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Review: Intel's Next Unit of Computing

A taste of the future—or maybe just a nifty little PC

What's this? A real and reasonably capable PC stuffed into box that will fit in the palm of your hand?

We've heard such claims before, but they've never really panned out. Usually such systems have been based on low-power Atom processors or the like, demanding massive performance trade-offs to fit into a small space. Now that most of the world is convinced the PC is doomed and mobile devices are taking over, though, I suppose we should start paying closer attention.

It doesn't hurt that Intel, the traditional provider of PC performance, has produced this sleek little 4" by 4" box and given it a totally-not-pretentious name: the Next Unit of Computing.

Intel calls it NUC, for short, which is incredibly cute.

The firm's ambitions for this form factor are far more serious. Most of the talk about the NUC mentions obvious applications for a teeny PC, such as digital signage and home theater systems. There's an undercurrent of suggestion, however, that boxes such as this one may be the future of the PC. If so, the future of PC enthusiasm is likely to be dominated by people with extremely small hands.

Still, the concept is compelling, instantly spurring the question: what would you do with a little PC of this size? That question comes into sharp focus when you realize that these NUC boxes are on the cusp of broad availability in early December at a pretty darned reasonable price.

Forgive me for this obvious slight to the post-PC era, but in order to orient ourselves to the NUC's true potential, some discussion of the system specifications will be helpful. Have a look:

Processor Intel Core i3-3217U
Chipset Intel QS77 Express
Memory 2 DDR3 1333/1600 SO-DIMM slots
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4000
Audio Intel Display Audio via HDMI or Thunderbolt/DisplayPort
Ports 3 USB 2.0 w/headers for 2 more
1 HDMI 4.1a
1 Thunderbolt (with DisplayPort 1.1a)
Expansion slots 1 full-size mini-PCIe w/mSATA support
1 half-size mini-PCIe
Cooling Integrated heatsink/fan
Power supply 65W external brick
Dimensions 4" x 4" x 2"

The Cliff's Notes version is simple: Intel should have called this an Ultrabox, in an obvious play on the Ultrabook name. The guts of the NUC are essentially the same as an Ultrabook's, right down to the 17W dual-core Ivy Bridge processor. This CPU, with the incredibly catchy name Core i3-3217U, has four threads via Hyper-Threading and runs at 1.8GHz, with 3MB of L3 cache. It's not exactly a screamer by desktop standards, but it's vastly more capable than your average Intel Atom or AMD Brazos CPU. This Core i3 chip is soldered onto the underside of the NUC's motherboard and included in the system's price tag, which Intel anticipates to be somewhere around $300-320.

The version of the NUC we have for review is the DC3217BY, a lovely name that could double as a software registration key. As you can see, the BY has several external connectors, including an HDMI output, a trio of USB 2.0 ports, and a Thunderbolt plug that doubles as a DisplayPort output. Intel will also be selling the DC3217IYE, which omits the Thunderbolt port in favor of a second HDMI output and a GigE port. Also, the YE rocks a manly black top cover.