A lot of developments have occurred in the past year alone on the PC forefront with Intel introducing new PC form factors for the consumer market.First up was their much acclaimed Ultrabook which brings performance to super sleek notebooks and at IDF 2012, Intel presented their Next Unit of Computing or formally known as “NUC” which is an ultra portable desktop PC which you can carry in the palm of your hand but carries an Ivy Bridge based ULV processor that delivers unprecedented performance to consumers.
By consumers, Intel is targeting their NUC form factor PC towards the home and office usage such as home theater setups, personal data offices and kiosks. With PC hardware becoming more capable technologically, its feasible to deliver these small power houses fitted with high capacity memory, blazing fast SSD storage and Intel Thunderbolt options.
NUC – The Next Unit of Computing
The Next Unit of Computing or NUC for short is essentially a barebone PC with a 4×4 inch size that can easily fit almost anywhere you want to. The model we were shipped for review is codenamed “DC3217BY“, this specifc model comes with Intel’s Thunderbolt support.Following are the technical details of the two NUC models which are available:
|Intel NUC Barebone PC Comparison Table|
|Processor||Intel Core i3-3217U||Intel Core i3-3217U|
|Chipset||Intel QS77 Express||Intel QS77 Express|
|Memory Options||2 x DDR3 SO-DIMM slots||2 x DDR3 SO-DIMM slots|
|USB||3 x USB 2.0||3 x USB 2.0|
|mini PCIe (half-height)||1||1|
|mini PCIe (full-height, mSATA support)||1||1|
|Power Supply||External 19V DC||External 19V DC|
|Price (MSRP)||$308.99 Shipped||$319.99 Shipped|
The NUC comes in the latest uCFF (Ultra Compact Form Factor) design and fitted inside the red glossy chassis is a small motherboard with two SO-DIMM slots, two mini PCIe slots on the front while the CPU and chipset rest on the back side. The bulk of the Input/Output ports are located at the back of the chassis and a single USB 2.0 port is situated at the front side. Unfortunately, all ports are USB 2.0 since the NUC currently doesn’t includes USB 3.0 support. Hopefully, later versions of the Intel NUC would come with those supported options.
The DC3217BY NUC model comes at a cost of around $300 – $329 for the barebone kit alone, you have to add the other hardware components such as memory, PCIe expansion cards (Storage/WiFi) and also the operating system by yourself which puts the cost to around $500-$600 depending upon your hardware selection. Storage is limited to mini PCIe so make sure when buying since it would be a one time purchase. The CPU itself cannot be upgraded since its permanently soldered to the motherboard but it is fairly fast being an Ivy Bridge based chip and can run almost every application without a hitch.
Before we go into unboxing, we would like to detail the technical specifications of Intel’s DC3217BY NUC. Starting off with the processor which is an Intel Core i3-3217U (Ivy Bridge) chip based on the latest 22nm 3D-Tri gate tech architecture. The Dual Core i3 chip is clocked at 1.8 GHz which clocks down to 800 MHz in idle state and supports Multi-threading (4 Threads) while featuring 3 MB of L3 cache. The chip is also an ULV (Ultra Low Voltage) which shows that it has a TDP on only 17 Watts. The GPU side of the NUC is powered by the HD 4000 IGP situated on the Core i3-3217U processor. The HD 4000 chip dynamically adjusts between 350 MHz and 1.05 GHz frequencies depending on the load. The HD 4000 chip is a decent GPU but not recommended for high-end gaming at all. You will know that in our bench-marking session later in the review. Display is offered through HDMI and Thunderbolt ports, Thunderbolt supports 2560×1440 res.
To drive it all, sitting beneath the NUC’s D33217CK motherboard is the QS77 Express chipset. The QS77 chipset provides the 3 USB 2.0 ports located in the NUC. Furthermore, there are two vacant SO-DIMM slots which can support up to 16GB of 1600/1333/1066MHz memory and two mini PCIe slots (Half/Full Length) which can support SSD storage and WiFI options.
Since the NUC is a barebone kit, we included an 4 GB Kingston KVR stick (Kingston Value Ram) with a rated speed of 1333 MHz and CL9 timings. Their number is “KVR1333D3S9/4G” but we only had access to single stick, hence our review was done with a single 4 GB stick. The stick costs $25.99 with a lifetime warranty.
For storage, Intel shipped us with an Intel 310 series 80 GB m-SATA SSD which is utilizes 34nm NAND flash memory technology and controller and delivers better responsiveness and speeds compared to HDD solutions. The cost of this SSD is relatively higher at $179.99 being an enterprise solution but if you are looking for more storage than at $199.99 you can grab yourself an 180 GB Intel 520 Series m-SATA SSD. Hopefully, with Intel entering the NGFF (Next Generation Form Factor) with their SSD 335 series we would see more cost effective solutions which would be able to fit in half length mini PCIe slots.
A WiFi card is a must and would set you back an additional $30 – $50 however you can rely on USB to LAN connector for cost sake, the other NUC model comes with a Gigabit ethernet LAN port unlike the Thunderbolt port on the DC3217BY.
- Intel NUC DC3217BY Barebone – $329.99
- Kingston KVR 4GB 1333 MHz CL9 – $25.99
- Intel 310 Series SSD 80 GB Enterprise – $179.99
- WiFi Module mini PCIe – $34.99
- Grand Total – $569.99
With all components installed, the price of the Intel NUC comes down to around $550, more if you add higher capacity memory and storage. In this price range, you can easily get yourself a PC with much better and faster specifications but the NUC is aimed towards a different audience for the purpose its built. Let’s move onwards to take a look at the NUC itself.
Intel’s NUC – First Look at the Barebone PC
As mentioned earlier, the Intel NUC is small and use the uCFF form factor (Ultra Compact Form Factor). The exact dimensions are 4.59″x4.41″x1.55″. The sides are coated matte black while the top cover is colored in glossy red. There’s a single power switch and HDD LED on the top cover. When powered, the power switch glows blue while the HDD LED shows the activity. Located on the front end is a single USB 2.0 port which can be seen below. The sides offer no additional options for connectivity. The back is where the bulk of the I/O options are situated. These include the two USB 2.0 ports, DC power plug connection, HDMI 1.4a and a Thunderbolt 1.1a port. For display you can use HDMI 1.4a but the Thunderbolt port can also be used for display provided you have the display port adapter. The Thunderbolt port can provide display upto a max resolution of 2560×1440. The NUC provides an 7.1 Channel HD Audio connection through the HDMI and Thunderbolt ports. The back also houses the exhaust vents to blow hot air out of the NUC chassis and a single Kensington security lock for anti-theft protection. Below the NUC is an additional plastic cover which is fixed with four screws on each side. There’s a large spot that acts as an exhaust vent and a few stickers are placed for the NUC label. Let’s move onwards and see what’s inside the Intel NUC kit.
A Look Inside the Intel NUC DC3217BY
Opening the plastic cover at the bottom reveals that the motherboard inside the Intel NUC is fixed with a tough aluminum chassis. Removing the plastic chassis shows us a complete look at the hardware fitted inside the Intel NUC, you can spot the memory, SSD, I/O connectors and power components from here. On the left side we have the memory section with two SO-DIMMs slot. Removing and installing the memory is fairly simple. Slide the two holders with your fingers in outward direction, the memory pops upwards and can easily be taken out. To install, simply insert the memory in the SO-DIMM slot and push it downwards until its tightened by the holder.
The right side is made up of two mini PCI-e slots which can be used for storage and additional connectors. Removing the SSD from the PCIe slot is again a simple process as you can note the SSD is tightened in place with a screw. Unscrew the SSD and it would pop upwards, you can take it out than easily.
Installing again is a fairly simple process but do note that if you are installing a WiFi module than it should be installed first since the bottom slot is half-length, the upper full length slot is full-length and suited for SSDs. Just install the SSD and tighten it with the provided screw. The motherboard itself is held with two screws, unscrew them to take out the board from the chassis. Its better that you remove the memory and SSD first before taking out the motherboard.
Removal of the board from the bottom chassis reveals a second aluminum enclosure through which two wires are running. These happen to be from the wireless card antenna’s cables that are routed on both ends of the NUC kit. The two wires are routed through both ends of the NUC and are covered in a conductive copper base that helps enhancing the effective range of the wireless module that is bought separately with the NUC. With the back side of the motherboard covered, let’s take a look at the front. As you can note that the front side features a large fan heatsink which blows air out of the exhaust vents we saw earlier at the back of the case. The CMOS battery and power switch are also located on the front side. It should be noted that when you hit the power switch on the case, the one on the motherboard is actually switched on with triggers On and Off. Again we have to remove the fan heatsink itself to see what lies beneath it. Removal of two screws gives us access to the fan which has a shiny aluminum base manufactured by SUNON. The other half of the heatsink is removed by unscrewing three additional screws which gives us the copper base. This piece has two main points, one copper base that cools the CPU while the other cools the PCH QS77 Express chipset. That’s almost everything there is inside the Intel NUC kit, now we are going to test the NUC with a wide range of performance benchmarks plus thermal and noise testing.
Intel NUC DC3217BY Performance Test
Intel’s NUC performance was tested in a wide variety of benchmarks starting with PCMark 7. In PCMark 7, the Intel NUC DC3217BY scored 4108 Points which is a fairly good score for the form factor PC. GPU performance was evaluated in 3DMark 11, as said earlier the NUC is not built for gaming purposes hence the score is relatively lower. The 1086 points scored in the entry level test goes off to show that the HD 4000 is only good at running high quality videos and a few old games such, nothing current gen can be ran on the Intel NUC with a playable framerate. The Intel NUC is powered by a third generation mult-threaded CPU from Intel which is powerful enough to handle any task. To evaluate its capabilities, we tested it using CineBench R11.5 and Winrar.
SSD was tested with Crystal Mark, the Intel 310 Series SSD performed a bit slow churning up sequential read speed of 204.8 MB/s and 86.80 MB/s Write. About the same results were acquired using ATTO disk benchmark. Further tests were done with SISoftware Sandra Utility which can be seen below:
Intel NUC Thermals, Power and Noise
The NUC is a great device, being so small yet holding outstanding CPU performance that’s delivered by a 17W Intel ULV processor. The CPU at idle runs at around 7-8 Watts and only hits the 17W limit under stressful load so no need to worry about high power consumption while casual browsing or watching movies with this little device. As for the total power consumption, the NUC consumes a total of 35-40 Watts at max load overall and under 15-20W at idle mode which is impressive. There’s no PSU in the device and power is directly fed through the connector cable. As for thermals, we used Hardware Monitor to test it under stressful environments and what we saw was a bit shocking. The CPU temperature was hovering around the 60-70C mark at full load, either this was a bug or the chip was indeed running that hot. It could be a bug since the chip is only a ULV processor with low wattage and the cooling should be adequate with the supplied cooler.
Noise wasn’t even an issue with the Intel NUC, you can barely even hear the fan spinning under full load. So that’s a plus point that the form factor PC also offers silent operation.
The Intel NUC is a compact and power barebone PC kit with exceptional computing performance thanks to its third generation ULV Core i3 “Ivy Bridge” processor. The CPU architecture on the NUC is so efficient that on load it doesn’t even break the 50W limit. Power consumption on one side, the NUC also offers silent operation which is ideal for users who wish to use the small device as a home theater unit.
On top of this all comes the pricing of NUC, the barebone kit alone costs $329 and with added components such as the storage/memory/Wi-Fi module, the cost comes to around $500 plus which is pretty steep and the average user may ask, why don’t i buy a desktop instead which would offer better performance than the NUC? We have the answer to that question!
As you see, the Intel NUC is aimed towards specific users and by specific Intel is not targeting end users or gamers but rather those aiming for theater setups, personal data offices and kiosks. For that kind of usage, an Intel NUC is a sensible product and a rather good one. The NUC is infact so compact that it almost feels as if you are holding a book sized PC that’s fully compatible with Windows 8, loads applications faster, boots in a mere second and runs so quietly that you don’t even feel as if there’s a computing device near you.
The HD 4000 GPU is a major downer on the Intel NUC since it can’t run current generation of games but rather the older ones, however its good for running HD quality videos and as i said before it is targeted towards that kind of an audience rather gamers. Hopefully, with upcoming Intel Haswell (2013) and Broadwell (2014) generation of CPUs which would be integrated with faster IGPs users would finally be able to play games at a decent framrate and performance would come on par with entry level discrete GPUs. The CPU is permanently soldered to the main board which eliminates the choice of upgrade but its more than enough to handle any task load you throw at it.But given the time as PC hardware evolves and becomes more compact and powerful, so would the new NUC designs. Hence, the NUC would sooner or later definitely become the choice of computing for office and personal usage.