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Intel's NUC5i7RYH mini-PC with Iris graphics reviewed

Beefier Broadwell-U in the palm of your hand

Despite being branded as the Next Unit of Computing, Intel's NUC wasn't actually a new idea. It simply formalized an approach other PC makers had been taking for years: squeezing lower-power notebook chips into tiny chassis that make even Mini-ITX rigs look morbidly obese. Some horsepower and expansion are inevitably lost versus small-form-factor desktops, but modern mobile chips are fast enough—and integrated enough—to let palm-sized PCs deliver a good experience for most common computing tasks.

The last NUC to pass through our labs was a slim Broadwell unit that wraps a 15W Core i5 processor in a palm-sized package just 1.4" thick. Today, we're taking a closer look at its big brother, the NUC5i7RYH. This model expands the formula slightly to accommodate not only additional storage, but also a beefier Core i7 with a 28W TDP. Those perks make the machine a more well-rounded proposition than its predecessor—and a potentially better fit for a wider range of applications.

The Broadwell NUC in i5 (top) and i7 (bottom) form

Although this NUC shares the 4.5" x 4.4" footprint of its sibling, the case is 0.5" taller. This growth spurt provides a little more breathing room without compromising the system's compact credentials.

Apart from a couple stickers on the front, the external design is unchanged. The muted aesthetic should blend into most environments, but it's a little short on style. I'm not a fan of the glossy plastic lid, either. The shiny surface shows fingerprints and smudges, and more worryingly, it scratches very easily.

To Intel's credit, the lids are designed to be replaceable. In fact, the lid specifications are freely available online, so folks with 3D printers can make their own. We've even seen lid prototypes loaded with NFC and TV tuning hardware, though I don't believe either has made it to market just yet.

The bigger NUC has the same array of external connectivity as the smaller one. Dual front-mounted USB 3.0 ports are joined by two more at the rear, but none are the reversible Type-C variety. Mini HDMI and DisplayPort outs provide multiple options for monitors and big-screen TVs, while a front analog jack covers headsets. Add in the latest wired and wireless networking widgets, and the basics are covered.

Processor Intel Core i7-5557U (3.1GHz base, 3.4GHz Turbo)
Graphics Intel Iris Graphics 6100
Platform hub Broadwell PCH-LP
Memory 2 DDR3L SO-DIMM slots
Storage 1 M.2 slot (PCIe and SATA)
1 SATA port and 2.5" drive bay
Audio 8-channel audio via Mini HDMI/Mini DisplayPort
Stereo audio via analog jack
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 x fast charging)
1 RJ45 via Intel I218-V Gigabit Ethernet
1 analog headphone out/microphone in
Expansion N/A
Dimensions 4.5" x 4.4" x 1.9" (115 x 111 x 48.5 mm)

Inside the chassis sits a Core i7-5557U processor from Intel's Broadwell-U family. There are actually two versions of Broadwell-U silicon: a smaller 82-mm² die that also powers the Core M, plus larger 133-mm² silicon with double the graphics execution units (EUs). The Core i7 uses the larger die, as does the Core i5-5250U chip in the other Broadwell NUC we've tested.

Both CPUs boast dual Hyper-Threading cores, but the i7-5557U runs them much faster. Its 3.1GHz base clock is nearly double that of the i5-5250U, and its 3.4GHz Turbo peak is 500MHz higher. The i7 also has 4MB of L3 cache, 1MB more than the i5.

Despite the fact that both processors rely on the same integrated GPU, only the i7 carries Intel's premium Iris branding. As far as I can tell, the distinction is based entirely on frequency. The chip's Iris Graphics 6100 GPU has the same 48 EUs, 300MHz base clock, and 3840x2160 max resolution as the HD Graphics 6000 in the i5-5250. While the HD implementation tops out at 950MHz, the Iris scales up to 1.1GHz.

Broadwell-U's dual-channel memory controller supports low-power DDR3 memory up to 1866 MT/s. The NUC taps into both channels via two SO-DIMM slots on the bottom of the motherboard. These slots are empty in the barebones version of the machine, but our sample came loaded with a couple of Crucial DDR3-1866 sticks.

The barebones NUC is sold sans storage, as well. Intel loaded ours with Samsung's SM951 256GB SSD, which nicely highlights the strength and weakness of machine's M.2 slot. The slot is fed by four lanes in the chipset, doubling the bandwidth available in the M.2 slots commonly found on Z97 desktop motherboards. But the chipset's Gen2 lanes are also a generation behind the Samsung SSD's Gen3 interface, preventing the drive from running at full speed.  That mismatch should be remedied by the inevitable Skylake NUC, whose M.2 slot will likely be tied to Gen3 lanes.

Even with a Gen2 handicap, the current M.2 slot is still way faster than Serial ATA. And it supports SATA-based gumsticks, too, for compatibility's sake.

2.5" SATA drives plug into the blue port off to the right. The ability to combine solid-state and mechanical storage is particularly appealing, as is the prospect of doubling up on SSDs. I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Let's take the NUC apart piece by piece...