The unique $35 Raspberry Pi computer set the PC world on its ear last year. Part computer science project and part incredibly cheap PC, the DIY single-board computer is such a hot item, some retailers are charging double what the unit originally cost. Of course, where there’s money, there’s Intel. The chip giant has formally introduced its $320 “Next Unit of Computing,” or NUC, PC concept—basically a bare-bones, hobbyist kit PC. While this is admittedly an apple–to-orange comparison in many respects, we felt that hobbyists deserve to see an accounting of the pros and cons of each in a head-on fight.
Round 1: Size
Intel’s NUC is built around an amazingly small 4x4x2-inch chassis that Intel is hoping to make the standard for subminiature-but-powerful PCs. The NUC isn’t the first we’ve seen this small, though. The Zotac Nano XS is slightly thinner than the NUC, by about half an inch, and VIA has its Pico-ITX boards. Of course, the Raspberry Pi has them all beat. It comes as a single-board computer at just over 2x3 inches for the whole package.
Winner: Raspberry Pi
Other single-board computers have been available, so the Raspberry Pi’s real breakthrough is its $35 price, making it exceedingly accessible for experimentation.
Round 2: Pricing
Intel’s Ivy Bridge chips have been amazingly lean on power consumption for the high-performance x86 chips they are. The NUC ships with a 65-watt power brick, and the dual-core Hyper-Threaded Core i3 is rated at 17 watts. Pretty impressive for an x86. However, when you consider that the Raspberry Pi can run off your cell phone charger (provided it puts out 700mA), Ivy Bridge and even the next-gen Haswell are unlikely to ever compete with the Pi in the power- consumption game.
Winner: Raspberry Pi
Round 3: Applications
We don’t mean applications as in specific apps, but the possible uses for these wee PCs. The NUC can be used as an HTPC, a mini Big Picture Steam Box, or slung behind a monitor to create an almost-all-in-one. The Raspberry Pi, on the other hand, is the perfect hobbyist machine for students and tinkerers young and old. It’s being used to run everything from MAME cabinets to controlling quad-copter drones. As a device intended to introduce folks on super-tight budgets to computing concepts and programming, the Raspberry Pi is a win no matter how you cut it. However, Intel’s NUC is also quite superb at what it’s meant for. With its included VESA-mount adapter, it can be used in signage applications and is basically an incredibly powerful small machine.
Round 4: Specsmanship
At $35, the Raspberry Pi is pretty low-powered. As a desktop UI, for example, it’s not exactly something you want to push regularly, with its 700MHz Broadcom ARM 11 CPU, 256MB of RAM, HDMI, and LAN and USB support. The NUC, on the other hand, is like everything Intel does: a tour de force of specs and hardware. The NUC we have here packs a 1.8GHz dual-core, Hyper-Threaded Core i3 chip and has Mini PCI Express slots to run an mSATA SSD and wireless card. With its HD4000 graphics, the box is capable of reasonable gaming with older titles, too. Hell, our version even packs that new-fangled ultra-fast Thunderbolt port. This round is an easy win for the NUC.
Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) is meant to spur interesting and unique uses for Intel hardware.
Round 5: Performance
Again, there’s no debating this. The NUC’s size isn’t really exciting, but its performance is. Most mini PCs have been based on VIA’s CPUs, which aren’t exactly speed kings, or AMD’s Brazos chips, which don’t light any fires themselves. The NUC is really fast for its class. The Raspberry Pi, while incredibly cool for $35, isn’t something we’d be happy pushing all day. Yes, it can run a desktop OS, and yes, it can stream some media, but would you really want it to? The answer is no.
And the Winner Is…
The fact is, both are winners. OK, now quit your bitching; we honestly wouldn’t feel right if we called this for one or the other. We think the Intel NUC is a freaking-cool little box and we can imagine it at the heart of several projects around the house and car. At the same time, the Raspberry Pi has so much charm and the price is so damned good (that’s the Raspberry Pi’s real breakthrough, you know) that there’s no reason not to buy one or two of these bare-bones kits to experiment with. So maybe those of you who thought these two devices couldn’t be compared were right.