Small PC Computing

Kaya Systems

We tour the burgeoning world of wee PCs

In case you haven’t noticed, the PC is getting smaller. But it’s not getting smaller in the way the PC fatalists see it. If anything, enthusiast PCs have gotten larger. Witness Corsair’s 900D, Cooler Master’s Cosmos SE, and Digital Storm’s Aventum II.

Yes, the Haswell Nuc is actually this small.

The truth isn’t that the PC is getting smaller and thus going away; the truth is that for enthusiasts, there’s interest in gigantic PCs, small micro-towers, and now—Intel hopes—ultra-compact form factor (UCFF) PCs no larger than a book. All of which serve unique purposes, and thereby highlight the PCs unmatched versatility.

UCFF PCs as a category aren’t new, of course. They’ve been around for years, but their performance has always been fairly underwhelming and they’ve always consisted of specialty hardware, to be embedded into an ATM or smart soda machine.

But now that these compact computers are more capable than ever, readily available, and easily built, there’s no telling what new and interesting applications will spring forth. Is Intel actually onto something big with its new Next Unit of Computing (NUC) initiative?

Next Unit of What?

Intel’s push to make the desktop smallera

Trying to figure out the actions of the world’s largest chip company can be confounding to consumers who don’t fully appreciate Intel’s size-13 footprint on the PC industry and its ability to single-handedly change the game.

Sometimes when Intel sees a niche it thinks needs to be filled, it tries to jump start it from scratch. The company tried and failed, for example, with its Common Building Block program that was meant to create a DIY-laptop world with standardized power bricks, hard drives, optical drives, LCD panels, keyboards, and battery packs. While CBB never took off, many of the fruits of that effort are still with us.

Intel is even offering a limited-edition customized Dragon NUC.

Now, Intel is attempting to both create and fill a niche again with its Next Unit of Computing, or NUC (rhymes with “luck”), a new ultra-compact form factor that the company hopes will push performance computing into unheard-of places.

Unlike the CBB program, which was totally reliant on the participation of parts makers and laptop builders, NUCs are actually built and sold by Intel itself. In a nutshell, NUCs are simply 4x4-inch computers packing as much power as possible.

From what we can tell, Intel’s actions aren’t intended to drive others out of the market. In fact, Intel seems to be trying to invite others into the NUC game. Thus far, Gigabyte has jumped in with its NUC-style Brix boxes that are proving to be fairly innovative. There are also other smaller and lesser-known brands and embedded-PC vendors in there, as well.

Unlike Thin ITX, NUC-style boxes aren’t designed around industry-standard specs. The only things common between the NUC and Brix, for example, are the footprint, the power brick, and other mobile components they accomodate. You won’t, for example, be able to swap a motherboard from a Brix into a NUC because these PCs are generally customized to the chassis they’re in.

Challenges to NUC

One of the challenges NUC and its ilk share is the limited board space. At 4x4 inches, jamming in features has meant adding more layers to the motherboard. While typical ATX motherboards feature six- or even four-layer PCBs, NUCs’ are 10-layer.
Adding layers isn’t cheap, either. For example, in a 10-layer ATX motherboard—which you might see with a dual-proc board, where additional layers are needed to run all the traces of both processors—the PCB itself costs about $90.

The path going forward for NUC isn’t to blow them up in size, either. Rather than making them, say, 5x5 inches or more in the future, Intel says it’s more interested in getting a 65-watt TDP processor to work reliably in a package of NUC’s current size. Of course, adding a hotter CPU means more cooling and a bigger and more power-hungry power brick, too.

NUC Sales

So, are NUC and NUC-style devices resonating with consumers? Intel didn’t give us exact sales figures, but it says it has seen healthy demand, with quarter-on-quarter growth from 30–50 percent. Interestingly, Intel says that even after it offered a lower-cost Celeron version using the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture, the demand has mostly been at the high end, with consumers actually preferring the initial Ivy Bridge Core i5 version.

That’s another reason Intel thinks that NUCs aren’t actually hurting the desktop. In fact, Intel believes the demand for a lot of performance, albeit in a tiny package, will reinvigorate the desktop, as people seek to put a PC in places they never could before.

Intel NUC D54250WYK

Haswell comes to the NUC

The original Intel NUC DC3217BY we saw in late 2012 was an odd duck. The case was maroon and black, and while it showcased Intel’s newfangled Thunderbolt connectivity, there were no Ethernet, USB 3.0, or analog audio out.

Intel cited limited board space as the reason for the port selection on that model (to be fair, Intel did offer a dual-HDMI version with gigabit Ethernet and a single USB 3.0 port) and soldiered on despite the skepticism over the device. That’s good news because the latest NUC leaves few questions unanswered.

The newest Haswell NUC D54250WYK shares the same footprint as the original NUC but sits about an eighth of an inch shorter. Rather than the Core i3-3217U in the original NUC, the top-end Haswell NUC features a 1.3GHz Core i5-4250U that will Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz. There’s no lack of ports on this unit, either. The Haswell NUC includes a Mini Display Port, Mini HDMI, gigabit Ethernet, four USB 3.0 ports, analog audio out, and an infrared port.

The newest Haswell NUC D54250WYK shares the same footprint as the original NUC but sits about an eighth of an inch shorter. Rather than the Core i3-3217U in the original NUC, the top-end Haswell NUC features a 1.3GHz Core i5-4250U that will Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz. There’s no lack of ports on this unit, either. The Haswell NUC includes a Mini Display Port, Mini HDMI, gigabit Ethernet, four USB 3.0 ports, analog audio out, and an infrared port.

Internally, there’s a pair of DDR3 SO-DIMM slots and stacked Mini PCIe slots that let you install an mSATA drive and wireless card. The original NUC had overheating issues that caused some of the mSATA drives to error out. Intel has apparently addressed this by tweaking the fan and adding a thermal pad that rests on the mSATA drive. The shell in all NUCs is prewired for Wi-FI. The motherboard in this NUC also features a SATA 6Gb/s port and a port for SATA power, too. Intel apparently plans to use the same board in a future NUC that will be tall enough to support cheaper and far larger notebook hard drives. The motherboard itself is an Intel design and features a beautiful UEFI as well as the QS87 chipset.

After a puzzling first effort, Intel offers nearly all you could ask for in its NUC follow-up.

Performance isn’t a primary driver of people who run these mini PCs, but we decided to see how this Haswell NUC stacked up against the original NUC. That unit features a 1.8 Core i3-3217U CPU on the Ivy Bridge microarchitecture. Both NUCs are dual-core Hyper-Threaded parts, so the only real performance difference is due to the Turbo Boost of the Haswell and the newer microarchitecture. As expected, the Core i5 gives the original Ivy Bridge a pasting in CPU-related tasks. In graphics, it’s closer between the HD4000 and HD5000, but the Haswell part generally is in front. Oddly, the Ivy Bridge NUC comes out on top in 3DMark Ice Storm, which tests basic graphics performance, but falls back in 3DMark Cloud Gate. Neither NUC is suited for serious gaming, but in the 10-year-old Counter Strike: Source graphics stress test, both gave acceptable frame rates at 1080p.

SPECIFICATIONS/Benchmarks
Haswell NUC
Ivy Bridge NUC
Model
D54250WYK
DC3217IYE
CPU 1.3GHz Core i5-4250U 1.3GHz Core i5-4250U
Graphics HD5000 HD4000
Ports Mini HDMI 1.4a, DisplayPort 1.2, 4x USB 3.0, gigabit Ethernet, analog audio out, IrDA, Kensington lock port 2x HDMI 1.4A, 3x USB 2.0, gigabit Ethernet, Kensington lock port
Stitch.EFx (sec) 1,747 2,453
ProShow Producer (sec)
2,567 3,729
3DMark Cloud Gate 3,958 3,409
3DMark Ice Storm 32,157 35,969
Counter Strike Source (fps) 63.23 52.4
Google Octane 2.0 17,832 10,643
Power Consumption Idle (watts) 5 8
Power Consumption Idle (watts) 24 35
Power Consumption YouTube 1080p (watts) 19 14.5

Best scores are bolded.

We measured power consumption of both NUCs using the same power load and the same power brick (both were outfitted with similar parts, too). On idle, the Haswell unit drank about 5 watts versus the 8 watts of the Ivy Bridge unit. We also tried a worst-case scenario with Prime95 and Furmark running simultaneously. The Haswell used 24 watts to the Ivy Bridge’s 35W. While watching a 1080p video on YouTube, the Ivy Bridge unit used but 14.5 watts, interestingly, while the Haswell NUC used 19 watts.

The Haswell NUC is likely the fastest NUC available today, as no one has figured out how to shoehorn a quad-core into the unit. But it’s not cheap. We found the unit on the street for about $375. Before you balk, remember that you’re getting a kit that includes the CPU and PSU. Yes, you can get a cheaper system by going larger—but if you want small and fast, this is the best yet.

Intel NUC D54250WYK


$375, www.intel.com

Gigabyte Brix Projector GB-BXPi3-4010

Intel’s goal with the NUC initiative was to create a new category of computing. What that category would be or how it would be used, the company didn’t really know when it started.

While Gigabyte has several NUC-style clones, dubbed the “Brix” line, the one that really captured our interest is the Brix Projector. Yup, a UCFF PC with a DLP pico projector and 1.5-watt speaker integrated into it. The projector isn’t super bright, but it outputs a decent 75 ANSI-rated lumens. That means you won’t be using it outdoors in the daylight or in a very bright room, but it’s far better than the first 15-lumen pico projectors of yesteryear. It offers enough light that Gigabyte rates the device as being capable of projecting on a screen up to 85 inches. Resolution is also average at 864x480, or WVGA res, but that’s pretty standard for most pico projectors that are still actually “pico.” We’ll also note that lower resolutions are actually quite passable for media projection. Gigabyte even had the foresight to integrate a standard tripod mount into the base of the PC, too.

Inside the Brix Projector you’ll find a pair of DDR3 SO-DIMM slots, and the same stacked layout to take mSATA and Wi-Fi cards as in Intel NUCs. External ports are also generous, with four USB 3.0, gigabit Ethernet, a Mini DisplayPort 1.2, full-size HDMI 1.4a, an analog jack that pulls double duty as optical SPDIF output, and a Mini HDMI-in port should you want to use the unit as a projector from another device.

SPECIFICATIONS/Benchmarks
Brix Projector
Ivy Bridge NUC
Model
GB-BXPi3-4010
DC3217IYE
CPU 1.7GHz Core i3-4010U
1.8 Core i3-3217U
Graphics HD4400 HD4400
Ports HDMI 1.4a, Mini HDMI in, Mini DisplayPort 1.2, gigabit Ethernet, 4x USB 3.0, analog audio, S/PDIF 2x HDMI 1.4A, 3x USB 2.0, gigabit Ethernet, Kensington lock port
Stitch.EFx (sec) 2,441 2,453
ProShow Producer (sec)
3,564 3,729
3DMark Cloud Gate 3,667 3,409
3DMark Ice Storm 26,475 35,969
Counter Strike Source (fps) 53.29 52.4
Google Octane 2.0 11,624 10,643
Power Consumption Idle (watts) 7.5 8
Power Consumption Idle (watts) 24 35
Power Consumption YouTube 1080p (watts) 19 14.5

Best scores are bolded.

Yup. There’s indeed a projector integrated into this PC that’s no bigger than a Wendy’s Baconator.

The CPU in the model we reviewed is a Haswell 1.7GHz Core i3-4010U with HD4400 graphics. Again, extreme performance isn’t a key metric for people looking at this class of device, but we were still interested to see how it does against the Ivy Bridge Intel NUC DC3217IYE. Remember, both the Intel Ivy Bridge NUC and the Brix have Turbo Boost disabled at the factory. Despite the Ivy Bridge NUC having a 100MHz advantage, the Brix Projector was slightly faster in some tests. In other tests, though, both were dead even. Clearly, if you really need the performance in a UCFF, pony up for a Core i5 part.

In general, power consumption on idle was slightly higher (using an external monitor) with the IB NUC; under our CPU- and GPU-heavy loads and simply playing a 1080p YouTube video, the Brix was on par with the Haswell Intel NUC. As with that PC, the Brix Projector consumed more power than the older Ivy Bridge NUC playing the 1080p video.

Using the Brix Projector is a hoot. The graphics signal, you should know, is passed internally, so there’s no hooptie external pass-through cable. You can actually run both the projector and an external monitor simultaneously.

Overall, it’s a slick little unit. The question is, what would a normal person need it for? The answer is, most of us wouldn’t need it. But don’t take that to be a negative. There are certainly specialized applications for it, such as media installations, commercial applications, or even an ad-hoc mini-theater setup for the kids. Again, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but the fact that you can get a “real” computer with a 75-lumen projector is pretty mind-boggling.

Gigabyte Brix Projector


$600, www.gigabyte.us

Gigabyte Brix Pro

Faster than a tower. Really

In the land of ARM and off-brand x86 parts, the dual-core Core i3 is king. After all, when we talk about the “high-performance” needs of UCFF users, the performance of a Haswell-based CPU or even an Ivy Bridge part is like going back in time and landing a P-51 Mustang next to the Wright brothers after they just touched down at Kitty Hawk.

Following that same analogy, you can think of Gigabyte’s blisteringly fast Brix Pro as an X-Wing fighter making a fly-by, wagging its wings, and then flipping the bird before making the jump to light speed. We’re not kidding, either. The Brix Pro is simply the fastest NUC-style UCFF we’ve ever tested. We actually watched it outpace our full-tower, six-core 3.2 Core i7-3630K that’s clocked full-time at 3.9GHz.

The secret is Gigabyte’s ability to magically integrate a full-on Core i7-4770R in the Brix Pro. The Core i7-4770R “Crystalwell” is no mere Haswell part. Its main claim to fame is 128MB of super-fast embedded DRAM on the CPU package that acts as gigantic L4 cache (a Core i7-4770K’s L3 cache is 8MB). This cache greatly increases bandwidth for graphics operations and puts it on par with GeForce GT 650M discrete graphics. Since it acts as L4 cache, it can also greatly aid some application workloads, too. And no you can’t buy it, it’s only available soldered to motherboards. Oh, and it’s a full-on desktop-class quad-core Hyper-Threaded i7 chip that’ll hit 3.9GHz on Turbo.

SPECIFICATIONS/Benchmarks
Brix Pro
Ivy Bridge NUC
Model
GB-BXi7-4770R
DC3217IYE
CPU Core 3.2Ghz i7-4770R 1.8 Core i3-3217U
Graphics Iris Pro 5200 HD4000
Ports HDMI 1.4a, DisplayPort 1.2, 4x USB 3.0, gigabit Ethernet, Kensington lock port 2x HDMI 1.4a, 3x USB 2.0, gigabit Ethernet, Kensington lock port
Stitch.EFx (sec) 867 2,453
ProShow Producer (sec)
1,410 3,729
3DMark Cloud Gate 10,406 3,409
3DMark Ice Storm 68,195 35,969
Counter Strike Source (fps) 149.43 52.4
Google Octane 2.0 26,893 10,643
Power Consumption Idle (watts) 8 8
Power Consumption Idle (watts) 87 35
Power Consumption YouTube 1080p (watts) 20 14.5

Best scores are bolded.

The Brix Pro packs in more performance per cubic inch than any system we’ve ever tested.

Physically, the Pro is about 2.5 inches tall, making it about half an inch taller than the Intel Haswell NUC on page 51. That height, though, gives the Brix Pro the capability to mount a 9.5mm 2.5-inch notebook drive. The motherboard still has an mSATA slot, so you can run an SSD as well as one of the upcoming 2TB 9.5mm hard drives.

Like other NUC-style machines, besides the mSATA slot, you’ll also find a mini PCIe slot that Gigabyte has already populated with an 802.11ac as well as two SO-DIMM slots. There’s a single integrated power and SATA connector for the 2.5-inch drive, as well.

On the performance tip, as we said, the Brix Pro smokes all other NUCs. That’s not a surprise, as it’s a quad-core part going up against dual-core parts. And we don’t mean a wisp of smoke—it’s a full four-alarm smoke-out with the Brix Pro offering 200 percent performance increases over the Ivy Bridge NUC and from 82–163 percent increases over the Haswell NUC. This desktop Haswell-R part is so fast, it slightly outpaced our desktop zero-point system in ProShow Producer 5 and was slower by just 4 percent in Stitch.Efx 2.0 runs. Yes. Faster than a six-core overclocked machine that’s 30 times bigger. Granted, the tower will eat it in multithreaded tasks and gaming, but the fact that a machine smaller than a retail CPU box can be faster than a mid-tower machine is incredible.

There’s a cost, though. When you’re hammering it with a heavy workload, it gets a little whiny. It’s not horrible, but you will hear the fan under very heavy loads. It also drinks more. The CPU has a TDP rating of 65 watts and under extreme CPU and GPU loads, we saw at-the-wall power usage hit near 90 watts. Most of the time though, power consumption is quite reasonable. The last issue is cost. This bare-bones kit will set you back $650. Much of that is the CPU ($400), but either way, we know there’s a price for miniaturization. At least with the Brix Pro, you’re getting a hell of a lot of performance.

Gigabyte GB-BXi7-4770R


$650, www.gigabyte.us

DIY NUC

You can roll your own NUC—but should you?

To a DIYer, “building” a NUC is a bit of an insult. You basically buy a NUC or Brix, slot in two SO-DIMMs, a Wi-Fi card, an mSATA drive, and install the OS. If you posted such a “build” on YouTube, the hazelnut gallery would come out of the woodwork to rip you a new one in the comment section.

All is not lost, however, for true wrenchers who want to actually build a UCFF PC from scratch, so-called kits be damned. We just wonder whether it makes much sense, because at this point there are a lot of barriers to entry to building your own.

The first issue is getting a chassis. Intel has told us it really sees these devices as being purely custom computing options with the base NUC and NUC-style machines. While Mini-ITX and Thin ITX (more on that on page 56) feature standard I/O shields like their bigger siblings, ATX and microATX, NUC doesn’t have any standardized cutout for system I/O. That means any chassis would have to be built to take one of the multiple NUC motherboard port arrangements currently available. So don’t just buy a NUC motherboard and a NUC chassis without making sure they match. Most vendors will specify which NUC motherboard the chassis will fit.

To experience what it would be like to build our own NUC, we ran with a Silverstone PT14 chassis. This aluminum chassis comes with an I/O shield for either the dual-HDMI-port Ivy Bridge boards or the Thunderbolt version. Our PT14 is the dual-HDMI version.

DIY NUC-style

Silverstone Petit PT14 chassis
$40
Intel D33217GKE mobo/CPU $310
19V power brick
$16
Wi-Fi antennas $10
Windows 8 OEM OS $99
Adata 8GB DDR3/1333 RAM
$65
120GB Crucial mSATA drive $108
Intel 802.11ac Wi-Fi card $34
Total $682

The next issue is securing the NUC motherboard. Intel isn’t fully committed to supporting a DIY ecosystem, so rather than selling individual boards, it’s selling 10-packs of motherboards intended for system builders or integrators. In a bit of a wink, wink, nod, nod, though, some of the bulk packs of motherboards are broken up and sold to end users. This, of course, raises questions about warranty support, but according to LogicSupply.com (a popular vendor of embedded systems that seems to stock most of the esoteric NUC parts), the warranty for the boards are covered directly by Intel even if purchased stand-alone, so it seems Intel will stand behind them.

BARE-BONES INTEL NUC

Intel DC3217IYE
$255
Windows 8 OEM OS $99
Adata 8GB DDR3/1333 RAM
$65
120GB Crucial mSATA drive $108
Intel 802.11ac Wi-Fi card $34
Total $561

The board we went with was an Intel DC33217GKE “Golden Lake” motherboard. It comes with an integrated heatsink and fan—which won’t work, as the PT14 chassis features an integrated heat pipe that connects directly to the chassis. Since the CPU is 17 watts, it’s possible to dissipate much of the heat through the chassis. Our Golden Lake motherboard came with a standard Intel cooler, which we unscrewed by first removing the two visible screws holding down the fan. We then removed the three fans holding down the heatsink and gently removed it from the board. The PT14 does have a single fan that’s set to exhaust air out the bottom of the chassis.

From there it’s as simple as screwing the motherboard to the top of the chassis, populating the RAM, Wi-Fi card, and mSATA, installing the power button, and you’re done. All told, it took us about 15 minutes to roll our own NUC going at a leisurely pace so as not to forever lose the screws. We’ll note that the Wi-Fi antennas didn’t come with our 802.11ac card (they typically don’t) so you’ll have to secure a pair of rubber duckies with cables (just Bing “rubber wifi antenna and internal cable,” select Image, and search for the rubber duck antennas with internal cables. They’re typically under $10.)

Before you’re done, though, you’ll also need to buy the 19-volt power brick. Intel actually sells them on its NUC parts page for $15, or they can be found at retailers for $16, typically.

There, you’re done. You’ve just built your first Next Unit of Computing. It wasn’t difficult and it’s kind of fun. But does it make sense?

No, not at all. Not once you run the numbers. The parts to build your own NUC from scratch cost about $682 (including $99 for the OS). If you had bought a NUC bare-bone system and added the same 802.11ac, mSATA, and RAM from the DIY package you would spend: $561. Ouch. And that’s without having to search through Uncle Jim’s used computer store for a pair of rubber duck Wi-Fi antennas and finding someone who actually sells NUC chassis. From a fiscal point of view, it makes no sense whatsoever. Even our standard edict that building your own box gives you control over the parts, fan placement, and appearance really doesn’t apply because, really, is there that much of a difference?

Again, Intel says it’s not sure where it’s going with NUC as a DIY proposition and that’s apparent to us, because the real kick in the gut here is the motherboard. A NUC bare-bones kit with motherboard, power brick, chassis, and internal Wi-Fi antennas is $255 on the street. The best price we could find for the NUC motherboard alone was $310. Perhaps if Intel decides to make the price of the NUC boards more reasonable the DIY angle will make more sense, but today, it’s a waste of scratch no matter how you cut it.

Parts of a Whole

The essential components of a DIY NUC

The Silverstone PT14 NUC chassis dissipates heat using a heat pipe with a fan blowing air out the bottom.

This Intel D33217GKE NUC motherboard isn’t packaged for consumers, but you can still buy them with apparent warranty support from Intel.

With NUC, you’ll want higher-clocked modules and a dual-channel config if you care at all about 3D performance.

Like most NUCs, our DIY takes an mSATA drive. Newer units, however, will take 2.5-inch drives at the cost of space.

The NUC and Brix units all share the same basic 65-watt power supply.

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