Here’s a product which hasn’t received much media exposure- Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC). The NUC is an ultra small form factor bare bones device. The model reviewed contains Ivy Bridge hardware, however current generation Haswell devices have also been released.
We have contacted Intel asking to review one of their newer devices, however no response was received.
The NUC is small, quiet and power efficient. The dimensions are 116.6mm×112.0mm×39.0mm, which is perfect for either a Media Center or MAME machine. Power usage is reported by Intel to have a 65w peak, however after watching an in depth power usage review it appeared to idle at 12-13w and peak at 20-25w under load. Nice. Finally the NUC is very quiet, with a solitary laptop sized fan sitting at the top of the unit. When not under load, temps sit at around 40 degrees Celsius and the fan is almost silent. When under load, temps can hit 65-70 degrees Celsius and the fan noise can be compared to a laptop under load. It’s not silent, but it’s quiet enough.
What’s in the box:
On opening of the NUC’s packaging, you are greeted with the ‘Intel sound’ via a battery powered, light activated chip embedded in the box. Kind of cool, never seen that done before- although I had the box open while unpacking. Every time a shadow passed over the light sensor, I was reminded of the delightful Intel sound. Easily fixed by covering the sensor.
Inside the box we have a single page foldout Manual, Mounting bracket (for the back of TV’s or Monitors), Screws and the NUC device.
The device reviewed is an Intel NUC DC3217BY purchased from Umart.com.au for $199 AUD. This configuration comes with a 1.8ghz i3 3217-U dual core / 4 thread CPU (3mb L3 cache, soldiered), Motherboard, Fan and enclosure. This model comes with Red enclosure, 3 USB 2.0 ports, 1 HDMI and 1 Thunderbolt port. The other i3 Ivy Bridge model is the DC3217IYE. This model comes with the same processor but is in a black enclosure with gigabit Ethernet, dual HDMI out and no Thunderbolt. Strangely enough, this configuration is cheaper than the reviewed Thunderbolt model. Both models use Intel HD 4000 graphics.
To complete the system, a mSATA SSD, DDR3 laptop sized ram and a PCI-e wireless card is needed. We have added the following hardware to the NUC for this review:
Ram: 1333/1666mhz speed laptop sized DDR3 (2 Slots) with a max of 16gb. We purchased 2x 2gb Hynix 1333mhz sticks off eBay for $11 delivered. On hand 1066mhz ram did not work after updating the bios (Which is critical to the NUC’s operation- more on this later). If incompatible RAM is used, the unit will not boot and the Power light on top of the device will flash.
mSATA SSD: Any standard length mSATA SSD (longer mSATA SSD’s, such as those used in later model Macbook Pro/Air devices will not fit). We purchased a ‘Crucial M500 120GB SSD mSATA 6Gbps’ from Umart.com.au for $99.
Wireless: Any PCI-e wireless card in theory should work, however I’d suggest sticking to Intel devices. We purchased an Intel 7260 dual band 802.11 ac/a/b/g/n PCI-e device. This card is wireless display enabled, however we do not have a wireless display to test this on. The card was also purchased through Umart.com.au for $27 AUD.
In total, this device cost $336 AUD to build.
So. Easy. Even the most novice of users could put the device together. There are 4 Phillips-head screws on the bottom of the device. Once unscrewed, the bottom of the device can be removed. You now have access to everything needed to get the NUC up and running.
Ram can be easily inserted and clipped in, while the mSATA/PCI-e ports use screws to secure the cards. The bottom port is used for the Wireless card and the top for the SSD.
Reassemble and you’re done. That’s it. That’s everything you need to do to get the NUC up and running. Awesome.
First Boot & OS:
For me, the first boot was okay. The OS of choice was Windows 8.1, which installed approx 15 minutes. Once installed however, that’s when we started to run into problems. The network would cease to work after about 2 minutes of use however Windows would still report being connected. After some research, this was due to the SSD causing the wireless card to overheat and fail- however it was fixed in a future bios release. Bios update was easy and uneventful- downloaded the file from the Intel website and copied it to a standard NTFS USB stick. I rebooted the device and entered the bios (Intel Visual Bios – UEFI) which is impressive. Everything can be configured, from fan speed to how much ram to dedicate to graphics processing. The bios was updated easily, the USB storage device was detected and the update file was applied.
Once the bios was updated, the NUC performs perfectly.
Boot times are amazing- if running windows 8 or later make sure to enable fast boot in the bios. After a full shutdown of the system it boots to desktop within 6 seconds. Between the POST and welcome screen, you see the windows loading flag for not even 1 second. The speeds are amazing, making this the fastest booting device we’ve got.
We then installed XBMC and pointed it at a 4tb network share. The entire library of media was synchronized within 20 minutes, with no noticeable GUI slowdown. To further test the wireless performance, I copied multiple 4gb files from a NAS. Results were optimal- the Intel 7260 wireless module was operating at the full N band speed. As a final test, Steam in home streaming was trialed. For those who are unfamiliar with Steam in home streaming, it’s a service which basically works as a remote desktop and is currently in Beta. You launch steam on the host PC and remotely play the game on another device. No graphics processing is performed on the NUC, however network reliability and performance is paramount for an acceptable gaming experience. All games tested were received running at 60fps with minimal stuttering caused by network delay.
Video playback is great, with no slowdown on 1080p video. CPU usage sits at approx 30% on high definition content playback.
Now we move onto graphics performance- which is great for a device of this size. Although integrated graphics isn’t going to be running Crysis 3 on full, it’s perfect for running casual games such as Limbo, Trine 2 and Bastion at 60fps constant. More graphically intensive games such as Portal, Torchlight 2 or Half Life 2 yield moderate results, being playable (30fps) at either low or medium settings. More recent games however you won’t have much luck with unfortunately. You may have more success with the newer Haswell models.
Another bonus is that virtualization is supported on both the i3 and i5 models. That’s right, you can start a Virtual Machine on a device small enough to fit under your fedora.
Finally, Sound is good as you would expect- only being delivered through HDMI. Probably not the kind of machine for an audiophile due to lack of input availability without USB peripherals. Not much more to report on here.
Configurations for the NUC come in three tiers: Intel Celeron, i3 and i5. The newer Haswell models also include an embedded IR receiver, display port, front facing headphone / microphone jack and dual front USB. Also included are internal USB headers, however connecting them up may be a bit advanced for casual computer builder.
Recommended consumer market:
If you don’t play games and don’t require massive local storage, this device should be perfect. After using it for a day I immediately wanted to build one of these for my grandmother. It’s simple, cheap, quick and relatively powerful. Those who want an always on media center should also be interested. It boasts minimal wattage usage, extremely quick booting and great OS responsiveness- exactly what you want from a media playback device. XBMC performs perfectly, with videos launching instantly when selected from the library (even when the source files are located on network storage).
To buy or not to buy?
Basically if you want the perfect media center (if you have NAS) or want a cheap PC that doesn’t require gaming grunt, this is for you. I’m extremely impressed; the only shortfalls being the lack of peripheral connections, limited upgrade options, USB 3.0 and 2.5″ drive support. It appears the Celeron models support 2.5″ drives and all Haswell models have at least 2 USB 3.0 ports.
So impressed, I’d buy another.