Today’s smartphones and tablets are powered by processors that may be small, but are powerful enough to run full desktop operating systems. This isn’t just a marketing claim, as manufacturers are making desktop computers using mobile processors and components. These devices combine the low cost and tiny footprint of these mobile processors with traditional desktop operating systems and capabilities, allowing for miniature computers that are exceptionally portable.
In this article I will compare three PCs that are all available for below $100, featuring three different operating systems: Windows 10, Android, and Chrome OS. Each has a unique form factor, resulting in varying strengths, weaknesses, and features. These small PCs are a great way to turn a TV with an extra HDMI port into a full-fledged computer, and offer both productivity and entertainment options.
Read on to find out more about these three new micro PCs:
Jide Remix Mini (Android)
The Jide Remix Mini is a small form-factor device running a custom version of Android called Remix OS. Created by ex-Google engineers, Remix OS is designed to allow users access to the robust Android app ecosystem, which includes a massive library of productivity and entertainment applications, in a new way: on the desktop.
While the concept of an Android desktop computer or laptop isn’t new, Jide has pushed Android in a new direction by integrating tools and functions users associate with desktop operating systems and overlaying them on the existing Android framework. Remix OS reskins Android to allow users to:
* Run apps in moveable, resizeable windows
* Multitask by running multiple apps simultaneously in those windows
* Configure the OS to expect navigation via mouse and keyboard instead of via touch
* Add standard maximize and minimize controls to windows
* Create a standard desktop experience including a “Start” button function in the bottom left and notifications on the bottom right, as well as a taskbar, folder creation, drag and drop via mouse, etc.
Anyone that has ever used Windows, OS X, or Android will feel immediately at home in Remix OS, down to basic functions like what happens when right-clicking a mouse. Remix OS works with almost all wireless keyboard and mice, and many USB controllers.
The Remix Mini itself is a budget-minded device, packing a 64-bit Allwinner A53 ARM processor that offers decent, but definitely budget-level, performance. This is paired with 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB of local storage. The Remix packs two USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI out for display, audio out, micro-HDMI card slot, and ethernet.
Performance on this device is similar to a budget smartphone. Chrome runs decently enough, though pages default to their mobile versions. Video streaming was smooth at HD resolution without stuttering or freezing, though occasionally running a video and then opening a second app could cause the Remix to stutter. I had no problem simultaneously running Google Docs and loading up Wikipedia or other websites in the Chrome browser, and WordPress editing was functional, if a bit slow.
As interesting and promising as Remix OS is, not everything works perfectly at this point in time. Some windows can be moved or resized easily, and others only by clicking on a certain area of the window; when resizing, some apps will work correctly at any or most window sizes, while others will only display correctly in a couple of predetermined sizes.
Furthermore, despite being an Android-powered device, not all Android applications are compatible with this device. For instance, the HBO Go app loads up, but cannot stream content, while the Google Drive app also loads, but doesn’t allow for file downloads. And, the NBA Jam app crashes immediately. Even with these issues, the Android App library is massive and the vast majority of popular applications run on the Remix Mini.
Among the Android apps that do work is Minecraft: Pocket Edition, which as built-in support and mapping for a wired Xbox 360 controller, and all the classic game emulation programs I tried also worked. I wouldn’t try to run the newest, most graphically intensive 3D Android games on this device, but most controller-supported games appear to work well, including NES, SNES, Genesis, and GBA emulation.
In terms of light productivity, users have the option of Google’s free productivity suite – Sheets, Docs, Slides – or the Microsoft online versions of their Office apps – Excel, Word, PowerPoint – all of which run well on the Remix. With a fully functional Chrome web browser as well as options for other browsers such as Opera, and a wealth of Android apps for editing photos, music, and so on, the Remix gives a lot of functional options for its price.
When considering that Netflix, Amazon Instant, and YouTube also work on the Remix, the combination of options makes the Remix a solid choice for both light productivity and entertainment.
Why Purchase the Remix Mini?
- Price: At $70, this is the cheapest of the three PCs on my sub-$100 list, and it offers a unique experience that combines some of the best elements of mobile Android and traditional desktop operating systems.
- App Library: For those who have a history with Android and the Google Play store or Amazon App store, purchasing a Remix Mini provides instant access to existing applications.
- Versatility: The Remix Mini is easier to use and maintain than a full Windows PC, but offers far more customization and entertainment options than the more locked-down Chromebit does via Chrome OS; the Remix strikes a good balance of user control and ease of use.
Why Avoid the Remix Mini?
- Compatibility: The application compatibility of the Remix Mini with Android applications is fairly good, but not as comprehensive as I’d like or had expected.
- Operating System: What Jide has done with Remix OS is easily the best desktop implementation of Android so far, but in and of itself, that isn’t saying much, as they are innovators in this space; Remix OS is still a work in progress and, like Chrome OS was a few years ago, it has some features that still feel half-baked or partially implemented.
- Performance: While none of the three devices on this list offer blazing fast performance, there is a fairly wide gap between the Allwinner processor in the Remix Mini, and the Intel x5 processor in the Kangaroo, which handles the much steeper overhead of Windows 10 and still offers snappier performance and better graphics capability.
Asus Chromebit (Chrome OS)
The Asus Chromebit is, essentially, the Chrome OS version of Intel’s Compute Stick, and in terms of form factor and design, it has many of the same pros and cons.
Barely larger than a Chromecast dongle, the Chromebit is a stick-sized Chromebox powered by the same Rockchip 3288 processor as many of 2015’s budget Chromebooks, including the Hisense Chromebook, and the Asus 100P “Flip” and C201. It has 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB of eMMC flash storage, and a single USB 2.0 port. It has 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 for wireless connectivity. One end of the device terminates into an HDMI plug designed to either go directly into a display, or connect to a display via an included HDMI extender, to help fit into display devices with cramped access to their HDMI port(s).
Unlike the Chromecast, it is important to note that the Chromebit cannot draw power from a powered USB port on a TV or monitor, but rather must be plugged into an outlet. In addition, it lacks any way to expand its storage space via SD or micro-SD card.
As anyone familiar with Chrome OS will likely tell you, that absence of local storage isn’t really much of an issue because of how the operating system functions. Google has designed Chrome OS to function best while utilizing cloud-based solutions for both apps and data storage, so users are encouraged to store data in Google Drive, and are provided 100 GB of free Drive storage with the Chromebit.
Chrome OS is focused almost entirely on Google’s Chrome Browser and web applications, though there are a small number of local apps as well, and an increasing library of apps that also work while offline; this includes Docs, Sheets and Slides, from Google’s free productivity suite that integrates with Google Drive, as well as Google Play, for playing back saved Play movies and music. Even when offline, the Chromebit can also play back most, but not all, movie and music file types.
Whereas the Kangaroo offers the wide array of options available when using a full Windows 10 PC, the Chromebit is more constrained by design. Chrome OS is an extremely user-friendly operating system that boots up in seconds, and is secure, requiring no virus protection. Work done in Google’s applications will sync up in Google Drive, ensuring that files won’t be “lost”, and the operating system updates automatically without any work needed by the user.
If you can use a Chrome browser, you can manage a Chrome OS device.
That makes the Chromebit ideal for younger or less technologically savvy customers who might benefit from simplicity and ease of use, rather than complexity. It also makes the Chromebit better suited for certain niche applications like operating in a kiosk or public area display.
In terms of the hardware, the Rockchip 3288 is a budget processor that nevertheless offers reasonably good performance paired with 2 GB of RAM. The Chromebit does get warm to the touch while in use, but not as hot as the Kangaroo. It has similar Octane 2.0 benchmarks as the Kangaroo, and will be snappy and responsive running up to about a half-dozen tabs, at which point both the processor and RAM become taxed.
The Chromebit feels solid in the hand and has a nice design to it, though unlike the Kangaroo, it is designed to be hidden away once plugged into a TV or monitor. That said, it is exceptionally portable; I just wish it was able to be powered by a standard micro-USB power adapter or a USB Type C. I suspect that within the next 12-24 months these “stick” computer devices will have switched to USB Type C for their power adapters, at which point they become significantly more portable in that you’d no longer need to have a proprietary cable.
When first booted up, the Chromebit will search for available Bluetooth devices, and because there is only one USB port available, you will need some combination of the following when using the Chromebit:
* Bluetooth Mouse and Bluetooth Keyboard
* Bluetooth Mouse, USB Keyboard
* USB Keyboard, Bluetooth Mouse
* USB Keyboard with integrated trackpad (such as the Logitech K400)
* USB Keyboard, USB Mouse & USB Hub or alternative (such as the Infinite USB) to expand the available USB slots
While Chrome OS features exceptional ease of use, in many ways the Chromebit is a more limited device than the Kangaroo (Windows 10) or Remix Mini (Android) whose rich ecosystems offer a nearly limitless selection of applications. The Chromebit can use Chrome Remote Desktop to access a PC, but it is an inherently limited device designed to get users online quickly and easily. While there are certainly some solid productivity options available, MS Office users will need to use the online web application versions of these programs, and not all Windows applications have free or paid Cloud or Web versions available.
The Chromebit doesn’t support any meaningful local gaming beyond what can run in a Chrome browser – which does include some titles from HumbleBundle, and some game emulation – and it doesn’t support streaming of game content from other sources like Steam. It does support Facebook games or games from Nick Jr.’s website; anything that runs through a browser should work just fine.
It does support web-based versions of most video streaming sites, such as Netflix, HBO, YouTube, and Amazon Instant Video, and full 1080p video playback is no problem on this device. While it isn’t as easy to use for media consumption as a dedicated device like a Chromecast, Apple TV, Fire TV, or Roku, it is also more flexible than those devices for when you also need to be productive.
Why Buy the Asus Chromebit?
- Chrome OS: The Chromebit is by far the easiest device to use of these three, thanks in large part to the simplicity of Chrome OS; the lightning-quick boot times and automatic updates make this a perfect device for younger users or those who are less tech-savvy.
- Form Factor: While both the Kangaroo and Remix Mini are small devices, the Chromebit is truly tiny, designed to plug directly into the display device and remain out of site; this makes it ideal for travel and for anywhere a computer might be useful but needs to have a limited footprint (like a kiosk or in-store display).
- Security: Chrome OS is inherently secure, and outside of abusing Extensions, there’s very little risk of malware, viruses or other problems that can exist both on Android and in Windows.
Why Avoid the Asus Chromebit?
- Hardware Limitations: The single USB port is a limiting factor of the Chromebit, and the absence of a micro-SD card slot limits expansion via external media to that same, single USB 2.0 port.
- Chrome OS: While it is a strength of this device, Chrome OS is also a limiting factor, in that there are very few local applications for the Chromebit, and it has significantly less entertain options than either the Kangaroo or Remix
- Cost: Spending an extra $60 will let you purchase an entire Chromebook, which has much more functionality and can also connect to an external display via HDMI; alternately $15 less or $15 more can buy you an Android or Windows PC, respectively, which arguably more functionality for interested consumers.
Kangaroo Mobile Desktop (Windows 10)
The Kangaroo Mobile Desktop PC offers, by a wide margin, the most functionality of these products, in that it is a full Windows 10 PC, capable of running any Windows application. In addition, it offers an excellent set of features for a small form factor desktop, including two USB ports – one 2.0 and one 3.0 – as well as an onboard battery and a fingerprint scanner.
Packed into a device the size of a large smartphone, the Kangaroo also has a current-generation Intel x5 Atom processor, which is a lot of processing power to have onboard at this price point; the $149 Intel Compute Stick, and its many Chinese knock-offs, use the previous generation Bay Trail Atom processor. While there is not a huge performance gain from Bay Trail to Cherry Trail, this processor does feature significantly improved graphics capability.
The Kangaroo has 19 GB of useable space out of its 32 GB eMMC flash storage, thanks to a clean Windows 10 install free of bloatware, and that storage space is expandable via micro-SD card or through connection of external media through one of the USB ports. Of the three devices I’m looking at here today, the Kangaroo has the most available local storage as well as the the highest Octane 2.0 benchmarks, and is the only one with a USB 3.0 port. That said, it is hard to know how much larger the Windows 10 install might be after a year of OS updates, patches, and fixes.
As a web browsing device, performance is similar to the Asus Chromebit; its Intel processor is faster than the Rockchip processor in the Chromebit, but the additional overhead of running Windows compared to Chrome OS results in a similar browsing experience, which is solid but unexceptional. The Kangaroo offers a substantially better web browsing experience than other low-end Windows PCs using Intel’s newer N3050 Celeron, such as the Acer Cloudbook 11 or HP Stream 11 2015.
For productivity, the Kangaroo is an impressive product, particularly when considering its price point. As a Windows device, it can run the full versions of MS Office applications, though it is somewhat constrained by its RAM and local storage space. It also supports a wide range of web browsing software, along with the PC’s compatibility with VPN, remote desktop, plug and play printing, and so on. While I wouldn’t suggest trying to do video editing on this device, it is a capable unit for working in MS Office applications and for other basic productivity. The fact that this unit is designed to slip into a pocket, has solid WiFi, two USB ports, HDMI out, a detachable dock, and a built-in battery allowing multiple hours of run-time away from AC power all suggest intentional decisions to gear this unit toward productivity. Please note that MS Office 365 is not included with the Kangaroo.
With regard to entertainment options, the Kangaroo is also highly flexible. In addition to streaming content through the web browser of your choice, you can install the Windows Store version of numerous streaming programs like Netflix, and the Kangaroo can handle 1080p playback via streaming or any PC compatible video or music content. It can use iTunes, which is also unique among these devices.
And, as a gaming machine, it supports gaming via Steam, GOG, and Origin as well as game emulation, though more modern AAA games will not work. It is capable of running traditional Minecraft at lower settings, and does a great job running the Minecraft Windows 10 Beta, as well as Hearthstone, but be aware that the unit quickly gets very hot while engaged in gaming activities. Provided you have a sufficiently fast router, or purchase a USB 3.0 Ethernet adapter, you can also stream your Steam games or your Xbox One games to the Kangaroo.
It may seem like the Kangaroo is by far the best choice in this category, and in many ways, it is. Having access to a full Windows 10 desktop PC with this degree of flexibility for only $100 is really impressive. However, there are some drawbacks to the Kangaroo.
While being a full Windows 10 computer has many benefits, it does mean that you’re going to have to do all the things you deal with on a Windows 10 computer: install Windows updates, be cautious of viruses and malware, and so on. While 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage is the standard for sub-$200 Windows laptops and desktops, at this point many applications use enough RAM that multi-tasking on 2 GB of RAM is becoming a challenge. And, again, while 32 GB is sufficient for Windows 10 today, over time and with updates and patches, the Windows OS will likely eat up more and more of that available space. Finally, using this device does require a degree of computer proficiency as it is a full-fledged Windows PC.
Why Buy the Kangaroo Mobile Desktop?
- A Full Windows 10 Desktop: This is a full-fledged PC that you can fit in your pocket, with a reasonable selection of ports and surprisingly good performance.
- Productivity Options: As a Windows 10 PC, this device is packed with potential for productivity.
- Flexible Entertainment: The Kangaroo is the best-suited device for playing local games, game emulation, streaming games from a variety of sources, and full support for playing video and audio content locally and from streaming sources.
Why Avoid the Kangaroo Mobile Desktop?
- Complexity: As a full-fledged Windows 10 PC, the Kangaroo may not be ideal for those looking for simplicity and ease of use; owning this machine requires the user to manage Windows updates, virus protection, and so on.
- Windows 10 Overhead: While 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of local storage are sufficient today, it is likely that the available free space is going to continue to shrink over time, possibly considerably, as Windows 10 is updated.
- Cost: While $99 is a great price for what you get here, if you don’t actually need all the features the Kangaroo offers, the Asus Chromebit and Jide Remix Mini both cost less than the Kangaroo.
Is a desktop PC that costs under $100 really a PC, and are any of these worth your money? In my opinion, the answer is yes to both. However, which of these is right for you depends on your unique needs and use case.
The most versatile device is clearly the Kangaroo, which offers a full Windows 10 PC with a battery built-in and a detachable dock, paired with solid performance from its Intel Atom x5 processor. If your intent is to use one of these devices as you would a traditional desktop PC, but you need something ultra-portable, I would suggest this device. However, if you’re looking for something for less frequent use, or for use by a younger or less tech-savvy person, I’d avoid the Kangaroo, as it does require all the user maintenance that all Windows PCs require, such as managing Windows updates, virus and malware protection, and so on.
For anyone who needs a secure device that offers solid web browsing experience and almost no maintenance, the Asus Chromebit is the way to go. It is small and sleek, and once up and running, exceptionally easy for anyone to use. This is a painless way to attach full web browsing to any display – TV or monitor. However, of the three devices, the Chromebit is also the least versatile, and the single USB port may require users to make an additional purchase just to interact with it.
Finally, for users familiar with Android that love the idea of bringing over their existing app library to a TV or computer monitor, the Remix Mini is an intriguing option. It has great connectivity including ethernet, and offers flexible productivity and entertainment choices. It is also the cheapest of the three, but that price savings comes at the expense of performance; the Mini has the slowest processor of these devices, considerably so when compared to the Intel x5 in particular. And, the custom Android skin and newer 64-bit Allwinner processor have some compatibility issues with applications. I’d recommend this device for existing Android fans that want more flexibility than the Chromebit provides, but are comfortable with some troubleshooting steps in Android.
Have you purchased one of these devices? Let me know your impressions in the comments!
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