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 kit which gives you a top desktop PC, such as the incredible Intel NUC 9 Extreme where you get some of the parts and a tiny little box, with the freedom to fill the rest of it how you wish.
- Best overall: Intel NUC 9 Extreme
- Runner-up: ASUS PN50
- Best budget: Zotac Zbox CI329
- Best budget gaming: ASRock DeskMini X300
Best overall: Intel NUC 9 Extreme
Intel is one of the biggest pioneers of the barebones PC, and the NUC 9 Extreme pushes the idea of a small, easy-to-build PC into new territory. It's based around the NUC Compute Element, which itself looks a bit like a graphics card. But it contains an Intel Core i7 or Core i9 CPU, the cooling, and all the connectivity for the PC, which includes Thunderbolt.
To make this little powerhouse spring to life all you need to supply is memory and storage. Because of its size, you'll be grabbing the smaller SODIMM memory sticks, but you can also use Intel Optane memory in this little machine if you wish.
The Compute Element alone is extremely impressive, but the icing on the cake is that it also supports a full desktop graphics card. Obviously, you'll be shopping for a mini-design card, but if you can get your hands on a small enough unit, you've got yourself a proper little gaming PC. Extreme really does suit this little PC. The only real drawback is that all this power and ingenuity comes at a fairly hefty price.
- Optional Intel Core i9 CPU
- Space for a desktop graphics card
- Incredibly small form factor
- Modular design
Runner-up: ASUS PN50
The ASUS PN51 is a fantastic mini PC, but the company also offers it as a barebones kit, as the PN50. The end result is the same, a superb, small form factor PC, but buying it in barebones form can save you some upfront costs and give you more flexibility to tailor it to your needs.
Like the pre-built version, the PN50 comes with one of AMD's mobile Ryzen processors, providing good CPU performance, great GPU performance and, thanks to the lower TDP compared to a desktop chip, better power efficiency.
Supply your own m.2 SSD and SODIMM RAM and you'll have a good value, top-performing PC that's got a ton of connectivity options. Despite using a laptop processor, this is a really great performer. And the icing on the cake is the included VESA adapter for easy mounting out of sight behind a PC monitor.
- Compact form factor
- Ryzen processor
- Powerful integrated graphics
- Included VESA mount
- Great selection of ports
- Laptop CPU not quite on par with desktop alternatives
- Higher spec models a bit pricey
Best budget: Zotac Zbox CI329
Zotac, along with Intel, is one of the original brands to push mini PCs into the mainstream. The Zbox line lives on and if you're in the market for a budget barebones PC then the CI329 is for you. It's tiny, it's incredibly affordable, and for light work it'll work like a champion.
The base model is powered by an Intel Celeron N4100 quad-core processor and that along with the motherboard and rear I/O is all you get. The case is nicely designed, though, with tool-free access to the internals and the quite massive heatsink. That last part is why this Zbox has silent running, as its fanless, with the heat dissipated through the huge heatsink and the honeycomb design on the top of the case.
You'll need to supply SODIMM memory and a 2.5-inch SSD to get the Zbox up and running. While this means you're limited to SATA speeds, it also means that you won't have to blow the budget on the rest of the equipment you need for this affordable barebones PC.
- Compact form factor
- Affordable price
- Tool-free access
- Silent running
- Incredible selection of ports
- Limited to SATA speeds
- Celeron only really good for lighter tasks
Best budget gaming: ASRock DeskMini X300
Did you know you can build a gaming PC the size of a power supply by using a barebones kit? It's a reality thanks to the ASRock DeskMini X300 and its support of the latest AMD Ryzen APUs. The X300 is the second gen DeskMini to support Ryzen, and while there's an Intel version too, for gaming, you need to go with AMD and the integrated Radeon graphics.
The X300 really is the size of a power supply, it's so small, yet inside you can fit all the important hardware, It has two SODIMM DDR4 RAM slots, space for both m.2 NVMe and 2.5-inch SATA SSDs, optional Wi-Fi, and plenty of ports.
Cooling is a bit tricky thanks to the lack of clearance, and the included cooler won't be much help if you're going to push this to its limits a lot. But you can fit some good low-profile coolers inside, including those from Noctua, to get better performance. Whether you want something portable, just small or you don't have a big budget, you'll have a fantastic little budget gaming rig with one of these.
If you see one in stock, don't sleep on it, they're frequently sold out, and it's easy to see why they're so popular.
- AMD Ryzen 5000 APU support
- Tiny size
- Supports both m.2 and 2.5-inch SSDs
- Optional Wi-Fi and RGB kits
- Great price
- Included cooler is a bit weak
- Hard to get hold of
- Not much clearance for third-party coolers
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 NUC 9 Extreme. It's a crazy amount of power in an equally crazy small box and a true trendsetter once more from Intel.
The modular design is both innovative and convenient and it lends to additional space to install a dedicated graphics card. It's pricey, but compared to an equivalent desktop build from scratch, the value and the size make it a really compelling option.
Of course, there are other good choices out there too, depending on your budget or what type of barebones PC you want to build.
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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