The cheapest desktop computers of all are nettops -- small systems, often with all-in-one designs, that are relatively inexpensive but lack much in the way of computing firepower. Most are driven by versions of Intel's low-powered Atom processor, the same one found in netbooks, though some instead turn to their AMD counterparts, such as the AMD Athlon II Neo. Because of that, most struggle if called upon to do more than basic computing tasks. Some experts, such as CNET's Rich Brown, question their value on a regular basis. Others, however, are more forgiving and say nettops might provide all of the computing power many users need, and can be especially appropriate as a second or third computer.
It's not the cheapest nettop, but reviewers say the Acer Revo RL100-UR20P (*Est. $570) is your best bet in this category. Some nettops are made for web browsing and basic tasks, while others excel as home theater PCs; the Revo RL100-UR20P does both, and critics say it does both well. "The Acer Revo RL100-UR20P melds the world of the home theater within a slim nettop PC, resulting in a Blu-ray playing, Internet browsing, multimedia consumption machine," Joel Santo Domingo writes at PCMag.com en route to awarding it an Editor's Choice award and naming it the best nettop in the land.
The Acer Revo RL100-UR20P packs 4 GB of RAM, a 750 GB hard drive, a Nvidia ION graphics card, a Blu-ray Disc player and a 1.3 GHz AMD Athlon II Neo K325 – which ComputerShopper.com calls a "sluggish, laptop-class CPU" – into its slim frame, which is reminiscent of the Sony PlayStation 2 Slim or a modern-day Blu-ray player. Connectivity options include gigabit Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Acer's proprietary Clear.fi wireless networking, a multi-card reader, DLNA compatibility for transferring media over a network, an HDMI port, three USB ports, a digital S/PDIF output, headphone and microphone ports. To accent its use as a media device, the Revo RL100-UR20P also includes a volume wheel built into its case and a pop-out wireless slate that switches between touchpad and keyboard functionality with the tap of a button and includes a volume control. Critics appreciate the slate's look and portability, but say that a traditional keyboard and mouse provides better control.
Reviewers say that the Acer Revo RL100-UR20P does an excellent job of web browsing, email and other light tasks, and it can stream videos -- even HD videos in 720p and 1080p resolution -- without any stuttering, lag or buffering. Those abilities, combined with its connectivity options and wireless controller, prompt many critics to call it flat-out the best HTPC nettop around. However, if you plan to do any gaming or more intensive data-crunching tasks, you'll want to look elsewhere. Reviewers say the PC's performance in benchmark testing is abysmal compared to traditional desktops. In addition, ComputerShopper.com reviewer Matt Safford says that recently updated Apple Mac mini (*Est. $600 and up) drastically outperforms the Acer model's number-crunching in every respect. Still, critics hold the Acer Revo RL100-UR20p in high regard. "If you want to connect an inexpensive PC to a HDTV, the Acer Revo RL100-UR20p is one of the best choices out there, particularly if you're looking for the easiest way to view IPTV and Blu-ray movies on a big screen," Santo Domingo writes in his conclusion at PCMag.com
The Lenovo IdeaCentre Q150-40816AU (*Est. $400) is another strong contender in this category, even though it has been available since 2010. It has a 500 GB hard drive and excels at basic multimedia tasks -- all while costing less than a full-size computer. Joel Santo Domingo at PCMag.com, which gives the Lenovo IdeaCentre Q150 an Editors' Choice award, says the nettop is "one of the best web video/photo/music media consumption devices out there," although it lags behind the Acer Revo RL100-UR20P in the publication's benchmark tests. It comes with a wired mouse, but you'll have to buy a keyboard and display separately. Lenovo offers a palm-sized multimedia remote with keyboard (*Est. $60) that's a great add-on if you are using the Q150 as an HTPC. An enhanced version of that remote with a backlit keyboard (*Est. $80) is now also available.
Reviewers say the Lenovo IdeaCentre Q150 is ideal as a second computer or an addition to your home theater. The nettop has 2 GB of memory and your choice of a 1.80 GHz or 1.66 GHz Intel Atom processor, depending on the specific configuration, meaning it has netbook-like performance and is not designed for intensive tasks. Even so, experts say the nettop can easily stream video from the web or browse the Internet; built-in Wi-Fi is another plus. The Lenovo IdeaCentre Q150 has four USB slots, a VGA port and an HDMI output so you can view HD content on a TV. Some games are even playable, although at the lowest settings. "It's not a hard-core gaming system by any stretch, but graphics performance is passable to the point where recent games are at least within the realm of playability," Christopher Null writes at Wired.
Like most nettops, the Lenovo IdeaCentre Q150 doesn't have empty slots for additional memory or storage. There's also no optical drive for watching DVDs or listening to CDs. A few reviewers at Newegg.com say the fan runs loudly. PCMag.com compared the IdeaCentre Q150 against the Acer Revo RL100-UR20P and concluded that the Acer machine was better in every regard. "The Revo RL100-UR20P simply out-features and out-performs the Q150 in all areas but price, and the extra dollars are worth it for one of the better home theater PCs out there," Joel Santo Domingo -- who reviews both nettops -- writes at the end of the Acer model's review.
Critics are also intrigued by the Zotac ZBox AD03BR Plus (*Est. $520). In in-depth reviews at PCMag.com, AnandTech.com, ComputerShopper.com and TomsHardware.com, it outperforms most of the competition handily and establishes itself as a more than capable HTPC. However, the ZBox AD03BR Plus only costs $50 less than the Acer Revo RL100-UR20P -- and it includes much less hardware prowess and no operating system. The ZBox AD03BR Plus includes an AMD E-350 Fusion APU, 2 GB of RAM and a 250 GB hard drive. While you can install a free operating system on the machine, most will want to budget for a copy of the Home Premium Edition of Windows 7.
"The Zotac Zbox is as similar as can be to the Revo, with its compact size, low power processor, and Blu-ray drive," Joel Santo Domingo writes in his review of the Acer nettop at PCMag.com. "However the Zbox is a more of a DIY project: the system lacks an operating system (figure on $99 extra for Windows 7 Home Premium), is almost as expensive, is slower, has a much smaller hard drive, less system memory, and doesn't have the innovative remote."
The ASRock Vision 3D-137B (*Est. $750) is notable not only for its sky-high price, relatively speaking, but what you get for the cash -- though it's typically classified as a nettop, the hardware says that it is anything but. While the 500 GB hard drive is smaller than the Revo's, the Vision 3D packs in an Intel Core i3 mobile processor; 4 GB of RAM; HDMI 1.4a, USB 3.0, eSATA and DVI ports; a slot-loading Blu-ray drive; and most importantly, Nvidia's 3DTV Play technology and a Nvidia GT 425M mobile graphics chip that's capable of playing back 3D content, such as that on a 3D Blu-ray Disc. In addition, the included THX TruStudio Pro technology enables 7.1 channel HD surround sound, and the Vision 3D includes an optical S/PDIF out port to connect the PC to a home theater system.
If you own a 3D-compatible television or monitor and a collection of 3D-enabled content, reviewers say the Vision 3D will play them without a hitch. "Playback of every file type we threw at the ASRock Vision 3D was virtually flawless," Marco Chiapetta writes at HotHardware.com. Every reviewer who subjects the Vision 3D to benchmark testing reports that it bests the competition, although it arrives better armed than the competition as well. Unlike other nettops, the Vision 3D is a relatively capable gaming machine; tests at AnandTech.com and HotHardware.com show the Vision 3D hitting frame rates of 40 to 60 FPS at mid-level graphics settings in several different games. If you can stomach the high price, critics say the ASRock nettop delivers excellent results with technology that should make the system "future-proof," as long as that future doesn't extend more than a year or two. TrustedReviews.com gives the system an 8 out of 10 score, AnandTech.com calls it "the best small form factor HTPC we have ever reviewed, hands down," and HotHardware.com gives it a Recommended award, One downside: the PC is capable of running Windows 7, but ships without an operating system at all so you'll need to budget for that.