This month’s Build It is a bit of a reach for us here at Maximum PC, simply because we’re used to building PCs that are powerful enough to require an intervention from the local overclocking support group. However, we can’t ignore the rise of the small PC, or the living room PC, or whatever you want to call these Lilliputian rigs that are suddenly as popular as raging against the OS hate crime named Windows 8. This little machine in particular, the Intel NUC, which stands for Next Unit of Computing, seemingly came about as a reaction to the surprisingly popular Raspberry Pi, which is a tiny bare-bones PC that originated in the UK early last year and sells for just $25. Though the Raspberry Pi was designed to be an affordable gateway drug into the world of command-line hacking, the Intel NUC is a much more complete solution that Intel says is perfect for home entertainment, commercial kiosks, or just quiet, affordable computing. Since the NUC (pronounced Nuck, though we like to call it the Nuke) doesn’t include all the bits that you need to make it run, we figured it was a prime candidate for a Build It article.
The first stage of NUC acquisition involves deciding which NUC to purchase—there are two different SKUs available as of press time. Both have the same basic specs for storage, RAM, and wireless, in that they have none, so you’ll have to BYO. They both feature the same 1.8GHz Core i3-3217U Ivy Bridge dual-core Hyper-Threaded CPU soldered to the motherboard, which won’t accept a skyscraper heatsink for overclocking, sadly; and both also have three USB 2.0 ports. They then diverge, with one featuring dual HDMI ports for multi-display action, Wi-Fi, and Gigabit Ethernet, and the other sporting one HDMI port, Wi-Fi, and a Thunderbolt port. The dual-HDMI unit features an all-black chassis and will set you back $290, while the T-bolt version goes for $310 and sports a Corvette-like cherry-red roof. There are also two more NUCs coming soon: a high-end NUC with a Core i5 processor and USB 3.0, and a low-end NUC with a Celeron/Atom processor. For this build, we chose the dual-HDMI NUC (model DC32171YE) because we wanted to use it as a quiet, out-of-the-way PC instead of a typical streaming-media-center box. Its core components include two SO-DIMM slots, an mSATA slot for an SSD, a wireless PCI Express port, three USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, and two HDMI ports. Audio is provided by the HDMI or Thunderbolt ports, but you can't connect your speakers to the NUC. There’s also a power brick (but oddly no cable that plugs into the wall) and a VESA mounting bracket included. The NUC includes a 3-year warranty and a box that plays the Intel commercial jingle when you open it.
|SSD||Intel 525 Series 240GB||www.intel.com||$300|
|CPU||Intel Core i3-3217u||www.intel.com||N/A|
|RAM||2x 8GB Patriot DDR3/ 1,333 SO-DIMMs||www.patriotmemory.com||$82|
|Wireless||Intel Centrino 6235 80211.n Mini PCIe||www.intel.com||$32|
|Power||AC Power Cord||www.amazon.com||$1|
|OS||Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit||www.microsoft.com||$100|
Click the next page to see each installation step.
In order to gain access to the NUC’s innards, you’ll need to remove the bottom panel from the device, which thankfully is quite easy. Since Intel figures you probably won’t be popping open the chassis very often to swap out parts, it’s gone ahead and secured it with four easy-to-remove Phillips head screws (image A). The screws are all captured, too, so you don’t have to worry about losing them once you pop off the NUC's ventilated door. With the door removed, we see there’s also a way to remove the motherboard from the chassis by removing three more small screws. Though putting a door on the little bugger isn’t a big deal, it’s appreciated since Intel could have theoretically made the NUC a closed system in an attempt to reduce support calls.
With its dome removed we can finally have a look around the NUC to see where everything goes. As you can probably tell, this is the belly of the little beast, or the underside of the mainboard (image B), as the Core i3 processor and heatsink/fan assembly are on the other side of the board where active cooling is required to keep things chilly. Down here in passive-cooling land we have a half-length mini PCI Express slot for the wireless card, the full-length mini PCI Express slot for the mSATA drive, two SO-DIMM RAM slots, and one empty header labeled Front Panel. You can’t see them but there are Wi-Fi antennae encircling the enclosure; you can see where they attach to the Wireless card. The tiny little mobo rests inside what looks like a crude metal soap dish, though the Intel Desktop Board logo is proudly displayed. We have heard that despite Intel’s plans to get out of the motherboard game after Haswell, it does have a roadmap for the NUC, so plan on seeing several more iterations of this bambino rig in the months to come.
Click the next page to learn how to install the RAM, the OS, and more.
The NUC includes two SO-DIMM slots, so you’ll need to acquire some laptop RAM, or as our Patriot Memory was labeled, “Ultrabook” RAM. We snagged two 8GB SO-DIMMs of Patriot DDR3 PC3-10600 memory, which run at 1,333MHz. We could have gone with 1,600MHz RAM, but we’ve had some weird experiences previously with overclocked RAM, so for now we’re playing it safe. The RAM sticks cost $40 apiece and are a little bit of a splurge for this system’s budget, but we threw caution to the wind and maxed out the NUC’s memory capacity. Installation is just like it is with a laptop, requiring you to push the DIMMs in at an angle (image C), then slowly push them down until they snap into place.
The NUC sports a form factor known as uCFF, which stands for “ultra-compact form factor.” This means it’s tiny, so Intel had to stack some components on top of one another like tenants in a high-rise, and two of these tenants are the wireless card and the mSATA card, which sit on top of one another with about a millimeter between them. Due to this arrangement, you must install the wireless card first, which is as easy as sliding the card into the slot (image D) and then attaching the antennae that Intel has prewired to the chassis and dropped down right where the card rests. We connected the black lead to the plug labeled Main and the white lead to Aux, but there’s no wrong way to do it. We chose a Wireless N card from Intel but any half-size mini PCI Express card will do. The Intel Wireless N card costs $30, and gave us a consistently strong signal in the office.
Choosing which mSATA SSD you will use in the NUC is arguably the most important decision you and your doctor will make, as it’s the only user-upgradeable component that will have a tangible effect on performance. Sadly, modern mSATA SSDs lag behind the blazing-fast 2.5-inch SSDs we all use today, so shopping for one is a bit disconcerting, as names like Samsung, Corsair, and OCZ are nowhere to be found. Instead the choices boil down to Intel, Crucial, Adata, and Mushkin. Since consumers don’t typically purchase mSATA SSDs, the pickings are slim. However, the new SandForce SF-2281-powered 525 Series from Intel are a glimmer of hope, as they ride the SATA 6Gb/s interface and are equivalent to the totally fast 520 Series 2.5-inch drives, so we went with the fat 240GB version. To install the drive we simply inserted it into the keyed slot and then secured it using the provided screw (image E). And yes, we know this is an expensive SSD, so please don’t write us letters saying we spent too much on the drive. This is really just a way to get a good look at what the NUC can do, and a 120GB SSD should offer similar performance.
We used a USB optical drive to install our OS. We then went to the Intel website and loaded the wireless and Intel QS77 chipset drivers onto a USB key in order to get them onto the NUC. Once that was accomplished, we were good to go. All in all, we had the OS installed to our Intel SSD in roughly 10 minutes, and after Windows Update ran a zillion times and rebooted even more, we were finally up and running within an hour (SP2 please, Microsoft). The first thing we did was to run the Windows Experience Index test, which showed us a score of 5.9—pretty dang good for a munchkin rig like this. To put it in context, the AMD Brazos–based Zotac Zbox Nano XS scored just 3.9 in the same measurement.
We were pleasantly surprised by the NUC, mostly because we’ve always had a “size matters” mantra in our heads that subliminally controls our expectations about a PC’s performance. Given the NUC’s small size, and our experience with other pocket PCs like the Raspberry Pi and the Zotac Zbox, we expected the NUC to largely suck from a performance point of view. But it didn’t. For web browsing, watching movies, and running MS Office it felt just as fast and responsive as any other PC we've used lately. Though you’re probably inclined to think its speedy nature is partly due to the Intel 525 Series SSD, we also tried it with a garden-variety Intel 310 SSD, and that felt quite responsive, too.
Since the NUC includes decent onboard graphics care of the Core i3 processor, we fired up Far Cry 3 and Portal 2 to see whether either was playable. Sure enough, the NUC had some major issues with Far Cry 3, but was able to just barely play Portal 2 at native 1080p resolution with all settings on Medium. For kicks, we ran 3DMark 11, and the NUC scored P581. So, gamers need lowered expectations. Media streaming, however, is great. Among the media files we tried on the NUC was a 10GB HD rip of Avatar, which ran on the NUC flawlessly. The same file brought the AMD Brazos–equipped Zotac to its knees. The playback stresses the CPU and GPU quite a bit, not to mention the SSD, so we were seriously impressed by its ability to smoothly play such a massive file.
Now, for the bad news: We played around with the Thunderbolt version of the NUC and it overheated in testing. Initially, we suspected faulty RAM since RAM can cause random shutdowns, but when we took the top off the NUC we noticed that the SSD and wireless card were burning hot, so we threw a fan on it and all problems vanished. Obviously, that's not a good long-term solution, but Intel is aware of the problem and is working to rectify it. Whether that involves redesigning the mobo so there's more room between the PCI Express connectors or upping the fan speed remains unknown.
All in all, the NUC is nifty, if not slightly defanged for its lack of USB 3.0. We love its small size, decent amount of horsepower, and silent operation. We would totally buy this for our moms if the overheating issue is rectified. We'd also wait for Gen 2 of the NUC, as the thought of a Core i5 processor and USB 3.0 sounds like a tasty recipe for a quiet, out-of-the-way PC.