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.
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
|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 22×42, 22×60, and 22×80 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.
Crackin’ it open
Another novelty with this generation is the removable lid, which can be replaced with a custom one.
According to Intel, replacement lids can be purely cosmetic (“think university or corporate logos”), or they can add extra features to the system. “This can include adding USB, VGA or serial ports or adding capabilities such as NFC or wireless charging to the lid,” the company tells us. Intel even provides CAD files on its website so folks can 3D-print their own lids.
So . . . anyone wanna buy a NUC?
The lid isn’t the way to the new NUC’s heart, though. That would be the bottom plate, which is held in place by four rubber-padded screws that double as the system’s feet.
Here’s what the new NUC looks like with the bottom plate removed—and with the extra hardware Intel supplied with our review unit sitting beside it.
The main attractions inside the machine are the two DDR3L SO-DIMM slots, which feed the Broadwell processor’s dual memory channels, and an M.2 storage slot, which sits at the other end of the board. Fill up those slots, and your NUC is ready to roll. As we noted earlier, the Wi-Fi controller (the tiny rectangle with the antenna wires attached) is already soldered on, and the blue SATA port is there purely for decorative purposes in this particular NUC model.
Intel shipped our machine with 8GB of 1600MHz Kingston HyperX DDR3L memory and two M.2 solid-state drives: a “mainstream option,” the Intel 530 Series 360GB, and a “high performance option,” the Samsung XP941 256GB. The Intel drive has a Serial ATA interface and fairly typical performance ratings (540MB/s for reads, 490MB/s for writes). The Samsung drive is in another tier altogether, so much so that calling it “high performance” is almost an understatement. The thing has a PCIe x4 interface, and it’s supposed to top out at 1170MB/s during reads and 930MB/s during writes. Yikes.
While we’ve got the thing open, we might as well take a look at the other side of the motherboard, where the CPU cooler sits. (By the way, getting the mobo out is surprisingly easy. All it takes is undoing a couple of screws.)
Intel apparently found the world’s tiniest fan to cool the new NUC. That’s probably okay, since the 15W Broadwell-U chip is hardly a power hog. Still, I would have preferred to see a slightly thicker machine with a beefier cooler. More heatsink surface area and a larger fan would go a long way toward reducing fan whine, which the new NUC unfortunately exhibits. Alas, Intel seems to have gone for miniaturization at all costs.
Note the wires connecting the board to the top of the chassis. Those are antenna wires clipped to the M.2 wireless adapter, and they go all around the inside of the aluminum housing.
Here’s the new NUC with memory and an M.2 gumstick drive installed. The temptation to try the Samsung XP941 was too great to resist, so that’s the drive I used for testing. Speaking of which . . .
Our testing methods
Keeping test conditions the same allowed us to put the performance of the new NUC in a broader context. The downside is that the graphs below are pretty heavy on higher-wattage desktop processors. The NUC is, after all, a desktop machine, and knowing how it compares to full-blown desktop hardware is helpful.
In addition to the new NUC, we tested one of the system’s Haswell-powered predecessors, the D54250WYKH. That machine is powered by a Core i5-4250U, which has the same 15W TDP and $315 tray price as the Broadwell system’s Core i5-5250U. We set up the Haswell NUC with 8GB of DDR3-1600 Crucial RAM and an Intel 530 Series 240GB SATA solid-state drive.
Memory subsystem performance
The new NUC is in the same ballpark as the old one, but it falls somewhat short. The performance difference is surprising, given that the SO-DIMMs in the Broadwell system have tighter timings than those in the Haswell one. We’ll see momentarily how, if at all, this difference affects performance in real-world applications.
Broadwell also outpaces Haswell in 7-Zip.
Yep. The Core i5-5250U is slightly faster in these software video encoding tests, too.
3D rendering and OpenCL
Most people probably aren’t going to use a NUC for heavy-duty 3D rendering, but Cinebench always paints an enlightening picture of single- vs. multi-threaded performance. Based on the numbers above, it looks like the Core i5-5250U gets more work done than the i5-4250U in both single- and multi-threaded apps. That’s to be expected, I suppose, since the i5-5250U has higher base and Turbo peaks (1.6/2.7GHz vs. 1.3/2.6GHz). Also, the Broadwell architecture is supposed to deliver about 5% higher performance per clock cycle than Haswell.
LuxMark gives us a sense of the integrated graphics’ GPU computing performance, and the results this time are a little puzzling.
The Core i5-4250U is way ahead of the Core i5-5250U, even though the last-gen chip has eight fewer execution units and only a slightly higher peak IGP speed (1000MHz vs. 950MHz). We asked Intel to clarify what’s happening here, and the company is still trying to figure it out. We’ll update you when we hear back.
Do the Core i5-5250U’s integrated graphics also stumble in games? We ran Thief‘s built-in benchmark to find out. Testing was done at 1280×720 using the “Normal” detail preset.
Despite its weak showing in LuxMark, the new NUC’s Broadwell CPU beats last year’s Haswell silicon here by a small margin.
Thanks to our empirical benchmarks, we’ve situated the Broadwell NUC’s performance in a competitive context. But benchmarks alone can’t fully communicate how fast a system feels during day-to-day use. That’s a job for wordsmithing—backed, of course, by the trained eye of a seasoned hardware reviewer.
I spent a little while using the NUC instead of my main PC for my daily tasks, which mostly involve Google Chrome and Photoshop. Coming from a Core i7-3770K, I expected the NUC to feel noticeably slower. And it did, but only in the sense that I was able to tell the difference. That subjective disparity quickly blended into the scenery, after which the NUC felt, in essence, like any desktop PC with 8GB of RAM and fast solid-state storage ought to feel. Sure, the Intel IGP didn’t accelerate Photoshop as smoothly as the discrete GeForce in my own system, but the slight extra choppiness didn’t impede my work or slow me down. It was more of a cosmetic annoyance than anything.
None of this should come as a surprise if you’ve spent any length of time with an ultrabook, but it bears repeating. NUCs, like ultrabooks, are good enough for productivity work to make one seriously question the need for a bulkier, more power-hungry system. Yet unlike ultrabooks, NUCs aren’t necessarily priced at a premium over larger machines. That makes them uniquely compelling.
Next up: gaming. We already know the new NUC doesn’t run Thief very well, but what games will the system let you play? To answer that question, I did some seat-of-the-pants testing in a handful of other titles. In each one, I tinkered with resolution and detail settings, and then I recorded my subjective impressions, using Fraps to keep an eye on frame rates at the same time.
My first stop was the polygonal wastes of Flippfly’s Race The Sun, which the new NUC rendered with silky smoothness at 1080p using the best (“Fantastic”) detail preset. The frame rate was pretty much a constant 60 FPS with occasional 2-3 FPS dips. I’d expect other indie games with similarly plain 3D graphics to run just as well.
Next, I tried a higher-profile game with more visual ‘zazz: the first episode of Dontnod Entertainment’s Life Is Strange. Using the lowest detail preset at 1080p, even the title screen was stuck around 22 FPS. That called for further compromise.
In the end, I settled on 1280×720 with everything dialed down, which made the game playable and responsive but not particularly smooth or visually pleasing. Frame rates hovered around 30-45 FPS during playable sections and dipped into the 20s during cut scenes. For a story-driven game like this one, though, that’s probably enough.
My last stop was Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a competitive shooter without overly stringent graphical requirements. Overall, CS:GO was fluid and playable at 1600×900 with everything set to “Medium” and antialiasing disabled. Frame rates ranged from 30 to 80 depending on the map and location, which was sufficient to slaughter bots in multiple maps.
The downside? Some graphical glitches, perhaps stemming from the pre-release nature of the IGP drivers. As the screenshot above shows, cs_militia looks weirdly murky on the Broadwell IGP, even though the map’s setting is supposed to be in broad daylight. Click the “GeForce” button below the screenshot to see how the scene is meant to look.
We measured power consumption at the wall for both NUC systems. Since the NUC power bricks are much less efficient than the ATX power supplies we used with our other desktop processors, we’ll look at the NUCs by themselves here.
The new NUC draws about as much at idle as last year’s model, but it’s a wee bit more power-efficient under load. That’s a bit like having your cake and eating it, too, since the new NUC is also faster in most of the tests we ran.
Aside from those funky LuxMark results, which muddy things up ever so slightly, I think the overall picture is pretty clear.
The new NUC is a little smaller, a little faster, and a little more power-efficient than last year’s offering. Other perks include support for custom lids and faster solid-state drives, not to mention the built-in Wi-Fi adapter. All in all, I’d say that makes for a rather nice evolutionary upgrade.
Without a Windows license, the configuration we tested should set you back around $730—but that’s largely because of the Samsung XP941 SSD, which costs around $260 on its own. Swap it out for a 180GB Intel 530 Series SSD, and the system price tumbles to an eminently affordable $580. Intel will offer NUC variants with slower Core i3 processors, as well, which should start at $299 in barebones form or $480-ish with 8GB of RAM and a 180GB Intel SSD. Not bad.
Could Intel have done more? Sure. The system’s graphics and gaming performance isn’t stellar. The choice of an uber-tiny cooling solution means the new NUC emits a steady hiss during use and a kind of whine under heavy loads. It’s no louder than a laptop, but the enthusiast in me would have preferred a slightly larger but quieter machine.