Thanks to the evolution of mobile computer chips, some mini PCs are becoming so powerful that they can fully replace those bulky PC towers for our daily computing duties, and even play some games.
But is a mini PC really good for gaming? While lots of people may tell you otherwise, we tend to believe the answer is YES.
Why Is Gaming on a Mini PC Possible?
When we talk about mini PCs in general, we tend to only think about those tiny boxes with on-board graphics, but the mini PC category is far more inclusive than that, there are even models built for gaming.
The Intel NUC 12 Extreme Kit, for instance, is also seen as a mini PC. With an impeccable 65W Core i9-12900K CPU, a powerful discrete graphics card, and advanced cooling, it can run the most demanding AAA titles with lifelike graphics.
Even for smaller mini PCs that don’t adopt a regular graphics card under the hood, some of them do come with Thunderbolt 3/4 or USB 4 ports, which allow us to use external graphics cards to enhance the gaming performance.
And when it comes to models with only integrated GPUs, we can always choose to turn down the resolution and settings or run less hardware demanding titles.
Why Choose a Mini PC for Gaming?
Although gaming on a mini PC has its compromises, there are also a number of perks:
The classic image of a gaming PC is a large chassis that measures between 25 and 30 liters, with frantically spinning fans, blazing rainbow RGB lighting, and a monstrous graphics card. You don’t always find enough room for it on or under your desk.
A mini PC, on the other hand, can easily fit on the top of any PC desk or TV bench. You can even completely conceal them behind your monitor if they come with VESA mounting holes.
The power draw of a conventional gaming PC can easily exceed 300 watts, mainly due to its power-hungry desktop CPU and graphics card.
But for a mini PC, the power draw rarely exceeds 50 watts, as most models run on mobile chips and integrated graphics. Gaming on a mini PC could result in significantly less power consumption each year.
Since mini PCs run on less power-consuming hardware, they tend to generate less heat than full-size desktop PCs, thus requiring a lower level of cooling.
While some mini PCs feature one or two tiny fans for active cooling, the others rely solely on passive cooling methods like heat sinks or heat dissipation pipes.
Fewer fans definitely mean less noise, and if your mini PC is passively cooled, it can even be completely silent.
How to Build a Mini Pc for Gaming?
If you’re into the idea of getting a mini PC for gaming, you need to be aware that your gaming experiences will be determined by your model’s hardware, and some components will matter more than others.
When it comes to conventional PC gaming, the GPU is undoubtedly the most important piece of hardware as it determines the quality settings and resolution you can run your games at.
If you want to play the most graphics-intensive titles at relatively high settings, you should probably consider a mini PC with a high-end discrete graphics card.
If you are okay with switching to lower resolution and visual effects, some of the recent integrated GPUs are also powerful. For instance, the AMD Radeon 680M iGPU could easily outperform older discrete graphics cards.
Also, the Intel Iris Xe graphics, which is incorporated in the Intel Tiger Lake and Alder Lake Core processors, handily beats the Nvidia GTX 660 Ti, GTX 750 Ti, and MX350 in several 3DMark subtests.
It’s totally reasonable for you to prioritize the GPU, but you cannot ignore the CPU, either, as it dictates how well the rest of your mini PC runs. A CPU that’s too weak can bottleneck the entire system, preventing the GPU from running at its full capacity and doing all the things it is designed for.
Also, when it comes to playing games on emulators, the CPU is even more important than the GPU, as it does all the translation and simulation, including the graphics processing of the original console. If you take gaming on your mini PC seriously, you should probably consider a mini PC with the Intel Core i7 CPU or AMD Ryzen CPUs released in recent years.
The system can access data in the RAM much faster than it can from the storage disk. The entire game’s data are stored on the HDD or SSD, but constantly pulling it from there is inefficient. Thus, the computer moves the game information it will need to the RAM to load it quickly.
For conventional PC gaming, the generally accepted baseline is 8GB of RAM, however, to play modern AAA titles and get maximum responsiveness, you may need more than 16GB RAM.
The amount of storage capacity determines which games, as well as how many games you can install on your mini PC. While different games have different storage requirements, all modern AAA titles tend to take up at least 30GB of storage per game, with some of them taking up more than 100GB per game.
Thus, your mini PC should have at least 512 GB of storage if you plan to have a few of these games installed. The type of the storage also matters, as the system can load game files much faster from an SSD than from an HDD.
There are basically two types of mini PC systems out there: actively cooled mini PCs and passively cooled mini PCs. Running big titles can put a lot of pressure on the internal hardware, often to a point where passive cooling won’t be enough to dissipate the generated heat.
If you intend to play games more graphics-intensive than League of Legend on your mini PC, you will have to get one with active cooling.
Which Games Can You Play?
As mentioned above, the hardware will determine the titles you can run on your mini PC. If your machine happens to be one that’s designed for gaming, e.g., the Intel NUC 12 Extreme Serpent Canyon, then you are free to play the most graphics-intensive titles, including Cyberpunk 2077, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Elden Ring.
Mini PCs that feature the latest Intel Core or AMD Ryzen processors (with iGPUs like the Intel Iris Xe Graphics and the AMD Radeon Graphics) can also run most AAA titles, but options will be limited when it comes to resolution and quality settings.
Our recommended games for these mini PCs include Fortnite, Genshin Impact, and League of Legends. If PC games are not enough, emulators such as PCSX2, Orbital, Dolphin, and Cemu can get you to access to most titles from modern video game consoles.
For owners of low-budget mini PC with a Celeron or Pentium processor, you can choose to play more casual games like Plant vs. Zombies, Minecraft, Angry Birds, and anything you can find in the Microsoft Store.
These games may be less visually stunning, but they can be as fun as those big blockbuster AAA titles. For emulation, we recommend you to try Snes9x, MEmu, and RetroArch, as there are thousands of retro games you can run on these emulators.
Modern mini PCs are well-rounded devices that can run a good number of blockbuster titles and emulate many new video game consoles. If you keep your expectations modest, you may be able to have a lot of fun gaming on your mini PC.