Mini PC makers are penetrating the home entertainment and car electronics sectors.
Suppliers in China continue to capitalize on the miniaturization trend to push mini PCs as an alternative to traditional desktop, all-in-one and portable units, including laptops and netbooks. They highlight compact form factor, low power consumption and heat attributes, and comparable performance to all computer types.
Leveraging convergence, some companies are also breaking into the home entertainment segment, positioning the category as an option to high-definition media players and set-top boxes. They believe this application market has the biggest potential for the line.
At present, mini computers are also positioned as basic home theater PCs. Most can support 720p resolution, while those that adopt the Nvidia Ion Platform can easily handle 1080p. The latter, however, is priced much higher and remains a niche in its class. Only a few local makers offer such models.
Suppliers likewise target use with car PCs, highlighting the line’s versatility further.
Mainstream local enterprises follow Intel’s roadmap, particularly the Atom processors and their complementary chipsets.
The N450 CPU is currently the most widely adopted in the segment. The model supports 64-bit operation, faster than the 32-bit of the earlier N270. In addition, the former is only a third of the size and consumes half the power of its predecessor, even as it integrates a memory controller and a graphics core. Mini computers that use the N270 are now considered low-end.
Prior to the Atom, the line tapped into the laptop platform, adopting its CPU, HDD, memory, graphics card and motherboard. This, however, brought heat dissipation problems. In addition, the use of such components had an impact on costs, weakening the category’s competitiveness against traditional desktop models.
The sector therefore remains a minority even as netbooks helped lower its technology threshold and attracted a number of consumer electronics makers to the segment dominated by industrial and brand PC ventures. This is due to limited demand.
At present, China has a stable pool of about 20 manufacturers. The majority is based in Guangdong and Jiangsu provinces. The average yield of individual operations for the line ranges from several hundreds to just more than a thousand each month.
Mini PCs & prices
Taiwan: Mini PC makers boosting line’s HD capability
Hong Kong: Home, custom variants make up mini PC selection
Metalware Technology (Hong Kong) Ltd
Aside from the Atom N450 1.66GHz CPU and NM10 Express Chipset, the mainstream selection of mini PCs in China has DDR2 or optional DDR3 memory and 160 to 320GB HDD. Considered midrange, units with 1 to 2GB DDR2, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, and camera are priced from $160 to $180.
Upscale versions differ with an Nvidia Ion Platform, GeForce 9300 GPU and 802.11b/g/n. These are between $200 and $240. The value additions in this segment are touchscreens, GPS and mobile digital TV supporting CMMB and DVB-T/H.
Entry-level models running on the Atom N270 1.6GHz processor and Mobile Intel 945GSE Express Chipset are priced from $130 to $160. These have 512MB to 1GB DDR2 memory, 120 to 160GB SATA HDD, 802.11b/g and camera. Similarly featured variants that adopt Via C7-M 1.2GHz ultralow-voltage CPUs instead and come with an additional Bluetooth feature are about $130.
Models that are incorporating the N455 CPU and DDR3 memory are expected to gain the mainstream this quarter.
Local suppliers adopting the x86 architecture source CPUs mainly from Intel, or from AMD and Via, while those on the Arm side turn to Nvidia, Qualcomm and Samsung.
For HDDs, there are Seagate, West Digital and Hitachi, and flash memory from Hynix, Kingston or the gray market. The 160 to 250GB hard drives cost about $32, while per gigabyte memory is between $18 and $20. Intel Atom chipsets are nearly $40.
Batteries, which are bundled as an option, are approximately $22, while housings are roughly $20.
Taiwan suppliers of mini PCs are strengthening the graphics handling capability of their latest releases, especially of Intel Atom-based units. This is to enable support for 1080p resolution and Blu-ray video playback. Aside from Atom, new models utilize Intel i3/i5/i7 or Core 2 Duo, AMD or Via Nano processors to suit buyers’ requirements.
The current selection comprises home and industrial versions. Units used as thin client computers in offices are also available as a low-priced option.
The first, which is also called cube, small form factor or home theater variants, comes in slim and trendy designs, and packs multimedia capability. The mainstream kinds integrate optical drives, with some in the high end boasting Blu-ray. The latter type also has HDMI and 802.11a/b/n connectivity, which are requisite to meet home entertainment requirements. Upscale models are bundled with a remote control, and run on Windows CE OS.
Units called box PCs are mostly for industrial and car applications. An example is First International Computer Inc.’s Nougat AS-N270G2 model for use in surveillance, power plant management, factory and home automation, digital signage and vehicles.
The company’s GE5 model, meanwhile, combines components adopted in tabletop and notebook PCs to achieve a stylish, ultraslim and high-performance device.
Pico-, mini-, nano-ITX and customized motherboards are used. Most are fanless for a low-noise operation.
Shuttle Inc.’s XS35 model boasts a 1.5L form factor when most others are 3L. Viewsonic Corp.’s VOT550 is as small as an external HDD at about 1.36L.
Via Technologies Inc.’s Artigo A1100 adopting a pico-ITX board is 752mL in size. The QutePC-1000 from Ace Asia, which runs on an Intel Atom N270 processor, is 600mL.
In addition, some variants support VESA mounting to attach to display monitors for a space-saving all-in-one setup. These include Shuttle’s XS35, AsusTek’s Eee Box, First International’s GE5 and Viewsonic’s VOT132 models.
Mini PCs from Hong Kong makers are mainly for home setups as a second or home theater unit. These adopt Intel Atom or Via C7-D processors and come in slim tower cases or home theater PC boxes. The mainstream attributes include broadband and Wi-Fi Internet connectivity, integrated graphics chip, SATA II HDD support and high-definition video interface such as DVI or HDMI. Most systems enable upgrades or modifications by end-users.
Suppliers can customize versions for special requirements such as in-vehicle, POS and other mobile and rugged applications, or provide barebone systems with no preinstalled OS.
Metalware Technology (Hong Kong) Ltd offers a range of computers, including desktop, laptop, netbook, mini and tablet variants. The maker’s PeeCee NetStation model is available in Linux gOS and Windows XP versions. Each unit runs on a Via C7-D 1.5GHz processor with a CN700+8237R chipset. It has 1GB DDR2 RAM, 160GB SATA II HDD and UniChrome 3D video graphics core. An external optical drive is optional.
USmart Electronic Products Ltd develops and manufactures various computer products and consumer electronics. The company’s Netitoo model integrates an Intel Atom N330 dual-core processor, 1 or 2GB SODIMM and 802.11g/n Wi-Fi module. The unit supports two SATA II hard drives and has a CF card slot. A 2.4GHz RF wireless dongle, mouse and keyboard are included.
There are fewer than 10 suppliers of the line in the territory. The number is not expected to increase due to the proliferation of competing mobile electronic devices that are steadily evolving into virtual mini computers. Most consumer electronics companies have been concentrating on tablet variants, driven by the popularity of the iPad.
Prior to this development, netbooks were the hottest type for the past three years, followed distantly by all-in-one PCs.
First International Computer Inc.
USmart Electronic Products Ltd
Via Technologies Inc.
Note:This article was originally published by Global Sources, a leading business-to-business media company and a primary facilitator of trade with China manufacturers and India suppliers, providing essential sourcing information to volume buyers through our e-magazines, trade shows and industry research.
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