Thinking outside the box

Zotac's ZBOX Nano is a mini-PC
Zotac's ZBOX Nano is a mini-PC
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THEY’VE become slightly smaller and stand vertically rather than horizontally, but on the whole the personal computer has barely changed since the 1980s. It’s still a big, ugly box that sits on or under your desk and plugs into a monitor.

That’s something of an anachronism, given that the uses to which we put these machines have changed beyond recognition. Where once we word-processed documents and crunched spreadsheets, now we listen to music, watch videos and do our banking. All of those tasks can also be accomplished on a tablet or phone, so the big grey box is increasingly redundant.

That’s why they are, at last, being reimagined. Intel, the maker of PC processors and one of the companies with most to lose if traditional computing dies out, is leading the charge on this one: it has created a palm-sized box it calls NUC (Next Unit of Computing) which you can carry around with you and plug into any convenient TV screen, using a conventional HDMI cable. This makes it ideal for screening high definition movies, editing videos, playing games or running a video jukebox.

The NUC can also run conventional Windows programs, but it doesn’t have to. Install a free alternative like OpenElec and you can bolt it to the back of your TV and control it with a zapper. You can route its audio output to your home cinema system.

A Home Theatre PC (or HTPC) set-up such as this is like a custom-built set-top box which can record programmes received through your aerial and stream content from Netflix, the iPlayer and a myriad of other sources. Hook up an optical drive and you can also play DVDs and Blu-Rays, making a separate player unnecessary.

Intel is one of several vendors now turning out these little boxes, which the industry has termed Nettops because they combine the functionality of a netbook and a desktop. They haven’t gravitated to the high street yet but they are available now from specialist computer dealers, for much less than a conventional PC.

They’re often sold as kits or “barebone” boxes to which you add your own choice of processor, memory and storage.

Gigabye and Asus are among those supplying mini systems, and Acer is marketing its Revo range as pre-built units. Perhaps the best value is to be found in Zotac’s Zbox range, available widely online.