Best Barebones PC Windows Central 2021
Building a PC gives you ultimate freedom, but there are drawbacks, not least the size. An alternative is a great barebones PC, like the incredible Intel Skull Canyon NUC, where you get some of the parts and a tiny little box, with the freedom to fill the rest of it how you wish.
Intel Skull Canyon NUC
Intel changed the game with the Skull Canyon
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.
Who should buy this barebones PC?
Anyone looking for the performance of a regular desktop PC in a much smaller space.
Is it a good time to buy?
Definitely. Intel updated the Skull Canyon with the Hades Canyon which is much more expensive thanks to its AMD graphics. As such the Skull Canyon has dropped in price a bit and is still the one to go for.
Reasons to buy
- Extremely compact
- Quad-core i7 processor
- Supports NVMe SSDs
- Up to 32GB of RAM
Reasons not to buy
- Still quite expensive
- Integrated graphics only
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. On paper, the later model, the Hades Canyon with AMD onboard graphics is easily more powerful, but given its price the Skull Canyon is still the one to get.
Alternatives to Intel Skull Canyon NUC
The Skull Canyon is a terrific little PC, but there are also some great alternatives that better suit specific needs or budgets.
This isn't a typical barebones PC in that you'll have to supply the CPU as well, but Corsair's Bulldog is ready for demanding gamers. You can get it with either a Z170 or now a Z270 custom motherboard that not only has a liquid AIO cooler but supports unlocked processors for overclocking goodness.
There's a 600W 80-plus gold power supply pre-installed, supports NVMe SSDs and USB-C, as well as accepting pretty capable GPUs like the GTX 1080. All in a box a similar size to an Xbox One. For $440 it's a solid way to get started building your first gaming 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.
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 $100.
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.
Credits — The team that worked on this guide
Richard Devine is a Reviews Editor at Windows Central. You'll usually find him deep in hardware, gaming, both or drinking root beer for which he openly has a mild addiction.
Rich Edmonds is a staff reviewer at Windows Central, which means he tests out more software and hardware than he cares to remember. Joining Mobile Nations in 2010, you can usually find him inside a PC case tinkering around when not at a screen fighting with Grammarly to use British words. Hit him up on Twitter: @RichEdmonds.
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