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Intel's Broadwell-powered NUC mini-PC reviewed

Smaller, faster, NUC-ier

The concept behind Intel's NUCs is pretty straightforward: take an ultrabook, lop off the screen, keyboard, and touchpad, and then cram the remaining parts into the smallest desktop enclosure possible.

The original Next Unit of Computing launched in late 2012, delivering ultrabook-class performance inside of a 4" x 4" x 2" chassis. The following year, according to Intel, shipments of NUCs and NUC-based systems surged from zero to a million units. It's no wonder. NUCs are small and affordable, and much like ultrabooks, they're powerful enough to run pretty much anything but graphically intensive games and heavy-duty workstation apps. A NUC may be the only desktop PC most people ever need—and that holds especially true in corporate environments.

Intel has been refining the NUC design and freshening up the internals every year since 2012. This year, the chipmaker has wasted no time. Barely more than a month after launching its latest family of ultrabook-bound processors, code-named Broadwell-U, Intel has sent us a new NUC with a Broadwell-U processor inside. The system is due out later this quarter, and its price tag is expected to be around the $399 mark.

Thanks to its Broadwell-U silicon, this machine promises better performance and power efficiency than the previous generation. Intel has made other improvements under the hood, as well, including the addition of an M.2 storage slot and a built-in Wi-Fi controller.

This machine is called the NUC5i5RYK. It belongs to the 5th Generation Intel NUC family, which is kind of a misnomer, since the NUC lineup has only been refreshed a couple of times. Intel presumably wants to evoke its 5th Generation Core brand, the official name for Broadwell-U—except that's a bit of a misnomer, too, since it doesn't apply to Broadwell-based Core M, Pentium, and Celeron processors.

To keep things simple, we'll just call this thing the Broadwell NUC, or the new NUC for short.

Watch us discuss the new NUC on the TR Podcast

The new NUC looks a lot like last year's model, but Intel has made some tweaks to the design. The port arrangement has changed a little, one of the USB ports is now of the fast-charging variety, and the chassis has slimmed down a bit, from 1.36" to 1.29". The actual selection of ports is unchanged, though. You've got quad USB 3.0, Gigabit Ethernet, Mini DisplayPort, Mini HDMI, a headphone jack, and an infrared sensor.

What's really new is under the hood. We'll crack the new NUC open and poke inside soon, but our little spec sheet should elucidate things for now:

Processor Intel Core i5-5250U
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 6000
Platform hub Broadwell PCH-LP
Memory 2 DDR3L SO-DIMM slots
Storage 1 M.2 slot
1 SATA port (no room for an actual drive)
Audio 8-channel audio via [Mini HDMI/Mini DisplayPort]
Wireless 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and Intel Wireless Display via Intel Wireless-AC 7265
Ports 1 Mini DisplayPort
1 Mini HDMI
4 USB 3.0
1 RJ45 via Intel Gigabit Ethernet
1 analog headphone out
1 analog microphone in
Expansion N/A
Dimensions 4.5" x 4.4" x 1.4" (115 x 111 x 32.7 mm)

The Core i5-5250U is the main event. This processor has a 15W thermal envelope, and it's based on the larger of the two Broadwell-U dies, so it has beefier HD 6000 integrated graphics with 48 execution units. Certain other Broadwell-U variants are based on a smaller die with 24 EUs, and a handful (Pentium- and Celeron-branded parts) have half of those EUs disabled, leaving just 12 active.

The Core i5-5250U's dual CPU cores run at 1.6GHz with a 2.7GHz Turbo peak, and its integrated graphics processor (IGP) has base and maximum speeds of 300 and 950MHz, respectively. The 3MB of L3 cache is a little less than the 4MB in top-of-the-line Broadwell-U models, and neither vPro nor TSX are supported. Otherwise, this chip has all of Intel's special features enabled, including Hyper-Threading, VT-d, VT-x, and AES-NI.

Complementing the Core i5 is an M.2 storage expansion slot, which supports both PCI Express and Serial ATA gumstick drives in 22x42, 22x60, and 22x80 form factors. Four PCIe Gen2 lanes feed this slot, twice as many as on some desktop mobos. The system also has a regular SATA port, but the chassis is too small to accommodate a 2.5" drive. The port is there because, as far as I can tell, Intel uses the same motherboard in the taller NUC5i5RYH, which has (literal) headroom for another storage device.

The new NUC mirrors its predecessors in that it ships without memory, storage, or a bundled Windows license. However, with this generation, Intel supplies a pre-mounted Wi-Fi controller. The controller is the new Intel Wireless AC-7265, which offers 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, and Wireless Display support. The controller uses an M.2 interface and is soldered down on the motherboard, so you can't swap it out for a different one.

Before we start our dissection, I'd be remiss not to include a picture of the new NUC's 65W power adapter. All too many mini-PCs seem dwarfed by their own power bricks, but the new NUC isn't one of them. Look at the thing! It's tiny. If you want to take your NUC abroad, the adapter comes with a set of international plugs that can be used instead of the North American one.