it raises the possibility that the Windows install could have been modified in a malicious way.

Using the Windows install that comes out of the box is probably fine on most of these, but blowing away the existing install and starting fresh is the surest way to exorcise any gremlins. Follow our guide to further clean up the default “clean install” if you want to minimize Microsoft’s more annoying pop-ups, reminders, and upsell attempts.

Do make sure you grab the drivers you need first; Bosgame and GMKtec both, at least, offered driver bundles that cleared all the exclamation points in Device Manager, which I supplemented with newer generic graphics and wireless drivers from Intel’s site. Store that driver bundle in a safe place just in case the no-name company that made your PC up and vanishes six months from now.

I didn’t test Windows 10 on either of these boxes, but if you prefer it to Windows 11, it ought to work fine with the same drivers.

Good-enough speed, reliable compatibility

Setup can be a little painful; downloading updates and apps can peg the CPU at 100% for tens of minutes at a time.
Enlarge / Setup can be a little painful; downloading updates and apps can peg the CPU at 100% for tens of minutes at a time.
Andrew Cunningham

These N100 PCs don’t make a great first impression, because the first thing they do out of the box in Windows is try to install updates—both from Windows Update and, because this is how Microsoft updates most built-in apps and a few system components, from the Microsoft store.

These tasks peg the N100’s CPU usage immovably at 100 percent, indicating that the CPU is definitely holding the rest of the system back, and you can feel it. Add some other external task, like syncing a large Dropbox or OneDrive folder for offline use, and you’ll find that the PC will need at least an hour or two to complete these routine tasks.

Once you're setup, CPU usage settles into a somewhat more comfortable groove. There's not a lot of headroom, but there's enough to keep things feeling mostly fluid.
Enlarge / Once you’re setup, CPU usage settles into a somewhat more comfortable groove. There’s not a lot of headroom, but there’s enough to keep things feeling mostly fluid.
Andrew Cunningham

Once that’s all settled, though, the N100 mostly fades into the background, and typical desktop use is mostly fluid and snappy. You feel the lack of P-cores (and/or the lack of high Turbo Boost clock speeds beyond 3.4 GHz) the most when launching apps, snapping windows, or loading large files or heavy web pages. This is the exact kind of work that benefits from the short bursts of extreme speed that P-cores are tuned to provide, and you do feel the absence of that performance here, even if it doesn’t wreck the experience.

The other issue is storage speed. Generally speaking, even the systems that use PCIe SSDs are only connecting those to the rest of the system with a single lane of PCIe 3.0 bandwidth; the Pi 5 uses a single PCIe 2.0 lane by default, though most testers and reviewers have found that it can generally be run in PCIe 3.0 mode without problems.

In our testing, that will limit your maximum read and write speeds to something like 800MB/s—a shade better than the 560-ish MB/s you’ll get from a good SATA drive, but not by much. The GOFATOO SSD that shipped with the Bosgame box ran closer to 600MB/s. Upgrade the SSD for extra capacity if you want it or if you just prefer a name-brand drive with a warranty to a no-name NVMe stick, but don’t overspend in the name of getting more speed. These boxes just can’t give you much.

Also worth noting: Windows 11 was the only operating system I could run on the Bosgame box if I wanted sleep and wake to work normally. Other OSes either straight-up crashed or failed to function normally after waking up.

Linux ups and downs

If you’re more familiar and comfortable with Windows, you’ll be more comfortable with these mini PCs because they can run Windows—the Raspberry Pi is a creature of Linux, and Linux is the only thing it can really use, despite a couple of projects that can get a barely functional version of Windows running. But even if you’re a Linux person, there’s a strong argument to be made for going with one of these N100 boxes instead of the Pi, at least if you’re thinking mostly about performance and mainstream app compatibility.

That comes down to a few things: more memory, better CPU and GPU performance, and the wide world of x86-compatible Linux software. Performance on the Pi 5, especially with a decent overclock, is tolerable. Linux performance on the N100 is, as in Windows, often decent enough that you can often go for several minutes without thinking about the machine’s performance.

The benefit of Pis for Linux desktop use is that they are stable, well-known and extensively documented boards with a reasonably well-resourced company making sure that everything necessary to support essential hardware (graphics, networking, audio) is available and functioning properly. Additionally, most alternate Linux distros for the Pi will either exist downstream of the Raspberry Pi OS or will be able to target the Pi 5 specifically so that they all work out of the box with no problems. It takes time for new hardware support to roll out across the entire Pi ecosystem, but eventually, you get to a point where “what do I want to run” becomes the big question and “can I run it in the first place” is less salient.

The downside of installing Linux on these low-end Intel systems is that they’re PCs with random, relatively new hardware inside, and Linux’s compatibility problems are generally at their worst when faced with random, relatively new PC hardware.

I found that Ubuntu 23.10 generally worked as expected on both systems, with functioning Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and graphics acceleration out of the box. Suspend-and-resume didn’t really work because weird phantom keyboard input would keep me from typing my password into the login screen after waking the system up, and the Bluetooth mouse could become unresponsive occasionally. But the system was mostly fine during active use, which made those issues reasonably easy to work around, and it’s possible that the problem was specific to my hardware (namely a USB-C monitor getting power, USB, and display data from the box through its USB-C port).

All of that said, once Ubuntu was up and running on the N100, things ran as smoothly as they had in Windows, give or take a bit of graphical choppiness. The biggest problem, sleep issues aside, was the font and icon and app-specific tweaks I had to make to slightly increase the size of the UI on my 4K displays, since operating system-wide “fractional scaling” remains problematic in Linux (some things are broken, some things are blurry, some things are both). Most Windows PCs these days seem to ship with 125 percent or 150 percent scaling enabled, and to Microsoft and its developer community’s credit, those settings mostly just work these days, a major improvement over where things were a decade or so ago.

Linux Mint 21.3, which ships the older 5.15 LTS kernel, needed a kernel update before graphics acceleration would work on the Bosgame box and before graphics acceleration and Wi-Fi would work on the GMKtec box. Even once the GPU was working in most of Mint, Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome remained steadfastly un-accelerated. Even ChromeOS Flex didn’t support the oddball Realtek Wi-Fi on the GMKtec system, though the other hardware all seemed to be working fine; Flex also failed to wake up normally from sleep on either box.

Better buys, depending on what you’re looking for

There is value to these cheap boxes, either as network-attached appliances, testbeds, Pi replacements, secondary systems, or primary PCs for low-demand users.
Enlarge / There is value to these cheap boxes, either as network-attached appliances, testbeds, Pi replacements, secondary systems, or primary PCs for low-demand users.
Andrew Cunningham

Let’s not discount the strength of Raspberry Pis: They’re phenomenally well-supported boards, and everything from the first-gen Pi to the Pi 5 is still getting first-class software support from the Pi Foundation. There’s a big software and accessory ecosystem around each board, so it’s reasonably simple to transform your Pi from a low-powered server to an emulation box to a makeshift baby monitor to a smart home hub to an educational tinkering machine and back again. And if all you need is cheap, basic computing power, there’s no Intel box that can match the price of the $60 4GB Pi 5, let alone the $35 of the 1GB Pi 4 or the $15 of the Pi Zero 2 W.

It’s only when you start talking about the Pi as a general-purpose computer that it starts to reach beyond its grasp, even accounting for the improved performance of the Pi 5.

These cheap Amazon and AliExpress Intel PCs have a lot of problems, too. You’re unlikely to ever get any kind of ongoing BIOS or software support, and they come with bargain-basement SSDs and wireless modules that tend to be either very old or obscure and harder to find software support for. They’re not very attractive, they can be difficult to upgrade, and if one breaks outside of your return window, you’ll be lucky if you can find someone who will do anything about it for you. When running Linux, the systems may or may not go to sleep and wake up properly, and some distros (particularly LTS versions) may not work properly without a kernel update.

But if you’re actually looking for a cheap functional everyday PC and not just a hobby project, these oddball no-name computers do give you a lot for your money. Arm software is on the rise, but in the here and now (and for the foreseeable future), there’s simply no substitute for the app compatibility of an x86 processor, whether you’re trying to run the same Linux distros you run on the Pi or you want to run Windows 10 or 11.

Click Here To Read More

Related posts