Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC) review
Intel's NUC packs plenty of processing power into a tiny chassis
- Tiny size
- Good performance
- Great as a media centre-style device
- Consumer model lacks LAN
Intel's Next Unit of Computing is a wonderful device for anyone who wants a genuinely tiny computer system for the home, office, or anywhere else. It supplies speed that's on par with a regular-sized computer and it has a useful range of connectivity, including Thunderbolt for all you early adopters.
Price$ 399.00 (AUD)
Intel's Next Unit of Computing, or NUC, is a tiny computer that showcases Intel's ability to make small, interesting and useful computer form factors. It's a unit that is roughly 117mm wide, 112mm deep and 40mm tall, and it can be used in a wide variety of applications. There are two flavours of the NUC, one which is geared more towards consumers (the DC3217BY), and one which is better suited for business applications (the DC3217IYE). We looked at the DC3217BY, which comes in a rather nice burgundy colour.
The NUC is a barebones system that ships only with the case and a tiny motherboard inside, as well as an external, 65W power adapter. It's primarily designed for systems integrators to sell as a solution, or for resellers to bundle it with all the parts that you'll need to make it run. These include RAM, an mSATA solid state drive (SSD) and a half-sized, mini-PCIe Wi-Fi module.
The motherboard in the NUC is an Intel D33217CK model, which has an Intel QS77 chipset and houses a soldered-on Intel Core i3-3217U CPU. This is a dual-core, 1.8GHz CPU with Hyper-Threading. The board also has two SO-DIMM memory slots (it can take up to 16GB of RAM), two mini-PCIe expansion slots with mSATA support (one is a half-sized slot) and a few external ports. There is a USB 2.0 port on the front of the unit, as well two more at the rear, and there is also an HDMI port and a Thunderbolt port (which also works as a DisplayPort). The power button is on the top of the unit. The business model, which is black rather than burgundy, comes with an Ethernet port, has two HDMI ports and forgoes Thunderbolt.
Four screws hold the base of the NUC to the cover, and the base needs to be removed in order for the unit to be built up. For our tests, we used one 4GB DDR3 memory module, an Intel SSD 520 Series drive and an Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 Wi-Fi module. All except for the RAM were supplied by Intel. It's very easy to install these components into their slots, but the trickiest bit was plugging in the case's tiny built-in antenna connectors to the Wi-Fi module.
Once we built up our test unit, it booted straight away and we were able to get into its BIOS, which is a visual, point-and-click interface that's called, funnily enough, Visual BIOS. You can use your mouse to navigate around the different settings if you want to change boot options or if you just want to check up on the thermals.
Before you can do anything with this unit, you have to install an operating system. We used Windows 7 Pro (64-bit), for which we prepared a bootable 4GB USB stick. The NUC booted to the USB stick after we prioritised it in the BIOS and the operating system was installed in a matter of minutes. In fact, it was one of the quickest Windows 7 installations that we can remember, and that can be attributed to the fast Intel SSD.
To test the overall performance of the NUC, we ran our usual gamut of applications. In Blender, the NUC recorded a 3D rendering time of 1min 5sec; in iTunes it recorded an MP3 encoding time of 1min 17sec, while in AutoGordianKnot it recorded a DVD-to-Xvid conversion time of 1hr 13min. Graphics are handled by the third generation Intel Core i3 CPU (via Intel HD 4000 graphics processing) and a score of 3856 was recorded in 3DMark. You won't be able to use this little device to play graphics-intensive games though.
It's been a while since we've seen a Core i3-based configuration to compare similar systems' results, but what we can see from our tests is that the NUC is a very competent computer system that can be used effectively for multimedia tasks, running office applications and browsing the Internet. You can multitask and you can run popular programs with ease. It's a little slower than an Ultrabook that uses a third generation Intel Core i5 CPU.
If your unit has an Intel SSD 520 series drive, as ours did, you'll also notice how very responsive the system can be. While using the NUC as a regular computer system, launching applications and switching between them was swift. Web browsers and office programs loaded with minimal lag, and menus and other visual elements didn't drag either. We tested the SSD using CrystalDiskMark and it did indeed put up fast numbers: it recorded a data read rate of 446 megabytes per second (MBps) and a write rate of 254MBps.
In a home scenario, the NUC is likely to be used as a media centre, streaming content off a network attached storage (NAS) device, another computer, or from the Internet — although you could also attach mass storage to it through one of its USB ports or the Thunderbolt port. We tested it out by streaming high-definition YouTube clips, as well as watching basketball games through the NBA LeaguePass service. The latter, in particular, produced excellent image quality and smoothness on the big-screen when we used the highest bit rate of 3000Kbps. Our tests were conducted in the same room as the router though, so the signal to our router was excellent. The further you install the NUC from your router, the lower the signal quality will be and high quality video streaming might stutter. You might require the services of a wireless repeater or a stronger, USB-based wireless adapter if you live in a large house.
We sent the video (and audio) output from the NUC to a Toshiba LCD TV via HDMI, using a resolution of 1920x1080. However, the NUC didn't render the Desktop properly on the screen by default; the Windows Taskbar as well as the edges of the screen weren't visible. We had to scale the picture's size manually through the Intel display driver's settings, which was easy enough. Incidentally, our unit didn't ship with drivers so we had to download them from Intel's Web site. We managed to find everything we needed, except for the Wi-Fi drivers (which we had to search for elsewhere on Intel's site as the Wi-Fi is not part of the motherboard), and we had no problems installing any of the devices.
While running, the NUC's small fan is barely audible, which means it's close to ideal if you have a scenario in mind that requires a very quiet PC. It does get noticeably warm though, but it didn't get hot in our tests. We ran 3DMark06 and video streaming on it for prolonged periods of time and it proved to be reliable.
Physically, you can attach the NUC to the back of a monitor that has a standard VESA mounting on it, and the NUC's box comes with a mounting bracket and screws as part of the package. On TVs that don't have a standard VESA mount, you'll have to get creative. However, it shouldn't be too difficult to mount the NUC to the rear of most TVs given how small and light it is.
As for power consumption, our NUC consumed about 2.5W when it was in standby mode, about 8W when it was running but idle, and up to 31W when it was under a full load (processing 3D graphics in this instance). Typical tasks such as streaming high quality video from the Internet consumed between 15W and 19W.
Our overall impression of this little Intel unit is very positive. We love the idea of having such a small computer with so much processing power at our disposal, particularly for common scenarios such as media centres, and turning older TVs into 'smart' devices. Indeed, our favoured use for this device would be to have it attached to our TV with wireless input peripherals paired to it so that we can enjoy video streaming on the big screen simply by just changing the source input on the TV.
But we're boring and we're sure that many other creative uses for this device will be found. Because it's such a small device, it's one that doesn't have to live exclusively in one place; it can easily be disconnected and moved around from room to room in the home — if you have displays in place for it, and if you don't mind dragging along your input peripherals. It could even be used as a PC for a vehicle. Or you could simply set it up as your main desktop PC if you really want something that takes up as little space as possible.
We think it's a fun and highly competent device for any computer enthusiast and we're keen to see how and where systems integrators will sell this device. It's distributed by Synnex, with the consumer-oriented DC3217BY commanding a recommended retail price of $399, and the business-oriented DC3217IYE costing $389 thanks to the slight differences in connectivity features.
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