It’s not often that a new gadget category comes seemingly out of nowhere, but over the past year we’ve seen the emergence of a new kind of low-cost computer, without the support of a single PC vendor. For less than $100— sometimes less than $50— Android Mini PCs cram all the processing power of a tablet into a chassis the size and shape of a USB Flash drive.
With their capable ARM-based processors and plethora of connectivity options, an Android stick can turn your HDTV or high-res monitor into a computer. Simply connect the Mini PC to your screen’s HDMI port, plug the stick’s microUSB port into an AC adapter for power and attach a keyboard or mouse for input and you’re ready to roll.
Once you finish geeking out over using a computer that weighs less than 2 ounces and looks like a USB key, you might ask: “What can I do with this thing?” Here are six great uses for your Android Mini PC.
With a growing list of graphically intensive titles such as “Shadow Gun,” “Asphalt 6″ and “Modern Combat 4,” Android has become a serious gaming platform. Yes, you can play the latest first-person shooter on your phone or tablet, but their screens are small and hooking them up to your TV is a pain. No wonder we’re seeing dedicated Android gaming consoles such as Ouya hit the market.
You don’t need to buy an Ouya or a GameStick system, however, because an inexpensive Android Mini PC can serve as a gaming console. A dual-core Android stick like the Android Mini PC RK3066 has more than enough oomph to play demanding games, while a new generation of quad-core devices promises even better performance. Just be sure to pair your stick with a wireless joystick like the SteelSeries Free Wireless Game Controller and choose controller-friendly games.
Since it connects to your TV, a Mini PC makes an excellent set-top box, particularly if it supports 1080p out of the box like the quad-core Zealz GK802. Using a wireless keyboard as your remote control, you can sit on the couch and fire up Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Google Play and other video services. It almost goes without saying that you can also play music from services such as Rhapsody, Spotify, Pandora and Slacker or browse photos using your social networking or cloud storage accounts.
If you want a more 10-foot friendly interface for viewing media, you can try XBMC, a free media server that can play just about any media format and provides large, click-friendly tiles. Attach a large-enough USB hard drive and you can access all your local photos, videos and music files.
Most Android Mini PCs are also capable of running Ubuntu or other desktop versions of Linux. With a windowed interface that makes multitasking easy and access to thousands of productivity apps, from video editors to office suites, you can use your stick PC for serious productivity.
Because the Mini PC contains your entire operating system, it keeps your data physically secure. Internet cafe PCs and public kiosks can have spyware that steals your passwords. Your boss could have a keylogger on your work PC and use that to track your activity. But with a Mini PC, you keep the whole environment with you, making your data and your applications physically secure.
Making video calls from your phone or computer is great, but what about when you want to sit the whole family down on the couch and Skype with grandma? Just connect an Android-compatible webcam to your Mini PC, then install your software of choice: Skype, Google+ Hangouts or even OoVoo. Place the webcam on top of your TV and you’re ready to make a video call on the big screen.
MORE: 10 Best Apps for Your TV
Whether you want to share documents with co-workers in your small business or make family photos accessible to everyone in your home, you’ll benefit from having a home file server. While you could buy a network-attached-storage drive, pairing your $50 Android Mini PC with a USB hard drive and Ethernet dongle provides a lot more flexibility for less money, particularly if you already own the hard drive and a powered USB hub.
With Linux file serving software you can exert fine control over the server permissions or even run a local Web server that makes Web tools available to anyone on your LAN.
Desktop PCs keep getting cheaper and cheaper, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a brand-new model for $50. However, if you already have a monitor, keyboard and mouse, an inexpensive Android stick makes an amazing family PC.
While Android can’t run all the apps desktop apps you love in Windows or Mac OS, an Android Mini PC will give your kids access to thousands of family-friendly apps. Your spouse can use it to go online and check Facebook, send email or play games while you use the main PC for work.
You can even hop on the Mini PC and do some document editing in QuickOffice while you wait for your laptop to finish installing a Windows update. If you want a more serious multitasking experience, you can always change your Android stick’s operating system to Ubuntu.