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
|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 3840×2160 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…
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.
Our testing methods
Keeping the conditions the same allows us to put the NUC’s performance in a broader context. The downside is that the graphs below are loaded with higher-wattage desktop processors. The Core i7-5557U in the big Broadwell NUC may have nearly double the TDP of the i5-5250U in the smaller variant, but it’s still a mobile chip at heart.
In addition to testing the two Broadwell NUCs, we added one of their Haswell-powered predecessors, the D54250WYKH. That machine is powered by a Core i5-4250U with the same 15W TDP as the i5-5250U. We also tested Gigabyte’s Brix Pro, a slightly larger take on the mini-PC formula with a much beefier Core i7-4770R. That Haswell chip has quad Hyper-Threaded cores, Iris Pro graphics backed by dedicated eDRAM, and a much higher 65W TDP.
To make the graphs easier to read, the Broadwell NUCs are highlighted in different colors than the rest of the field.
Memory subsystem performance
Running DDR3-1866 memory gives the NUC’s Core i7-5557U processor a bit of an advantage over most of the desktop chips, which were tested with slower DDR3-1600 RAM.
The i7-5557U is reasonably competitive with the desktop crowd in the browser tests, which take advantage of the strong single-threaded performance offered by its Broadwell cores and high operating frequencies. The other tests better exploit multiple threads, putting the mobile duallie at a distinct disadvantage.
Versus its i5 sibling, the i7 NUC offers a big step up in performance across the board. Most of that’s probably due to the difference in clock speed between the two.
3D rendering and OpenCL
Cinebench’s single-threaded results show the potency of the NUC’s Broadwell cores, while the multithreaded ones highlight the limitations of the dual-core design. If you’re doing serious rendering on a mini-PC with a mobile CPU, you’re doing it wrong.
Again, the i7-5557U in the big Broadwell NUC outperforms the i5-5250U in the smaller one by substantial margins. The combination of faster clocks, plus a higher thermal envelope, provide an especially nice boost when LuxMark is hammering the CPU and GPU simultaneously.
Can it play games?
To gauge the NUC’s integrated graphics, we ran Thief‘s built-in benchmark. Testing was done at 1280×720 using the “Normal” detail preset.
Impressively, the Core i7-5557U matches the performance of AMD’s A10-6700, a desktop chip with Radeon graphics and a much higher 65W TDP. It’s way faster than the i5-5250U in the smaller Broadwell NUC, too.
An FPS average from a single title doesn’t tell us a lot about what it’s like to actually play games on the NUC, so I spent some time going through my Steam library to see what the system could handle. Turns out it’s surprisingly competent if you’re mindful of the limitations.
Indie games are no sweat; the NUC renders Race the Sun, Dyad, Mark of the Ninja, and Transistor fluidly at 1080p resolution with full detail. Depending on the title, the frame rate is locked at either 30 or 60 FPS. Dyad and Mark of the Ninja don’t need to kick the fan into the highest gear, but the whine is clearly audible when playing the other two games—even from across the room on the couch.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed and DiRT Showdown demand more of the hardware, and the gameplay is more sensitive to little hiccups. I had to lower the resolution to 1366×768 to get a smooth experience with frame rates consistently around 40 FPS. To the NUC’s credit, it maintains that level of performance with high details in both games, but not without the blower humming in the background.
Portal 2 runs really well on the NUC: well over 60 FPS at 1080p resolution with all the details turned up, and a comfortable 35-60 FPS with 4X MSAA added to the mix. The action is smooth, and the graphics look beautifully crisp.
The more methodical skulking in Dishonored feels OK at 1080p with normal details and some shadow and lighting effects turned off. Fraps reports 28-35 FPS, but you can feel the periodic slowdowns. The game is consistently smoother at 1366×768, even with higher details, with frame rates mostly in the mid-40s.
Pro tip: gaming with headphones and the volume turned up almost makes the NUC’s noisy blower melt into the background.
The NUC’s fan spins up as soon as the load screen for Batman: Arkham Origins appears. Ugh.
At 1366×768 with the lowest details, the FPS counter hangs around 28-35 FPS in confined quarters, but it regularly drops to the low 20s in some snowy outdoor areas. While that’s tolerable enough for a quick beatdown, I’d stick to older or more modest games for longer sessions.
We measured power consumption at the wall socket for the entire system, sans monitor and speakers. 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 mini-PCs by themselves here.
The big Broadwell NUC pulls 16W more than its smaller sibling under load. At idle, the difference between the two is a measly three watts.
You don’t have to spend a lot of time with the NUC5i7RYH to appreciate the overall concept. Thanks in part to a 28W Broadwell duallie with high clock speeds, the system feels very fast with basic desktop tasks like web surfing, photo editing, and document work. It’s responsive under demanding multitasking, too, though performance in heavily multithreaded apps is ultimately limited by the number of cores. That’s a reasonable concession to make for the palm-sized form factor, I think.
The CPU cores share the die with a turbo-charged Iris GPU that’s surprisingly capable in games. Indie titles run like a charm, as do some older favorites. If you’re willing to dial back the resolution and detail levels, the NUC is even capable of handling more demanding blockbusters. However, the integrated GPU is still nowhere near fast enough for serious gaming.
More worryingly, taxing the GPU causes the fan to whir noisily. Although the blower is very quiet with CPU-only loads, the NUC clearly needs better cooling for higher-wattage chips like the Core i7-5557U. The discreetness of the small form factor is kind of lost when you can hear the thing from across the room.
If you stay within the bounds of basic desktop work, the NUC5i7RYH is much better behaved. This taller variant is also particularly flexible thanks to the inclusion of a 2.5″ drive bay. The ability to combine a wicked-fast solid-state drive with capacious mechanical storage makes the machine suitable for a broader range of applications than the shorter, M.2-only alternative.
The user-friendly chassis allows storage and memory to be added with ease; just about anyone should be able to turn one of the barebones kits into a fully functional PC. Add the included VESA bracket, and the NUC can be mounted just about anywhere, including to the back of compatible monitors. The prospect of rolling your own all-in-one PC is especially appealing when the display and computer can be upgraded separately.
At nearly $500 online, the NUC5i7RYH sits at the top of Intel’s Broadwell mini-PC lineup. The price isn’t unreasonable given the processor, but I can’t help but feel like the chip is too much for the diminutive form factor. The Core i5-5250U is still plenty quick for the basics, and the NUC5i5RYH puts it inside the same chassis for only $369.
Heck, even the Core M has enough pep for most computing tasks. Instead of stuffing the NUC with higher-wattage chips, Intel should consider building one with the lowest-power version of its premier mobile processor.