You've seen all the bleak headlines: the PC industry is shrinking, collapsing, withering away... It's certainly true that, overall, PC sales are on a downward trend. However, it's also true that parts of the market are very much alive and still growing. One of those parts is PC gaming hardware, and another comprises mini-PCs, including Intel's fabled NUCs.
In a recent interview with the guys at Ars Technica, Intel's PC Client Group VP Lisa Graff didn't mince words about the success of NUCs and mini-PCs. "The whole category is growing," she said. "A million units last year; I think we're going to see something like 50 percent growth this year. We'll see what it is, but it's going to be strong, positive growth... NUCs are growing, our OEMs' businesses are growing."
It's not hard to see the appeal of NUCs. Most of them have a smaller footprint than a CD jewel case. (Kids, ask your parents.) They're small enough to strap to the back of a monitor with a VESA mount. Yet they offer speedy processors, fast solid-state storage, and relatively plentiful connectivity. For a lot of folks, that's all that's needed.
The first, Intel-built NUC (short for Next Unit of Computing) debuted a little over a year ago, and our own Scott Wasson picked it apart at the time. Today, we're back with a mini-PC that's based on the same form factor but trades the power-sipping mobile CPU for a quad-core desktop specimen. Say hello to Gigabyte's Brix Pro:
The Brix Pro packs a surprising amount of power inside of a surprisingly small chassis. The processor under the hood is a Core i7-4770R with Iris Pro 5200 integrated graphics. It has quad CPU cores, each with a peak Turbo speed of 3.9GHz, and its integrated GPU features 128MB of dedicated eDRAM cache. That cache can do wonders for real-time 3D graphics, where rapid access to assets is paramount—and vanilla DDR3 memory can bottleneck performance.
In short, this is a very fast machine for its size. It should be no slouch in games, even without a discrete GPU.
The version of the Brix Pro we're looking at today is the BXi7-4770R, which sells for $649.99 at Newegg without storage or memory. Intel sent us this system pre-configured with a 240GB 525 Series solid-state drive and eight gigs of DDR3L-1600 RAM. As you can see below, those components nicely round out the Brix Pro's other hardware:
|Processor||3.2GHz Intel Core i7-4770R (65W)|
|Graphics||Intel Iris Pro graphics 5200|
|Platform hub||Intel HM87 Express|
|Audio||Realtek ALC269 HD audio|
|Wireless||802.11ac Wi-Fi and Blueooth 4.0
via Asus AW-CB161H
1 Mini DisplayPort
4 USB 3.0
1 Gigabit Ethernet via Realtek RTL8111G
1 headphone jack with S/PDIF
|Expansion||SATA port for 2.5" hard drive/SSD|
|Dimensions||2.4" x 4.3" x 4.5" (62 x 111.4 x 114.4 mm)|
That's definitely a lot of PC for such a small chassis. Really, the dimensions in the spec sheet almost fail to do justice to just how small this thing is. Here it is next to a standard 3.5" mechanical hard drive:
You wouldn't think one of Intel's fastest Haswell desktop CPUs could fit in there—but it does, albeit in a 65W incarnation. The regular Core i7-4770K is rated for 87W and has a slightly higher base clock speed, at 3.4GHz, although its peak Turbo speed is the same: 3.9GHz. The i7-4770R's Iris Pro graphics, however, aren't offered on the i7-4770K.
Now, to be fair, the Brix Pro owes some of its diminutiveness to the lack of an integrated power supply. The system gets DC power from an external brick that is, believe it or not, wider than the machine itself:
Yeah, that doesn't look quite as good as those glamor shots. Ah, well. Chances are, the power brick will spend most of its lifetime under a desk, anyway. The Brix Pro also ships with a VESA mounting bracket, so you can strap it to the back of a monitor, entirely out of sight.
We're going to look at the Brix Pro's performance in just a little bit. First, however, I expect many of you are wondering the same things I did when I unpacked this thing: how does all that hardware fit inside, and how easy is it to upgrade? Join me on the next page for a thoroughly documented gutting of the Brix Pro.