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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?
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.
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.
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.