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Anatomy of a NUC
Intel makes it easy to get at the NUC's guts. Four screws secure the base, and they're surrounded by rubber feet that provide just enough grip to loosen the screws by hand.

Removing the base provides access to all the internal bays and slots, making barebones builds trivially easy to assemble. It takes more time to remove the various components from their packaging than it does to put the system together.

The lid pops off with minimal prying. More muscle is required to free the motherboard tray, but that step is only required if you're doing a full teardown. The board can be extracted directly from the case by removing the two screws anchoring it to the tray.

The other side of the circuit board hosts the processor and its notebook-style blower. Despite the i7's higher thermal envelope, the blower appears to be identical to the one in the i5 NUC. It's pretty much inaudible with everyday desktop work, but there's a distinct whine when the unit kicks into high gear in games and other graphics workloads.

At full tilt, the fan's acoustic profile reminds me of the distant wail of a hair dryer blowing in another room. The tone is muted and tolerable, but it's not particularly pleasant. Too bad the NUC's support for custom lids doesn't extend to the cooler that sits directly below. I'd happily raise the profile by a few inches to accommodate a bigger heatsink with a quieter fan.

2.5" drives up to 9.5 mm thick can fit inside the NUC's drive bay. They slide right in, and they're held tightly enough that screws aren't required to secure SSDs. It's probably a good idea to screw in mechanical drives, if only to guard against vibration-induced noise.

The bay's SATA connector arrived slightly bent, preventing drives from docking smoothly with the system. This is the only hiccup we encountered during the build process. The connector was easy to push back into place, making the inconvenience minor at best.

That's it for the hardware, but there's more to the NUC than the bits and pieces inside the shell. Intel loads the machine with a great firmware interface that includes some unexpected surprises.

The UEFI is clean and functional, with quick interface transitions and smooth mouse tracking. Clock controls and multiple profiles seem a little out of place on a system like this, but I'm not complaining. Just be aware that your options are limited to underclocking rather than overclocking.

Firmware features like the automated updater and driver downloader are more pertinent to this class of device. Unfortunately, both produce a "failed to retrieve product catalog" error when checking the Internet for the relevant files. The main UI says "network disconnected" in the lower left corner even when the NUC is connected to my Gigabit Ethernet network.

Interestingly, the firmware has an integrated file browser capable of accessing NTFS volumes. Files can be deleted, but that seems to be the extent of the functionality right now. I'd love to see support for transferring data between drives, which could be useful for recovering files on systems that have been compromised by malware, viruses, or other ailments.

Users can choose between different pre-baked fan profiles or adjust the minimum speed and response rate themselves. The fan control logic takes input from two temperature sensors, and the thresholds for each one can be adjusted independently. Pretty slick for a basic machine like the NUC.

On the next page, we'll put the Core i7 mini-PC through the wringer to see how it performs.