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
|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
|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.
Beyond the embedded CPU, the NUC is still a bare-bones system. You’ll to have to supply the Wi-Fi adapter, storage, and memory—and install ’em into this tiny little box. Let’s see how that process looks.
Flip the NUC on its back to expose its belly, and you’ll find four screws inside of the rubber feet that support the chassis. Remove the screws, pull off the cover, and you’re staring at the Lilliputian future of PC expansion, also known as the Lilliputian present of laptop expansion.
Intel supplied us with a pair of expansion cards for our NUC review unit. The first of those, pictured above, is a mini-PCIe version of Intel’s 520 Series SSD. This particular drive isn’t cheap, mostly due to its fairly high capacity. We couldn’t find this mSATA model at online retailers, but the desktop equivalent sells for $189. You can find 64GB mSATA drives for much less, though, such as this 64GB Crucial m4 for 75 bucks. Of course, any of these SSDs is going to feel like a minor miracle next to your average hard disk drive. Not only are they tiny, but they’re also silent and have virtually instantaneous access times. You’re really not compromising much, storage performance-wise, to get into this form factor.
That postage stamp-sized item you see in the image above is a half-height mini-PCIe card, in this case an Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 Wi-Fi adapter. The NUC has a pair of pigtail connectors for the antennas, which you’ll have to snap into place over the proper terminals. This is a dual-band card able to connect to both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks, and it will set you back a whole 23 bucks at Amazon.
The final piece of the puzzle is a pair of memory modules—DDR3 SO-DIMMs, in this case. We pulled a couple of Corsair 2GB 1333MHz modules off the shelf and snapped them into place in the NUC’s slots. The modules we used are going for $23 at present, although you may wish to upgrade to higher-capacity modules or some capable of running at 1600MHz, especially if you plan to make heavy use of the NUC’s integrated graphics.
You’ll have to add one other thing in order to get the NUC up and running. Strangely, although the system comes with a 65W laptop-style power brick that plugs into the back of the enclosure, it doesn’t come with a power cord to connect the brick to the wall socket. What you’ll need is one of those triple-prong laptop-style power cords; we happened to have one lying around that we ganked from an old netbook. If you don’t have an extra, you’ll need to order a power cord—specifically, one with an IEC 60320 C5 connector to mate to the power brick.
Add the NUC’s likely price and the various components, including the 64GB SSD we mentioned above, and the total price tag rings up at just about $450, without shipping. That’s pretty reasonable, all things considered—better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, a sensation that’s probably similar to what you’d feel upon forking over 600 bucks for a Mac Mini.
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.
Since we’re a PC hardware review site, I’m required by guild by-laws to include some benchmark results for the NUC. Thus, you’re about to be subjected to a specious comparison, pitting the helpless little NUC against full-grown desktop PC systems with vastly higher power envelopes. Somewhere in Oregon, an Intel product manager just burst a vein in his temple. Our purpose here is not to humiliate the NUC, but to offer some context.
This may be all the context you need, really: the Core i3-3217U in the NUC has dual cores ticking along at 1.8GHz. The lowest-end Intel desktop chip we’ve tested based on the same Ivy Bridge silicon, the Pentium G2120, runs at 3.1GHz, nearly twice the frequency in a 55W power envelope. Notably, the NUC has Hyper-Threading while the Pentium does not, but one would still expect the Pentium to be much quicker. A look at the numbers confirms it.
So the NUC’s speed isn’t going to blow your hair back, but this thing is also more than half as fast as a modern desktop system, which is pretty good. We don’t have any numbers from Atom or Brazos systems in this latest set of results, but if you look back at our older results, you’ll observe that the dual-core Atom D525’s 7-Zip compression rate is under half the NUC’s and its x264 encoding rate is one third or less. There are some software rev differences there, so the comparisons aren’t exact, but those numbers should be sufficient to establish that the NUC is a different class of system—just like an Ultrabook seriously outclasses a netbook.
Usability and the user experience
The NUC’s lineage as an Ultrabook-class system means it’s free of some of the worries you’d have about PCs based on Atom-class processors. Rarely does it feel sluggish. Windows 8 boot times are unnervingly short. Software installations feel as scandalously snappy as they do on desktop Win8 systems with SSDs. Surfing the web is seamless, with quick page loads and positively unhindered scrolling, even with multiple tabs open in the background.
CPU utilization consistently stays well under 50% while streaming HD video via Netflix (which, by the way, doesn’t invoke the lock-up problems in our NUC that file copies can.) Yes, the chip’s IGP includes a hardware H.264 video decode block, but with this class of CPU power on tap, you’re not under threat of choppy video playback should software fail to make use of it.
Given the prodigious bandwidth available via that Thunderbolt port, the NUC is even a threat to replace low-end workstations for light to moderate productivity.
The NUC’s two CPU cores and integrated HD 4000 graphics won’t handle everything perfectly, of course. Triple-A game titles of recent vintage will be a struggle at best and will probably be unworkable. Still, outside of my Borderlands 2 addiction, much of the gaming at my house centers on a couple of less demanding titles, Minecraft and Unreal Tournament 2004, and those are more the NUC’s speed. I had to drop the resolution to 1280×800 in order to ensure silky smoothness in the heat of battle, but the NUC was very much up to the task of being a UT2004 station.
All of this action takes place in virtual silence, by the way, even when running a game. I thought the thing was passively cooled until I was plunking around in the EFI menus and saw the fan-speed monitor. Once you know it’s there, you can put your ear up to the NUC and hear the fan going, but it’s practically inaudible from eight inches away.
In short, the NUC ably demonstrates the potential of Intel’s current portfolio of PC technology—everything from 17W processors with reasonably decent integrated graphics to SSDs that have redefined PC storage and Thunderbolt ports that can give closed-box systems unprecedented expandability. Intel often builds concept systems like this one in order to goad the industry in a certain direction. Having played with a NUC, I’d consider the industry sufficiently goaded.
At the same time, the NUC is a pretty nifty little end product that crams more computing power into a small space than any of the past attempts we’ve seen. Unlike some prior Intel concepts, you’ll soon be able to order one of these for your own use. Provided that the lock-up problems we encountered are confined to our particular review unit, I’d say the NUC deserves the attention of anyone looking to put together a compact project PC of some sort. You’ll have to plan carefully around the output ports on offer, but as we’ve noted, a little ingenuity should allow pretty wide leeway in the selection of accompanying hardware. If you don’t care about optical disks or TV tuners, the NUC may just be the ultimate media center PC for streaming and such, although admittedly the price of entry dwarfs that of a Roku or the like.
I suppose the other question lingering in the backdrop has to do with this thing’s, um, wildly unassuming name. Is this 4″ x 4″ x 2″ form factor truly the “next unit of computing,” or is it just another one-off package in a market filled with choices of all shapes and sizes? Will it someday supplant industry stalwarts like ATX, as PCs drive into smaller footprints?
Tough to say. The answer depends to some extent on Intel’s commitment to pushing this form factor and on its ability to convice its partners at PC makers to hop onboard. Ultimately, though, it comes down to whether consumers and businesses will be compelled enough by the vision embodied in NUC-type products to make them a commercial success.
I could see that happening, if the Windows 8 app ecosystem takes off and the Windows Store is one day brimming with all sorts of consumer-focused games and entertainment options. By then, Intel’s next-gen Haswell processors should double the graphics power available in the NUC and deliver substantial increases in CPU performance, too. Plugging one of these things into a keyboard and touchscreen monitor could unlock a very easy, very compelling experience for the average family, almost regardless of how they wish to use it. At that point, the rationale for a larger desktop system could be a very tough case to make—unless, of course, you’re a hard-core PC gamer or hobbyist.
I have to admit, if that’s where the mainstream PC market is headed, this little box soothes a lot of my worries about the prospects. It’s a better PC than the one I was using several years ago, and it’s open enough to allow upgrades to several major components. I’d sure like to see a version that accommodates a laptop-style discrete graphics chip, though. With that addition, the NUC would have a much better chance of living up to the promise of its name.