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.
Gutting the Brix Pro
More often than not, miniaturization hampers upgradability. Taking apart a phone or a laptop is usually trickier than cracking open a desktop PC. Happily, though, the Brix Pro is quite straightforward to disassemble.
Four Philips-head screws hold the bottom panel in place. Undo the screws, and the panel comes off, granting access to all of the Brix Pro’s internal slots and ports. (More on those in a second.) The bottom of the panel has an empty drive cage with room for a single 2.5″ drive, either solid-state or mechanical. If I were buying the Brix Pro for myself, I probably wouldn’t think twice about strapping in a 1TB mass-storage mechanical drive, like this one for 60 bucks. I need space for my music collection and other downloads.
Here’s a closer view of the Brix Pro’s expansion area. See that piece of Scotch tape? It holds down a lone Serial ATA power and data connector, which is meant for whatever drive winds up in that 2.5″ cage we talked about. I assume the connector was taped down to prevent it from rattling about, since our sample didn’t ship with a 2.5″ drive.
This part of the motherboard plays host to a couple of SO-DIMM slots (both filled by 4GB modules), an mSATA slot (populated by a 240GB Intel SSD), and a Mini PCIe slot (which accommodates the system’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth module). It’s hard to see in this picture, but the Mini-PCIe slot sits below the mSATA one. The only sign of it here is a black antenna wire snaking below the solid-state drive.
The Brix Pro can be taken apart further, but that requires a few more steps. First, one must slide out the panel that covers the rear I/O ports. Then, one must remove the SSD and unhook the two antenna wires from the wireless card below. Finally, a couple extra Philips-head screws must be undone. The screws sits on either side of the I/O port cluster. Once all that is taken care of, the motherboard and everything still fastened to it will come out of the machine without resistance.
Yep. That’s all of it (and my ugly mitt for scale). I’ve left the SSD unplugged in order to reveal the Mini PCIe wireless controller. Even with it installed, the Brix Pro’s innards are impressively small considering the desktop-class processor they house.
Speaking of which…
The top of the board accommodates all the expansion and connectivity; the bottom, pictured here, is where the processor and chipset live. I was too chicken to remove the cooling apparatus, but there wouldn’t be much point. It’s not like you can throw in a Thermaltake Frio in there—or any other desktop-style cooler, for that matter.
The lack of support for desktop CPU coolers makes sense, of course, but that sliver of copper still looks awfully slim for a 65W chip. So does the blower fan. Generally, there are only two ways to prevent overheating with an inadequate heatsink surface area: spin up the fan like crazy or throttle the processor’s clock speed. Neither option is exactly ideal.
We’ll see how the Brix Pro fares under a heavy system load in a minute. First, though, let’s have a look at gaming performance.
We already know Intel’s quad-core Haswell parts are blazing-fast in desktop apps, so that isn’t really worth rehashing. You can look at the numbers from our original Haswell review, and they’ll give you a decent sense of the Brix Pro’s productivity performance.
What we were really curious about was the Brix Pro’s gaming chops. The Core i7-4770R’s Iris Pro 5200 integrated graphics aren’t available in retail-boxed desktop CPUs, and we’ve only ever tested them on a 47W processor—the Core i7-4950HQ—before. The Core i7-4770R has a 65W TDP and should be even quicker.
Let’s start with some inside-the-second tests in a couple of games: Battlefield 4, which is new and fairly demanding, and Borderlands 2, which is a little older and should be easier on a slow GPU. For comparison purposes, I included AMD’s A8-7600 “Kaveri” APU, which also has a 65W TDP and relatively speedy integrated graphics. This isn’t a straight-up, apples-to-apples competitive matchup, since the Kaveri APU is supposed to cost $119, while Intel prices the i7-4770R at $358. Still, the Kaveri part should give us an important frame of reference—and it is, to be fair, the only 65W member of the Kaveri family.
At these settings, the Brix Pro’s Iris Pro 5200 IGP fares quite well. Frame times are relatively low and relatively consistent overall, and the occasional spikes aren’t too dire. Subjectively, the game feels surprisingly smooth—even if it doesn’t look its best. The Brix Pro certainly delivers a better experience than the lower-end Kaveri test machine, which teeters on the threshold of playability.
Here, we were able to raise the resolution and tack on a little antialiasing without degrading performance on the Brix Pro’s Iris Pro 5200 graphics. Our 65W Kaveri chip didn’t yield playable frame times at these settings, but the Iris Pro 5200 handled itself just fine. Borderlands 2 is plenty playable on the Brix Pro.
Now, there are a couple of caveats to consider.
First, the Brix Pro actually draws more power running Borderlands 2 than the Kaveri test system. At the wall, I measured 83W for the Brix Pro and 69W for Kaveri, although the Brix Pro did draw less power at idle: 15W vs. 24W. (The systems used different power supplies, but their energy efficiency seems to be roughly equivalent, so the numbers should be comparable.) Given the Brix Pro’s skimpy cooling, that comparatively high power draw translates into rather noisy fan whine. We’ll explore that issue in more detail on the next page.
Second, the Brix Pro’s Iris Pro 5200 graphics seemed to cut corners on texture filtering compared to the Kaveri APU’s built-in Radeon. In Borderlands 2, I noticed some weird, circular artifacts on textures that should have been mostly plain:
The Kaveri APU didn’t exhibit any such artifacting. It rendered the gray slabs in the image above smoothly, without bizarro circles.
Perhaps this is a bug specific to Borderlands 2. Other titles, as far as I could tell, didn’t suffer from similar artifacting or filtering issues. Still, this isn’t something I recall ever encountering with AMD and Nvidia graphics processors in recent history. Intel’s Iris Pro 5200 may be fast, but the competition still seems to offer more consistent image quality. (For what it’s worth, I used Intel’s latest beta graphics drivers for all game testing.)
In addition to the games on the previous page, I tried a handful of other titles in order to get a better feel for the Brix Pro’s gaming capabilities.
In each case, I tinkered with detail levels to find the best compromise of image quality and performance, and then I played a little bit while keeping an eye on frame rates using Fraps. Frame rates only tell part of the story, of course, but our empirical benchmark data shows the Iris Pro 5200 IGP isn’t prone to egregious frame latency inconsistencies. I didn’t notice any obvious spikes in frame times in the games below, either.
BioShock Infinite‘s Unreal Engine 3 graphics look good but aren’t overly taxing on today’s gaming hardware. Running on the Brix Pro at 1366×768 with the “low” detail preset, the first few levels of the game felt quite smooth and very playable, with frame rates in the 45-70 FPS range. Image quality was surprisingly good despite the detail preset and resolution used.
I used the same 1366×768 resolution with a “normal” detail preset to wander Tomb Raider‘s abandoned mountain villages. Here, too, the Brix Pro performed well. Frame rates did dip a little lower than in BioShock at times (Fraps reported 35-60 FPS), but I’d still say the experience was quite playable.
This is an oldie but a goodie: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, the latest remake of the popular Half-Life mod. Here, I was able to crank the resolution up to 1080p and max out all the detail settings except for MSAA, which I left disabled. (FXAA did a decent enough job of buffing out jaggies.) Frame rates hovered between 50 and 75 FPS, which was enough to help me secure a number of headshots—and to have quite a lot of fun along the way.
Noise and heat
While the Brix Pro does a commendable job of running both newer and older games, it generates quite a lot of noise in the process. The system is almost whisper-quiet at idle, but under load, that little blower makes the machine sound almost like a hair dryer at full blast. It definitely detracts from the enjoyment of a good 3D shooter. Here’s a video of the Brix Pro running Borderlands 2 at the same settings used for our benchmark:
Yeah, it’s loud. And it sounds worse in real life than in the video, believe it or not. The system does run quieter in basic desktop tasks like web browsing, but the fan still has a tendency to spin up as soon as CPU load increases even a little.
Now, a loud fan can be forgiven if it keeps the processor appropriately cool. Is that the case with the Brix Pro? To find out, I fired up Prime95’s small-FFT test and kept track of both CPU temperatures and clock speeds using AIDA64. I let the system sit idle for five minutes, ran Prime95 for about 10 minutes, and then let the system cool off for another five minutes. The results of that little experiment are summed up in the line graph below:
The Brix Pro’s Core i7-4770R hits 100°C and clearly throttles its clock speed in order to avoid heating up beyond that threshold. I’m not sure what happened in the last few minutes of the cool-down run—perhaps a background process kicked in—but in any event, it seems the Brix Pro’s CPU cooler isn’t up to the task of keeping the processor cool enough to sustain its base clock. Prime95 is admittedly a demanding scenario, but in Borderlands 2, I saw CPU temperatures in the same ballpark (and clocks occasionally dipped below the rated base speed). The Brix Pro runs hot and loud even outside of torture tests.
This appears to be a deliberate design choice by Gigabyte. When I asked the company if the behavior we saw was normal, I was told that Intel’s spec allows for temperatures up to 100°C. Intel confirmed this fact, saying Haswell has a thermal throttle point at 100°C that “keeps the part operating within its intended specifications.” I then asked if running a chip at such a temperature for extended periods would have a notable impact on chip longevity. Intel conceded that “temperature obviously encourages electron migration and doping level changes in the silicon more quickly,” but it went on to say, “At this temperature, the warranty period for part replacement should remain valid and product life should be viable throughout that warranty period.” Intel covers retail-boxed desktop chips for three years. Coverage for OEM CPUs like the Core i7-4770R depends on the system vendor; in the Brix Pro’s case, coverage seems to be one year.
There’s no question Intel has created an exciting new category of PCs with the NUC. The tiny systems push the envelope of what’s possible in a small-form-factor PC, and they do so with potent processors that can deliver very compelling performance.
In the case of the Brix Pro, Gigabyte has pushed the envelope even further. The system is very fast, and its gaming performance is commendable for a machine without discrete graphics. I was also impressed by how easily one can access the expansion slots and, if needed, add an auxiliary hard drive or SSD. That’s a big plus for enthusiasts.
Perhaps the envelope was pushed just a bit too far, though. While the system did operate within spec in our testing, its cooling apparatus was very loud and failed to cool the Core i7-4770R processor enough to avert clock throttling. That throttling didn’t degrade performance in a noticeable way on our test bench, where ambient temperatures were around 21°C (70°F). Nevertheless, the fan noise alone made the system difficult to put up with. I wouldn’t be thrilled to have that kind of noise in my bedroom or home-theater setup.
It’s too bad the Brix Pro’s dimensions weren’t enlarged slightly to make room for a larger heatsink and fan. Even with twice the existing cubic area devoted to CPU cooling, this machine would still be amazingly tiny, and it would still be an awesome feat of engineering. As it is, though, the Brix Pro is a little too noisy for my taste, at least in this iteration with the 65W Core i7-4770R. Another variant with a slower Core i5-4570R processor does exist, but as far as I can tell, its CPU has the same 65W thermal envelope as the i7-4770R.