Desktop computers are supposed to be larger than notebooks, and most will dominate your office desk in a generally boxy and unattractive manner. But when the small form factor concept arrived around a decade ago, it pointed towards a more discrete desktop computing experience, and so-called desktops have been shrinking ever since. Gigabyte's BRIX is allegedly a desktop computer, but in a package that is less than 12cm deep or wide, and less than 3cm thick.
The BRIX we were sent was the GB-XM11-3337 model, but there are numerous other members of the range with subtly different specifications for a variety of end uses. The package is essentially what is called a "barebones," which means you will have to add a few components yourself to make a working computer, although you can also buy the BRIX with these pre-installed along with an operating system from some vendors. Our sample came with a representative hard disk and memory for a typical configuration.
Part of the reason the BRIX can be so small is that most of its components are actually stolen from the notebook department, although the end result is smaller than virtually all notebooks as well. Central to this strategy is a mobile CPU. In the case of the GB-XM11-3337 this is an Intel Core i5 3337U processor. This dual-core CPU runs at a nominal 1.8GHz, but has the usual Intel Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost enhancements, so it can act like a virtual quad-core processor for enhanced parallel tasks, and increase a single core to 2.7GHz when required. However, quite a few other processor options are available in different models, from Celerons to Core i7s.
The processor also supplies the graphics, and there's no option for discrete graphics – nor would there be room inside the tiny chassis. Since the CPU is from Intel's Ivy Bridge generation, the graphics are the much improved HD 4000. This won't give you desktop levels of 3D performance, but it will be able to run most 3D applications, albeit some of them a little slowly.
The GB-XM11-3337 doesn't come with any memory as standard, but sports a pair of SODIMM slots for adding this. Our sample system was fitted with twin 8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM modules, for a decidedly healthy 16GB of memory, which is the maximum possible. The other component you have to add is the hard disk, or rather solid state disk, because the BRIX only has an mSATA slot on offer. This will support up to a 256GB SSD, although our sample came fitted with a more modest 120GB unit. This will still be enough for the operating system and everyday applications. It will also provide rapid boot up times and software loading.
One internal peripheral that is included as standard with the GB-XM11-3337 is the Wi-Fi module, which provides 802.11n wireless connectivity. However, a Gigabit Ethernet connection is also available. The remainder of the port selection is reasonable, too, with a USB 3.0 port on the rear alongside the LAN port, plus both full-sized HDMI and a Mini DisplayPort. Using the latter two together, it's possible to drive a dual-monitor configuration, although the HDMI port only supports resolutions up to 1,920 x 1,080, whilst the Mini DisplayPort can drive monitors up to 2,560 x 1,600 pixels.
There's a second USB 3.0 port on the front, too. Overall, we could have done with one or two more USB ports, although if you use the BRIX with a monitor containing its own hub this won't be an issue. A built-in SD card reader would have been useful as well. However, the most significant omission is any audio connectivity, because the GB-XM11-3337 doesn't actually have on-board audio. There is the Intel Display Audio driver to enable audio over the HDMI connection, but if you want to plug in analogue speakers you will need USB-connected ones with their own audio chips. A USB headset would also be a necessity if you want to make Skype calls. There are some BRIX models that do come with audio, as well as more USB ports, so one of these would be a better choice for multimedia usage.
The BRIX is designed to be mounted on the back of your monitor, and to this end a VESA bracket is supplied in the box. We found the system fitted snugly behind our test monitor, but it's actually rather attractive. So keeping it out of sight isn't a necessity, although this also keeps the cabling out of sight, which is a bonus. Also, the GB-XM11-3337 is almost completely silent, with just a very mild fan noise kicking in when the system is working hard.
The GB-XM11-3337 doesn't provide particularly desktop-like performance, although it's decent enough for everyday activities. It achieved a result of 2.5 in the rendering portion of Maxon's Cinebench R11.5, which would be good for an ultraportable. It's also much more than the Atom-based miniature desktops of a few years ago.
Similarly, the Cinebench R11.5 OpenGL score of 16.72 and Futuremark 3DMark11 result of 608 would be acceptable for an Ultrabook, but won't have you turning away from a full-sized desktop if you need speedy 3D. On the other hand, performance will be more than enough if you don't plan on intensive gaming.
From a technical perspective, the Gigabyte BRIX GB-XM11-3337 is a tour-de-force, packing a commendable amount of computing power into an incredibly small space. However, it's hardly a cheap option. The price quoted in this review is without the mSATA solid state disk or memory, which would add about £90 and £100 respectively, making our configuration about £500 – and then you will need to add on the cost of an operating system, too (we used Windows 7 Professional for our testing, but Windows 8 Pro would set you back an additional £100).
So this tiny system could cost around £600, a price for which you could purchase a reasonable notebook that would come with audio and a screen. For £600 you could also purchase a much more powerful conventional PC system unit. The GB-XM11-3337 is therefore pretty expensive, even for such a clever design. It would make a great discrete computing device for a situation where appearance and style are really important – but you would have to need the style to make the expense worthwhile.
Manufacturer and Model
Gigabyte BRIX GB-XM11-3337
1.8GHz Intel Core i7 3337U
16GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Intel HD 4000
120GB mSATA solid state disk
Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi
2 x USB 3.0, HDMI, Mini DisplayPort, LAN
Width x Depth x Height
107.9 x 114.6 x 29.9mm
1 year collect and return