Best overall: Intel Skull Canyon NUC

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Intel changed the game with the Skull Canyon, having already set the bar for barebones PCs with its NUC line. Inside this little box is a quad-core i7 processor, space for 32GB of DDR4 RAM and a pair of m.2 SSD drives.

Throw in Thunderbolt 3 USB-C, full-sized USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot and Gigabit Ethernet and what you have is a really powerful PC inside a teeny tiny box that costs a reasonable $578.

Bottom line: Crazy power inside a super-small package.

One more thing: Thanks to the Thunderbolt 3 connection you can plug in an eGPU like the Razer Core to turn the Skull Canyon into a high-end gaming machine.

Why the Intel Skull Canyon NUC is the best

What you get with this option is essentially a powerful PC stuffed into a really compact box. It doesn't come cheap, but if you're looking for the least compromises, this is it. The only thing the Skull Canyon doesn't have is dedicated NVIDIA or AMD graphics, but everywhere else you'll get a powerful PC that's smaller than the keyboard you'll connect to it. And with Iris Pro 580 graphics from Intel, you're still going to get good mileage.

Add a Razer Core and you've got a high-end gaming desktop

Intel includes the motherboard and a Core i7-6770HQ quad-core processor, along with the case and power cable. Also built in is USB-C Thunderbolt 3 and Gigabit Ethernet, which means you need only RAM, storage, and an OS.

The Skull Canyon supports up to 32GB of DDR4 SO-DIMM RAM in dual-channel, as well as up to a pair of m.2 SSDs for storage. And if you hook up something like the Razer Core over Thunderbolt 3, you've got a teeny tiny little high-end gaming PC.

For gamers: MSI Nightblade

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Thanks to the well-respected MSI, even PC gamers can get a little assistance from a barebones kit. The Nightblade is one of the latest offerings from the company and it'll give you a 350W power supply and an included "silent storm" cooler to build your rig with.

The motherboard supports Intel's 7th generation chips all the way up to a 95W TDP. There's no optical drive on this model, but there's space for two m.2 SSD drives, it supports Intel Optane memory, multiple hard drives and has USB-C connectivity for $280. It'll be good paired with a GTX 1060, but if you want a seriously powerful GPU you'll need to upgrade the power supply.

Bottom line: An easy way to build your first gaming PC.

One more thing: Supports the latest Intel Optane memory.

Best budget: Intel NUC

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For a good, really cheap entry-level product for some light computing, Intel's standard NUC is a great start. It's only a Celeron processor, but it's still more capable than a Stick PC.

With something that can easily fit in your palm, you'll be able to squeeze in 8GB of RAM and a 2.5-inch SSD for storage. Throw in HDMI, full-sized USB and even an SDXC slot, and you've got a capable little box that'll only cost you $126 to get started with.

Bottom line: A superb start to building your own PC for not much money.

One more thing: One of these will be much better than a Stick PC for not a lot of extra money.

Best for the living room: Gigabyte GB-BXBT-2807

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A low-cost barebones PC like this one from Gigabyte is a great alternative to a stick PC for the living room. You get more freedom with the hardware while still having a tiny little box for an HTPC that just disappears.

This isn't crazy powerful, with a Celeron processor, but you can squeeze 1TB of storage and 8GB of RAM inside which is perfect for your home media. It's got WiFi and Bluetooth built in, as well as a VESA bracket to mount it to the back of a TV or monitor for just over $150.

Bottom line: A low-cost option that makes a great media PC for the living room.

One more thing: The included VESA bracket means you can mount it out of sight behind your display.

Conclusion

Building a PC for the first time is less scary by using a barebones kit, but if you still want an awesome PC then you can't go wrong with the Intel Skull Canyon NUC. It's a crazy amount of power in an equally crazy small box.

Best overall: Intel Skull Canyon NUC

See at Amazon

Intel changed the game with the Skull Canyon, having already set the bar for barebones PCs with its NUC line. Inside this little box is a quad-core i7 processor, space for 32GB of DDR4 RAM and a pair of m.2 SSD drives.

Throw in Thunderbolt 3 USB-C, full-sized USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot and Gigabit Ethernet and what you have is a really powerful PC inside a teeny tiny box that costs a reasonable $578.

Bottom line: Crazy power inside a super-small package.

One more thing: Thanks to the Thunderbolt 3 connection you can plug in an eGPU like the Razer Core to turn the Skull Canyon into a high-end gaming machine.

Updated February 20, 2018: We've added the MSI Nightblade in place of an older model which is no longer on sale.