|Introduction & Specifications|
|Let's dispense with an emerging myth right now: The desktop isn't dead. Far from it. Rather, the desktop is evolving, and this is an exciting time to be a technophile. The advancements we've seen in just the past 12 months are nothing short of remarkable. Solid state drives (SSDs) are getting faster and cheaper, finally making for a viable alternative to the mechanical hard drive that has ruled the desktop for so long. Memory kits are bigger than ever, USB 3.0 is now commonplace, and architectures like Intel's Ivy Bridge have taken processor and integrated graphics performance to whole new levels.
These and other advancements are what make Intel's latest desktop evolution possible. The "Intel Next Unit of Computing" (NUC), as it's appropriately called, is an ultra compact desktop system that's small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, while packing a performance punch that belies its diminutive stature. Power users looking to game on their high-resolution 30-inch monitors need not apply, but there are plenty of markets for a system like this, not the least of which is the mainstream buyer. Intel says its NUC is also ideal for digital signage, kiosks, home theater setups, and anywhere else where space is at a premium.
When Intel first told us about the NUC, we were intrigued by its potential. It's rocking a 3rd Generation Core i3-3217U processor soldered onto the motherboard, two SO-DIMM slots with DDR3-1066/1333 memory support, onboard 8-channel audio, mSATA support, and several connectivity ports. All of this comes packed into a 4-inch x 4-inch frame.
"Imagine a computing device powerful enough to produce stunning visuals with responsive performance. Yet small enough to drive digital signage, kiosks, or other applications demanding performance in a tight space. We did. The result is the Intel Nex Unit of Computing," Intel pitches.
The NUC is essentially an Ultrabook in a mini destktop body. It's also a brand new form factor -- uCFF (Ultra Compact Form Factor) -- one that Intel will presumably push to make official. For now, is the world ready for such a device? And equally important, is it a capable machine for its intended purposes? To help answer these questions, Intel sent us a pre-production model to examine and put through its paces. Let's have a look.
As a barebones kit, consumers will have to add certain components to flesh out Intel's NUC system. Intel provided us with its 520 Series 180GB mSATA solid state drive (SSD) and Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 wireless card, both of which we're told will not ship with the consumer edition. We then added 4GB (2x2GB) of Samsung DDR3-1333 notebook memory and installed Windows 8.
Finalizing the NUC build highlights one of Intel's first challenges in pushing this system into the marketplace, and that's cost. The target price for the NUC box is ~$300-$320. Add another $190 for the mSATA SSD, $20 for a 4GB memory kit similar to the one we used, about $25 for the Wireless-N adapter (optional, but we highly recommend it), and the OS of your choice. The grand total comes to over $500 for a system that's only partially upgradeable (the CPU is soldered to the motherboard).
|External Design & Layout|
Intel plans on launching different versions of its NUC, including one that supports simultaneous monitor and display applications (DC3217IYE). The one we have for evaluation is the DC3217BY. It's equipped with dual PCI-E mini card slots, HDMI output, and a ThunderBolt port that allows you to daisy chain multiple devices.
Interestingly enough, it wasn't the NUC's size that we first noticed during our unboxing. No, it was something far more subtle, yet oddly appealing. We typically don't cover packaging in our reviews (unless it sucks so bad that it warrants coverage) because, quite frankly, it's boring. So why the quick exception in this case? Intel forced our hand by hiding a light-controlled sound module in the retail packaging. When you slide the container out of the box, Intel's familiar jingle plays loud and clear. It seems silly, but it catches you completely by surprise, putting you into an Intel frame of mind. Well played, chipzilla.
Enough of that, moving on...
The beauty of Intel's NUC is in its size. It's not quite small enough to shove inside a normal sized pocket like a smartphone or media player, but it does fit snugly in your palm, allowing your fingers to grip the sides. People with larger hands will be able to curve their fingertips up and over the top. If you prefer hard numbers, the NUC measures 4.59 (L) inches by 4.41 (W) inches by 1.55 inches (H) and weighs approximately 1.1 pounds. It's not big, nor is it heavy by any stretch of the imagination. According to Intel, these dimensions comprise "The shape that fits the future," as the tagline on the consumer retail box reads.
It's an interesting piece of hardware that's smaller than most nettops out there, and about half the size of Zotac's ZBOX mini PC line (the Intel Atom-based ZBOX ID80 Plus we reviewed earlier this year is almost twice as big at 7.40 inches by 7.40 inches by 1.73 inches). And about the same size as a ZBOZ nano.
Intel outfitted the NUC with a dash of color. The top of the system sports a maroon cover, including the power button, and the rest of the unit is black. A blue LED HDD activity light lets you know when the mSATA drive is working, and the power button also glows blue when turned on.
Other than for convenience, orientation hardly matters with the NUC since it's practically the same length and depth. Technically there is a front, that being the one closest to the power button, and also the side that houses one of the three USB 2.0 ports. Why no SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports? That's an excellent question, and unfortunately we don't have a satisfactory answer. The Intel QS77 Express Chipset the NUC is built around supports up to four USB 3.0 ports and up to 10 USB 2.0 ports, and for whatever reason, Intel chose to go with the slower spec. It's a non-issue for some of the intended applications, like digital signage, but for the home consumer -- and particularly home theater buffs who may want to transfer large files over USB -- it's a bit of a bummer.
The lone USB port on the front gives the NUC an understated design aesthetic. Don't mistake that to mean that Intel didn't put much thought into it. For a system this size, cooling is of paramount importance, and to help dissipate heat, Intel wrapped an aluminum belt around the waist of the NUC. The top, as previously mentioned, and the bottom are both made with plastic.
Just a handful of ports are jammed into the NUC's rear I/O panel. From left to right, you can see the DC power plug, two USB 2.0 ports (three total, including the one in front), HDMI 1.4a output, ThunderBolt (with support for DisplayPort), and a Kensington lock.
It's a pretty barebones configuration for a desktop system. A few ports are noticeably absent (and some not so noticeable) on this model, including GbE LAN (which is why we highly recommend installing an optional wireless adapter), DVI or VGA outupts, eSATA, FireWire, and audio inputs. Rest assured, however, this tiny PC is rocks out to 8-channel (7.1) audio, it just has to be piped through the HDMI or ThunderBolt port. It should be noted that the DC3217IYE model does come with a GbE LAN port, as well as dual HDMI (but no ThunderBolt port).
Above the ports are two grated exhaust vents. Though the system is nearly silent, it's actively cooled with a CPU cooler that pushes hot air out of these vents.
|Getting Inside the NUC|
Intel made it super simple to get inside the NUC to service or upgrade parts. There are four Phillips screws sunk into the rubber feet that need to be loosened, and once you've done that, the bottom panel pops right off (you may need to wedge it a little bit). The screws in the feet are non-removable so you don't need to worry about losing them.
There's not a ton you can do inside the NUC, but the parts that are available to tinker with are easily accessibly, starting with the RAM. Two SO-DIMM memory slots sit at the top, supporting up to 16GB of DDR3-1066/1333 RAM. We installed a pair of 2GB sticks for a total of 4GB, which is probably the sweet for a system like this.
On the opposite side is where you'll plug in your mSATA SSD. For the purposes of this evaluation, Intel supplied us with an unreleased 180GB mSATA drive from its 520 Series. It features a SATA 6Gbps interface and is powered by LSI's SandForce SF-2281 controller.
Underneath the SSD is where you'd plug in a wireless card, like the Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 that Intel bundled with this test system. This, along with above mentioned SSD, will not come with the consumer package.
Here's the NUC without any components installed. Notice there are two wires dangling in the lower left corner. These are antennas for the wireless card, which snap into place if you choose use one. As we said before, this particularly model doesn't have a LAN port, so if you need Internet access, you either have to install a wireless card or use up one of the three USB ports on wireless dongle.
Getting at the underbelly of the NUC is only slightly more tricky. You need to remove two black Phillips screws in the bottom corners of the motherboard (next to the rear I/O ports). With a little bit of finagling, the mobo lifts up and away, just if you were removing it from a desktop tower.
Flipping it over reveals the CPU cooler, fan, and exhaust apparatus. The fan is separate from the heatsink, so if it fails for any reason, it's a quick and easy fix.
Underneath the fan and heastink is an Intel Core i3-\ 3217U (Ivy Bridge) processor soldered onto the motherboard. It's a dual-core CPU clocked at 1.8GHz with 3MB of cache, HyperThreading support, integrated Intel HD Graphics, and a 17W TDP. The GPU has a base frequency of 350MHz and a max dynamic frequency of 1.05GHz. Overall it's a pretty potent chip for a such a small sized system.
Here's a closer look at the wireless card and mSATA SSD arrangement. This also happens to be the source of system lockups, though we're not entirely sure why. The most obvious culprit seems to be heat. The wireless card tends to get very hot during use, and on several occasions, the system would freeze up, forcing us to physically detach the power cable (if we held the power button to turn the system off, the SSD wouldn't be recognized when powering back on). This would happen during large file downloads, file transfers, system updates, and even when loading a benchmark.
The reason we suspect it's an issue with the wireless card is because once we removed it, the NUC performed just fine, albeit without Internet access. There were no more lockups. We typically don't like to glance at other reviews when working on our own (to avoid setting ourselves up for a predisposed bias), but we did peek around to see if others had run into similar issues, and sure enough, we weren't the only ones.
Apparently Intel is aware of the issue is working on a BIOS update to resolve it. This is something we suspect will be fixed before launching to retail (this is a pre-production model, after all).
|PCMark & 3DMark Tests|
So, what kind of performance can you expect out of a system that fits in the palm of your hand? To find out, we first fired up Futuremark's system performance benchmark, PCMark 7. This synthetic benchmark suite simulates a range of real-world scenarios and workloads, stressing various system subsets in the process. Everything you'd want to do with your PC -- watching HD movies, music compression, image editing, gaming, and so forth -- is represented here. Most of the tests are multi-threaded, making this a good indicator of all-around performance.
Our PCMark 7 run highlights that the NUC is every bit a desktop system, regardless of its ultra small stature. It's score is more in line with higher end desktops, besting even Dell's Alienware X51 (3,048) and iBuyPower's Gamer Power BTS 11 (3,536). Both of those machines are geared toward gaming, but for every day use, the NUC's Ivy Bridge foundation coupled with a fast SSD provides plenty of pep.
The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark11, is specifically bound to Windows 7-based systems because it uses the advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 11. 3DMark11 isn't simply a port of 3DMark Vantage to DirectX 11, though. With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated four new graphics tests, a physics tests, and a new combined test. We tested the graphics cards here with 3DMark11's Performance preset option.
As expected, the 3DMark 11 score is pretty anemic. The low score isn't directly related to the size of the system, rather it's because of the integrated Intel Graphics HD 4000. There's just not a lot of pixel pushing power there, and though there isn't room for a discrete graphics card, we wouldn't be surprised if Intel crammed a discrete GPU onto the motherboard in a future iteration. For now, only light gaming is possible.
|SiSoft Sandra & Cinebench|
|We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks).
Intel's Core i3 3217U processor is a 22nm chip based on the company's Ivy Bridge architecture. It's the main reason why the NUC's performance is so much better than a typical mini PC or nettop, which typically use lower performing CPUs. In this case, the NUC benefits from two cores running at 1.8GHz with HyperThreading support and 3MB of cache. As SiSoft Sandra shows, it's a very capable processor.
How you choose to look at memory performance is relative to what you're comparing it with. Next to a run-of-the-mill mini PC, the NUC memory subsystem is generally superior. Compared to a traditional desktop, however, it's slightly below what we see on most systems, especially high-end systems. That's not troubling here, because overall it's a good score.
Much more impressive is the SSD performance. Your own metrics will depend on which specific SSD you slap in this thing, but armed with an Intel 520 Series SSD, the storage simply flies.
Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on Maxon's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation chores and tests both the CPU and GPU in separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads (CPU) to process more than 300,000 total polygons, while the GPU benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million polygons and huge amounts of textures.
As we've pointed on out on many occasions, Cinebench is a particularly unforgiving benchmark, as it's geared to content creation and high level design work. You're not going to want to try and tackle CAD chores on the NUC, nor is it designed for that type of computing to begin with.
|Power Consumption & Noise|
|Intel's Core i3 3217U processor has a max TDP of just 17W, so in theory the NUC shouldn't put much of a strain on your outlet. There's no power supply built into the device. Instead, it comes with a small power adapter.
We used SeaSonic's Power Angel Power Meter to measure the amount of power our test system pulled from the wall. You'll find two figures below: peak power consumption under a full CPU/GPU load, and how much the system pulled from the wall when idle, following a fresh system boot.
Intel did a great job with balancing cooling and noise. As stated, our lockups were due to something funky going on with the wireless card, which Intel is in the process of fixing through a BIOS update. Otherwise, the system ran stable and was nearly silent, even under a full load. To hear the fan, you have to lean in real close, which is not something you're going to do under normal circumstances.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Point blank, Intel delivers big performance in a little package with its Next Unit of Computing (NUC). Your own performance will depend on what parts you use to flesh it out, but with 4GB of RAM and a Intel 520 Series SSD, the NUC puts up some big numbers. It's PCMark 7 score was particularly impressive, as it was higher than even some dedicated gaming rigs we've recently tested. Don't mistake that to mean the NUC is a gaming PC -- it lacks a discrete GPU -- but for day to day computing and most non-gaming tasks, it will blow most mini PCs out of the water.So, is this the future of computing? Intel certainly things so, and we have to admit, the NUC makes a strong case for diminutive desktops that are small enough to hold in your hand. Heck, the NUC almost fits in your pocket. The reason a system like this even exists and can be viable to begin with is largely due to the strength of Intel's Ivy Bridge architecture. The Core i3-3217U is the heart and soul of this machine, and combined with a fast solid state drive, the NUC delivers a formidable one-two punch that can pummel almost any task you throw at it.
There are exceptions. Without a discrete GPU, you're not going to do much gaming on the NUC, or at least not anything intense. The Intel HD Graphics 4000 is great for mainstream users, but not for gamers who want to fire up Batman: Arkham City. It just doesn't have the muscle. Workstation chores and CAD level work are also a stretch.
While we're picking on the NUC's shortcomings, we have to call attention to the stability issues we encountered related to the wireless card. We're not sure what's going on there, only that we ran into several instances of system freezes that were only rectified when we removed the wireless card. That's an unacceptable solution, especially since there's no LAN port for a wired Internet connection. Keep in mind, however, that this is a pre-production model we've been playing with. Intel is currently working on a fix for the issues we ran into, and we suspect it will be ironed out by the time the NUC makes it to retail.
What we're left with, then, is a small size system that introduces a brand new form factor. We firmly believe the desktop is still very much relevant, but for those with an aversion to full- or mid-size towers, the NUC might be just what they're looking for. There are a lot of applications for a system like this, from the ones Intel explicitly points -- digital signage, home theaters, kiosks -- to wherever a space saving system makes sense. With its VESA mounting bracket, you could slap the NUC on the back of a monitor and hook up a wireless keyboard and mouse for a nifty all-in-one type machine for your home office or college dorm room. There are a lot of possibilities here.
It will be interesting to see if the consumer market embraces the NUC, especially considering the overall price tag when you're finished fleshing out. If nothing else, it's definitely intriguing.