What to do with a NUC?
Since the NUC is essentially a full-fledged PC, the possibile applications for it are nearly endless. It could make for a nifty living room streaming box, a near-ideal e-mail terminal for grandma, or a killer compact kitchen PC.
The prospects are expanded somewhat by the inclusion of a VESA mounting bracket right in the box with the system. The idea is that you'd attach this bracket somewhere—to a wall or to a VESA-compatible mount of some sort—and then slide two screws on the underside of the NUC into the two slotted openings in the bracket. Bam! You've got a wall-mounted PC. The NUC should then slide in and out of the bracket easily for upgrades or whatnot.
My number-one possibility is to use the NUC as part of a compact TV streaming setup in the bedroom. I figure I could mount an LCD monitor and a NUC to the wall via VESA brackets, run a pair of power cords and attach a single HDMI cable between them, and call it good. Add Windows Media Center with a wireless remote, and we'd be able to stream recorded programs from the HTPC in our living room—or simply stream shows from Netflix.
Yeah, that pretty much needs to happen.
One notable limitation for any NUC application is the system's port selection. There's no analog audio output, for instance, so if you want sound, you'll need speakers built into your display or a set of USB speakers. Most folks will probably want to buy a display with the right input types and integrated speakers as part of any purpose-built NUC-based setup, so I doubt the port selection will really chafe. With that said, the apparent limitations of this system's outputs are easily worked around, as I found out while testing the thing.
You see, I wanted to connect the NUC to my standard CPU test bench, which has a four-port KVM switch attached to speakers (via an analog connection), a keyboard and mouse (via USB), and a monitor (via DVI). At first, I attached the HDMI port on the NUC to the monitor directly, bypassing the KVM switch for everything but USB input devices. The audio question baffled me, since the monitor lacks speakers. I just did the Win8 install on the NUC without sound. A little noodling around, though, produced a solution for the audio. I have a Plantronics headset that came with USB dongle, and inside the dongle is a C-Media audio chip. The thing is basically a USB sound card, with analog in/out ports. I temporarily appropriated this USB dongle for NUC testing, and audio was a go.
The only real annoyance left was the need to switch between the HDMI and DVI display inputs manually. It took an embarrassing amount of time before I realized—as I was compiling the specs for this article, in fact—that the Thunderbolt port on the NUC is about more than just mad, mad bandwidth for external storage, although it is good for that. Thunderbolt ports are also DisplayPort capable. That led me to yet another dongle, this one a DisplayPort-to-DVI adapter that I also had lying around. (A great many things are lying about in Damage Labs, as you might have guessed.) Soon, I had the NUC feeding DVI video and analog audio into my KVM switch, so I could toggle between it and the other test systems seamlessly. Even so, only two of the NUC's five external ports were occupied, without resorting to USB hubs or Thunderbolt daisy chains.
Now, I'm not saying that's an optimal configuration for a system like this one, but it does illustrate the flexibility you have in integrating this thing with existing hardware, with a little creative thinking.
Trouble in NUC-ville
Since the NUC is largely a pre-fab system with only a few cards to install, one wouldn't expect to run into the sort of frustrating problems that sometimes plague DIY PC builds. Unfortunately, my NUC experience was marred by a pretty major issue that I'm still trying to resolve.
The problem crops up whenever I try to perform a multi-gigabyte file copy over the network from my main PC (running Windows 8) to the NUC (also running Win8.) The copy plods along as expected for a while, but eventually it grinds to a halt. Once that happens, the system becomes semi-responsive; it will allow you to drag some windows around on the desktop, but other applications won't respond and new ones won't launch. Sometimes, the screen just turns black and the system locks entirely. The only way out is holding down the power button to force the system to shut down.
Once you boot back up, though, the system throws an error on POST, saying it can't find a boot device, and just sits there. The workaround is to remove the power connector from the back of the NUC for a second and then plug it back in. After that, the system will boot and operate normally, as if nothing had happened.
Here's my best theory about what's happening. Dunno if I'm right about this or not. Look at the cards in the picture above. The wireless NIC is on the bottom, and the SSD is sandwiched on top of it, with only about a millimeter of air between them. My crackpot theory is that the NIC is heating up during the file transfer, causing the SSD to heat up, as well. Eventually, the SSD overheats and goes to a bad place, no longer responding to system requests. The funky Windows lock-ups seem consistent with what would happen after the loss of the main system disk. And, I suppose, the SSD won't come out of its stupor until it's powered down completely by having the power cord yanked out of the back of the box.
I've tried various things to confirm my theory. Plugging in an external USB Wi-Fi adapter, disabling the internal one, and copying files over the network works just fine, with no lock-ups or other problems. You can see the clear plastic sheaths around the antenna pigtails in the picture above. I feared those were blocking airflow, so I cut them off. Their removal seemed to lengthen the time window before a lock-up, but didn't prevent it. There's also a bit of material on the SSD controller on the prior page, which I left on the card initially. At Intel's suggestion, I removed that, to no avail. Intel then sent me a replacement Centrino Advanced-N 6235 Wi-Fi card. I swapped that in and tried it, and the system locked up just the same as before.
As of now, I'm not sure what the trouble is with this NUC. The folks at Intel have been attempting to reproduce the issue, even testing a NUC doing a large file copy inside of a 35°C chamber, but haven't seen any problems. Odds are that my particular system has some sort of unusual quirk, perhaps due to the abuse subjected by my stubby fingers during assembly. I'll keep working with Intel on a fix and update this section of the article if we can resolve the problem. Until then, we can't be sure that you won't see similar issues with any NUC you'd buy, but we suspect our problem isn't a general one affecting every unit.