Intel tackles NUC heat issues with fan speed tweak, SSD fix

— 5:04 PM on January 29, 2013

This update is a bit overdue, but we've only recently had a chance to play with a final, production version of the Intel "Next Unit of Computing" system that we reviewed last year. Back then, our review sample suffered from an overheating problem that caused full-on system lockups during large file transfers over Wi-Fi. We worked with the folks at Intel to confirm that the problem affected all NUCs of that type, the red-topped "BY" model, and we played with a preliminary BIOS intended to resolve it. However, we were never able to confirm with certainty how the fix—likely a tweaked fan speed policy—would impact the system's acoustic profile.

Fortunately, I've just tested a production NUC unit with the latest BIOS at its default settings, and I have generally positive news to report.

The BIOS, which I downloaded from Intel's public website, sets a default minimum fan speed of 30%, regardless of which fan profile the user chooses. That's a little higher than it was on our initial test system, and the system is perceptibly noisier, with a bit of a high-pitched whine when you put your ear right next to it. Still, the system is barely audible from two feet away. The end result isn't as ideal, acoustically, as our first review unit, but it's not bad, either.

Crucially, the system also withstands large file copies over Wi-Fi with the same SSD installed as in our initial test unit. We copied approximately 60GB of data over Wi-Fi in multiple tests of different file types, and although the air coming out of the back of the NUC got to be pretty warm, the system never locked up or exhibited any obvious quirks. It appears the NUC engineering folks have found a reasonably happy medium between heat management and acoustics.

I should note that the overheating problem we encountered involved not just the heat from the Wi-Fi card but also its effect on the closely situated mSATA SSD, which in our review system was a pre-release version of the Intel 525 Series SSD, a product formally released just yesterday. We learned in a conversation with some Intel reps at CES that the NUC lockups were in fact the result of two problems coming together: too much heat in the NUC chassis and a defective thermal throttling mechanism in pre-production Intel 525 SSDs. Intel tells us the throttling mechanism has been corrected in production drives, so in the future, any overheating should merely cause the drive to slow down, not to lock up and become completely unresponsive until the system's power plug has been pulled.

We haven't tested the production NUC with a production 525 Series SSD, but given that our throttling-challenged pre-production SSD doesn't lock up with the new fan profile, we're generally satisfied that Intel has ironed out the wrinkles in the NUC's behavior. If you're interested in buying one now that the coast is clear, they're available at Amazon for $310 right now. Anyone who's deploying a "BY" NUC in a particularly warm ambient environment may want to consider using a fairly aggressive cooling profile, though, just to be safe.

Meanwhile, Intel told us at CES that the NUC has "completely exceeded" its expectations for consumer adoption, so more systems are coming soon. Up next: NUCs that are both cheaper and more expensive, packing Celeron and Core i5 processors.

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