Kiry (my wife) has been due for a new computer for a while now, and I’ve been scratching my head as to what form factor would be the most effective for her. Her old HP laptop is getting a little creaky, but she actually does most of her day-to-day email/Facebook/browsing/reading on her iPad. She uses the laptop for things like Word, Excel, tax software, online shopping, photo editing, and creating quilt and embroidery patterns. Interestingly, the laptop doesn’t move around much… it sits parked on her desk plugged into a 19” monitor. So my first thought was to build a new desktop machine, and I started compiling a list of parts: motherboard, ATX mini-tower, etc. But as I looked at her desk environment (which is in our bedroom), the idea of another fan-blowing, dust collecting box sitting on the floor didn’t really appeal.
So I took a look at building a mini-ITX box. Much smaller, so it can sit on the desk, and potentially super-quiet if you’re careful about the components you use. I specced out an ASUS H87I-based machine with a Core i5, 8GB and an SSD, and had collected all the parts in my PC Case Gear shopping cart when I happened to browse upon something from Intel called the NUC (for Next Unit of Computing). The picture showed a tiny little box, and the specs described a desktop computer suitable for pretty much any computing task short of hard-core gaming. I was intrigued. Another 30 minutes of resarch, and I emptied out my shopping cart and purchased a NUC instead. And I have to say that I have been really, really impressed.
The Intel NUC
What the heck is a NUC you ask? Well I’m not an expert, but here’s what I’ve learned. Intel’s NUC is a family of components centered around an Intel-manufactured 4”x4” UCFF motherboard with a welded on Core i3 or i5 processor with integrated Intel 5000 HD graphics processor. The motherboard has 2 slots for up to 16GB of DDR3 1600 SODIMM RAM, a mini-PCIe uSATA slot, and another mini-PCIe slot for a wireless card.
Intel sells the NUC as a motherboard, and as a kit including a gorgeous little aluminum case with an external laptop-style power supply. My particular kit, the D54250WYK, has 4 USB 3.0 ports, 2 in front and 2 in the back, plus 2 USB 2.0 ports on internal headers. You can connect a monitor via either the mini-HDMI connector, or the mini-DisplayPort connector, or both if you want to go with two monitors. There’s a Gigabit Ethernet connector, and an IR receiver as well. You have to add memory and disk, so I added two 4GB sticks of SODIMM memory, a 240GB uSSD card, and a mini-PCIe wireless card. All up, even with the tax- and exchange rate-distorted prices here in Australia, a fitted-out NUC was less than AU$900. That’s not particularly more than I was going to pay for a mini-ITX build.
Here’s a picture of the all the components fresh out of the shipping box. The squares are 1”, so you can see that the whole thing is pretty small.
Opening up the NUC box provides a surprise, and I don’t just mean the tiny size of the computer. You know the Intel trademark four-tone sequence you hear at the end of every Intel ad? Well the box plays that tune every time you slide it open, just like those little electronic birthday cards. I spent a couple of minutes just opening and closing the box, because, well, why wouldn’t you? Amusing? Yes. Annoying? That too.
But I smile when I think about it, so I guess amusing wins out. I haven’t decided if it is the stupidest thing Intel marketing has ever cooked up, or the most genius.
There isn’t much in the NUC box… a 65W brick-style power supply, an electrical cord, and the NUC itself. For some reason my electrical cord came with a UK-style plug. It connects to the brick with a 3-hole C5 “Mickey Mouse” connector, so if you get the wrong power cord, it’s easy enough to replace. There’s also the requisite warranty, safety, and compliance material, and pictorial assembly instructions.
After getting the case open and marveling at the innards, I elected to install the memory first. I purchased 2 Crucial 4GB DDR3 1600MHz memory sticks, but you can get 8GB sticks as well if you want to go up to 16GB, something to think about if you want to run a bunch of virtual machines on this little guy.
The SODIMMs sit on top of each other like in some laptops and are easy to click into their sockets.
Next up is the wireless card. I picked up an Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 with 802.11 a/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0 support, although there are several wireless options available. Installing the wireless card is a little involved… there is a screw that you have to remove and replace (easy) and two antenna wires you have to connect (tricky). The antenna connectors are little itty-bitty things that are difficult to connect with your fingers. A hint: connect the antenna wires before you install the card… you can thank me for that one later. I wasn’t able to determine which wire corresponded to which antenna in the chassis, so I just followed the pictures in the visual instructions. Seemed to work ok, but more on wireless performance later.
For internal storage I selected an Intel 530 240GB mSATA SSD drive. The little SSD goes in on top of the wireless transceiver. Just remove the screw, slide the card into the connector, replace the screw, and that’s about it. Put the bottom cover back on and you’re ready to boot it up and install your OS. Oh, another comment here. The whole chassis is square, and it appears that you can replace the bottom cover in any orientation. But there is thermal pad on the cover that is designed to contact the SSD card and conduct its heat to the aluminum cover, so be sure that the pad goes over the SSD.
After buttoning up the NUC, I connected up the power and a Microsoft wireless keyboard/mouse combo I had laying around. Connecting the monitor wasn’t quite so easy. The monitor I had available needed either a DVI or a VGA D-sub connector. The NUC however has only a mini-HDMI and a mini DisplayPort for connectors. I had a HDMI-to-DVI cable, and a quick trip down to the local Dick Smith’s produced a HDMI-to-DVI adapter. Not a problem.
The NUC booted up the first time, and presented Intel’s graphical BIOS management interface. I won’t go into any details about the BIOS… let’s just say this is not your father’s character mode BIOS interface. After poking around through the menus a bit I noticed the BIOS hadn’t detected the SSD drive, so I powered everything off and pulled the SSD, cleaned off the contacts and reseated it. After restarting the machine I checked the configuration again, and although the system now detected the SSD, it only reported 4GB of memory. So I shut everything off again, opened it up and reseated the SODIMMs. Third time was a charm, and I was able to move on to installing the OS.
I copied an ISO image of the Windows 8.1 installation disk onto a USB 3.0 thumb drive using the Microsoft Windows 7 USB DVD download tool, plugged the thumb drive into the NUC and rebooted. Windows 8.1 installed with no problems (and quickly, I might add). There were a couple of missing drivers in the base build of Windows 8.1, and downloading and installing the current driver set from the Intel website solved all of the warnings in Device Manager. After that I installed Office and a couple of other apps that Kiry uses, and handed the system over to Kiry for final approval. She’s still getting her head around switching between the “modern” UI and the desktop in Windows 8.1, but is otherwise quite pleased.
Here are some quick impressions of the NUC.
- Holy crap, this thing is small. Really, it’s about the size of a sandwich… a powerful desktop computer you can hold in the palm of your hand.
- It is quite fast. Part of this is due to the SSD, which is pretty snappy, but even ignoring file I/O, apps run very quickly. Although the Intel Core i5-4250U only has two cores running at a nominal 1.3 GHz, the automatic Intel Turbo Boost lets them speed up to 2.6 GHz if they aren’t otherwise drawing too much power or getting too hot.
- The NUC is essentially silent. There is a small CPU fan that I think runs continuously, but you have to put your ear up to the box to hear it. I wouldn’t hesitate to use the NUC in a home theater setup.
- The wireless antennas built into the case seem pretty ordinary, based on the file copy speeds I’ve been able to get around the house. 5MB/sec isn’t bad, but somehow I was expecting more. I’m going to do a little more experimenting to see if everything is as it should be.
- Copying files to and from the external Western Digital USB 3.0 hard drive is blindingly quick. This is a characteristic of USB 3.0 and not a feature of the NUC per se, but 110MB/sec file copies are habit forming. I’ve definitely purchased my last USB 2.0 device. And I’ve probably purchased my last ATX motherboard, and last tower-style case for that matter.
Some final thoughts: I love the NUC. It’s small, it’s fast, it’s quiet, and it doesn’t cost that much. It’s easy to assemble, and you can stick enough memory and disk in the dinky little box to make a serious desktop machine. In fact, I just saw on the Intel site that they have a new, slightly taller NUC case that can incorporate a 2.5” disk drive internally. This makes sense if you don’t want to spend the dinero on an SSD, but for me the speed and quiet (and the smaller box size) are worth it. On the other hand, get the SSD and the 2TB drive, and stick 16GB of RAM in the box. You’d have an awesome pocket-sized personal cloud.
There has been a lot of talk about how the desktop computer is dead, and that all end-user computing is going to be mobile. I don’t buy that idea. If I look at my typical work day, I’m sitting in front of a dual-monitor desktop computer 4-10 hours a day, and it’s not because I don’t have a mobile device. I use my phone a fair bit when I’m out and about, and my tablet devices quite a lot, but they don’t take time away from my desktop, they simply add to my total time on a computing device. So there is still a need for a desktop computer in my life (and Kiry’s as well). And unless I need to build something with a honking big CPU or a 4GB multi-fan video card, the NUC may in fact be my Next Unit of Computing. And the next one after that.
Appendix A - Parts