Smallness über alles: Intel’s tiny, Haswell-based NUC desktop reviewed




A couple of months back, Intel sent us the latest version of its “Next Unit of Computing,” or NUC for short.

The NUC is sort of a side-project for Intel. It’s a some-assembly-required desktop computer aimed at hobbyists who like playing with new tech and building their own PCs, but who also want something that’s as small as possible. It gives up much of the expandability that we’ve come to associate with desktops, but in exchange you get more processing power than anyone else is offering in a computer this size.

When we originally got the NUC, we asked you what kinds of things you were interested in using it for. We can’t get to all of your questions, but here’s a list of the ones we’ll try to answer, along with some of our standard performance analyses and comparisons to an Ivy Bridge model.

  • What is the NUC for (and more importantly, what is it not for)?
  • Why would you buy one instead of building your own mini PC?
  • What is power consumption like?
  • Could you use it as a mini gaming box?
  • How does the NUC perform as an HTPC?

Some of the other questions asked may be revisited in future articles, but these are the use cases we felt the NUC would be best-suited to.Smallness über alles Intels tiny Haswell-based NUC desktop reviewed

Why buy a NUC?

More than a few of you had questions about just why one would choose to buy a NUC rather than building a mini-ITX or microATX desktop. There are a few tradeoffs to consider, but the largest one (pun intended) is size. Even among pre-built mini PCs from the OEMs, it’s difficult to find a desktop as tiny as the NUC that doesn’t use weaker, Atom-class CPUs.

SystemWidth × Depth × Height
Haswell NUC4.6” x 4.4” x 1.4”
Ivy Bridge NUC4.6″ x 4.4″ x 1.55″
2012 Mac Mini7.7″ x 7.7″ x 1.4″
Lenovo M93P7″ x 7.17″ x 1.35″
M350 mini ITX case7.55″ x 8.27″ x 2.44″

Comparing the NUC to a mini-ITX PC you’d build yourself makes for an even more lopsided comparison—the cheaper ITX cases are generally shoebox-ish in size. The better, more expandable ones like the BitFenix Prodigy we used to build our Steam Machine are closer to microATX-sized. Cases like the M350 exist on the smaller end of the spectrum, but they lack the readily accessible front USB or audio jacks that you might want if you’ve got the computer under your TV.

In return for its small size, the NUC requires you to give up expandability and flexibility. Current models have one connector for mSATA solid-state drives, one slot for a half-height PCI Express Wi-Fi card, two slots for laptop DDR3 DIMMs, and that’s it. The Ultrabook-class CPUs used in the NUCs are all of the soldered-in, ball grid array (BGA) variety, so there are no upgrades possible there. SATA data and power ports on the motherboard point to a possible future variant with room for a 2.5-inch hard drive or SSD (or for those of you who want to pop the NUC’s board in some other case, since it has the necessary headers), but there isn’t room for one in the current models.

Going with a larger system (either self-built or from an OEM) opens up other possibilities, including faster quad-core desktop processors, large pools of storage, and proper PCI Express expansion slots that can be used for high-end GPUs and other peripherals. A system with even a single 2.5-inch drive bay will give you a much wider range of SSDs to choose from—mSATA drives are rarer and a little more expensive than their 2.5-inch counterparts, and certain big names like Samsung sell most of their mSATA drives to OEMs, not direct to consumers. That said, Crucial, Mushkin, Intel, and a handful of smaller players do sell mSATA drives on sites like Newegg, and their prices aren’t too far off from their 2.5-inch counterparts. Capacities generally top out at 480GB as of this writing, though 1TB mSATA SSDs are on the horizon.

What it’s not good for

The NUC’s size and the amount of performance it crams into its tiny case gave readers a lot of interesting ideas, some less plausible than others. Before going further, let’s talk about some tasks the NUC just isn’t suited for, based on some of your questions.

First, the NUC is emphatically not built to be a good Bitcoin miner. The best machine for this sort of work is a dedicated box like the Butterfly Labs miner we tested last year. If you insist on mining with your PC, a strong dedicated GPU is much better suited to hashing than a CPU, and Intel’s integrated GPUs pale in comparison to even low-end and midrange dedicated parts. While this mining hardware comparison chart only lists Intel’s last-generation HD 4000 part rather than the new HD 5000, the two are architecturally similar enough that AMD’s GPUs in particular are still going to beat the NUC easily. At this late date, mining Bitcoins has become difficult enough that even a high-end GPU likely won’t make you back the money you’re spending on electricity—a dedicated ASIC miner is the best way to go, and something like the NUC is basically the worst way.

By the same token, the NUC won’t be very good for graphics-heavy work like CAD software or high-end gaming. As we’ll see soon, the NUC isn’t a bad gaming box if you manage your expectations properly, but a dedicated card is still the only way to go for fluid gaming at 1080p. The NUC will do you just fine if light gaming or drafting work is one of the many things you’ll use it for, but as a primary 3D workstation or gaming machine it will probably disappoint.

Next, some of you were wondering about using the NUC as a server, perhaps with some virtual machines configured to save even more space. Depending on what you wanted to use the system for, this sort of usage isn’t entirely out of the question. However, two things make the NUC a less-than-perfect server: the first is storage space. Since the NUC only includes the one mSATA SSD slot, storage is expensive, and there’s no way to set any kind of RAID up for redundancy’s sake. Second, it has only two physical CPU cores, and if you install very many virtual machines on it they’re all going to become CPU starved pretty quickly. If you install 16GB of RAM and you know your VMs just won’t need a lot of CPU power, there’s nothing stopping you from using it as a server box (the i5-4250U it uses supports all of Intel’s virtualization extensions), but we’d hesitate to recommend it for a mission-critical production environment.

Finally, a lot of you suggested mounting the NUC to wheels or something that flies or floats, taking advantage of its small size to make something ultra-portable. What these suggestions fail to account for is the fact that the NUC uses Ultrabook-class hardware, and as we’ll see, this means it features Ultrabook-esque power consumption. At this point, flying computers and makeshift robots are best left to cheaper, more power-sipping hardware like the Arduino, the Raspberry Pi, and their ilk. The NUC just isn’t very well-suited for trips away from an outlet.

Bang-for-buck (or lack thereof)

The NUC is a barebones PC kit, meaning that you’ll need to bring your own storage, Wi-Fi, and RAM to fill it up and make it actually work. The maximum cost of the NUC depends on which components you decide to fill it with, but the base model’s MSRP is $389.99 no matter what you fill it with. A Haswell NUC with the slower HD 4400 GPU retails for $299.99, and you can spend as little as $159.99 if you step down to one of the Celeron-equipped Ivy Bridge models.

To that $390 base model we’ve added a 128GB Crucial M500 SSD ($110), 8GB of DDR3 laptop RAM (about $70, depending on the brand), and an Intel 7260 Wi-Fi module ($33 on eBay), chosen in part because it includes Bluetooth 4.0 in addition to a two-stream, 867Mbps 802.11ac implementation. That’s all you need if you plan to build a Linux-based NUC or if you already have a Windows license you can use, but we’ll add another $100 to cover an OEM license for Windows 8.1. The final price tag of $702.99 is reasonably competitive compared to other OEM systems, especially once you take Intel’s three-year warranty into account.

The OEM systems give you more CPU power but less GPU power, somewhat slower Wi-Fi, less RAM, and a slower-but-larger HDD instead of an SSD. Whether a fast SSD or a large HDD is more important to your build will depend on what you’re using the system for, but we tend to prefer speed to size for most use cases. Finally, it’s important to remember that Intel’s Turbo Boost will make the NUC’s 1.3 GHz CPU run at speeds of up to 2.6 GHz if there’s enough thermal headroom, making the clock speed gap feel smaller than it looks on paper for many tasks.

Pricing gets trickier if you’re comparing the NUC to a home-built computer. Let’s throw together a quick Haswell-based mini ITX PC just to get an idea of the tradeoffs you’ll make. We’ll use:

  • A Cooler Master Elite 130 case is reviewed reasonably well, has a good selection of front-facing ports, and is reasonably attractive. It’s $50.
  • A mini ITX motherboard based on Intel’s H81 chipset: pricing is all over the place for these, but you can expect to spend at least $70 on one from an OEM with a decent reputation like MSI’s H81I. For $96, you could step up to Zotac’s H87ITX-A-E, which has built-in Wi-Fi antennas and an integrated slot for a Wi-Fi mini card.
  • A Haswell CPU will run you at least $70 as of this writing, which will get you a 3.0GHz dual-core Pentium. This is a pretty good chip for basic work, but the nice thing about using desktop CPUs is that you could step up to something like the quad-core i5-4430 for $190 if you needed the extra power. The bad thing is that none of Intel’s desktop CPUs include the HD 5000 GPU, limiting your integrated GPU’s performance to barely better than Ivy Bridge levels.
  • A decent power supply: you can spend as much or as little here as you’re comfortable with, though cheaping out on your PSU can have disastrous consequences. We grabbed this Antec VP-450 for our Steam Machine, which should cover you for anything up to a mid-range gaming box. It has an MSRP of $50, though right now it’s going for a mere $35.

Using these components, you can build a decent Haswell-based barebones PC starting for just $225, and you can add a hefty quad-core desktop CPU and Wi-Fi-ready motherboard for $371, both less than the price of our NUC. That system’s performance will usually run circles around the NUC, though graphics performance and power consumption won’t be as good. A custom build will also fit an integrated DVD or Blu-ray drive, and it will be able to fit at least a couple of 2.5-inch HDDs or SSDs. What you give up are the NUC’s small size and its low idle noise level—this home-built system would have the PSU and CPU fans going at the very least, plus whatever case fans you decide to hook up.

We won’t price out components for a mini gaming PC here, since those of you looking for more GPU power than the HD 5000 can provide won’t really be considering the NUC in the first place. If you’re looking for a solid recommendation in the same ballpark as the finished NUC, our $600-ish homemade Steam Machine is a pretty well-balanced box.

Some assembly required

Since the NUC isn’t ready to use out of the box, you’ll need to be comfortable popping in some parts yourself before you can do anything with it. Luckily, this is an easy project.

Four large, captive Phillips-head screws hold the bottom of the NUC in place. Pop the cover off, and you’ve got ready access to the RAM slots, the SSD slot, and the Wi-Fi card slot. Install the RAM first, placing it in at an angle and then pushing down on it until the retention mechanism snaps into place. One thing we noticed with both the Haswell NUC and the previous-generation Ivy Bridge model we tested is that they’re both finicky about the RAM being seated correctly. If you power the NUC up and get a blinking power light and a machine that won’t boot, reseat the RAM and it should fix the problem.

Next, remove the two smaller Phillips-head screws that will hold the Wi-Fi card and SSD in place. Put down the Wi-Fi card first, attaching the small antennas to the card before popping it into place. Screw it down and repeat the process for the SSD, making sure that the antennas don’t prevent the card from laying down all the way. Put the bottom cover back on—it only fits one way, and the thermal pad should go where the SSD is—but make sure the box powers on properly before tightening the screws. You’ll thank yourself for it.Smallness über alles Intels tiny Haswell-based NUC desktop reviewed Schematic

Power consumption and installing Windows 8.1

By now you should know if the NUC is for you, how much you can expect to spend on one, and how to put it together. To test the other things you asked about, we’ll need to install an operating system. Assuming you’re installing Windows, the Windows USB/DVD Download Tool can assist you in creating a bootable USB install drive from your DVD or ISO, and UNetbootin should cover you for most Linux distributions. An external DVD drive is also an option if you’ve got one.

A freshly constructed NUC won’t have anything on the boot drive, so it will automatically begin to boot from our USB drive and begin the normal Windows installation process. Putting Windows on a fresh PC is straightforward enough at this point that we won’t go over the process in detail here—suffice it to say that if you’re reading this, you’re probably technically inclined enough to make it to the Windows desktop without issue.

Once you’ve pulled up the desktop, Job One is getting the drivers you need. This can be done manually by searching the Intel Download Center site for your specific NUC board (the search page for ours is here), since Intel’s automatic Driver Update Utility won’t detect updates to drivers that aren’t already installed (and thus won’t get rid of those hated Device Manager exclamation points). Intel offers driver bundles for Windows 7, 8, and 8.1 that include everything you need. It would be really great if this process was more automated and user-friendly, but it’s nothing that PC builders won’t be used to.

 

For more detail: Smallness über alles: Intel’s tiny, Haswell-based NUC desktop reviewed


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