Let’s face it: desktop tower PCs are out of fashion. Laptops are the first choice for most people buying a computer today. There’s no longer any compromise in terms of power or capabilities when choosing to dump the traditional boxy tower PC. For those who want to sit at a desk with a larger screen, all-in-ones are an attractive option. The only real reasons most people go with a tower PC today are the relatively low cost, the choice of more powerful components, the room for expansion and the ability to swap or upgrade parts easily over time. Not everyone needs that kind of flexibility though—how often do we need to add or upgrade anything that can’t be plugged in to a USB port? The increasing integration and miniaturisation of components has meant that you never really need to open up your PC, and therefore, all that room for expansion will, in all likelihood, never be used.
With that basic idea in mind, Intel has brought what it calls the Next Unit of Computing (NUC) to the market. The company has imagined what the norm would be if all the traditional reasons for having big, boxy computer cabinets could be done away with. The result fits into a box that’s just four inches square and a couple of inches high. We’ve seen compact PCs before, but never has there been such tight integration of components like this. It’s all possible because of the high performance and low heat output of Intel’s latest hardware.
The NUC is barely 4 inches square
The NUC is essentially an Ultrabook without the integrated screen and keyboard. Three main chips constitute the device’s guts: a low-voltage Core i3-3217U CPU, the QS77 Express platform controller (essentially the chipset) and a Thunderbolt controller. The motherboard has two slots for laptop-sized SO-DIMM RAM modules and two mini PCIe slots (one half-length) ideally for a Wi-Fi module and SSD. That’s all there is in terms of internal expansion and upgradeability. Three USB 2.0 ports, HDMI and Thunderbolt can be found on the front and back of the box. This might seem limited, but bear in mind that Thunderbolt allows for multiple displays, Gigabit Ethernet, USB 3.0 and various other peripherals via accessories. It’s still more than what some ultraportable laptops offer. An SD card reader and USB 3.0 would have been nice, but those will have to wait for future platforms. There is another NUC model available, which swaps the Thunderbolt port for a Gigabit Ethernet port and a second HDMI output. This lowers the cost slightly and could be suitable in some situations, but limits the device’s capabilities to a large extent.
The NUC ships as a barebones device, and it’s relatively easy to undo the four screws holding the bottom plate on. Intel provided an mSATA SSD and Wi-Fi controller for us to review our test unit with, and we popped in 4GB of DDR3 RAM of our own. Installing the components was dead simple, but we noticed the NUC running quite hot right from the start.
Diagram showing the NUC's motherboard layout
We ran a few benchmarks and came away with scores of 73.18 seconds in POV-Ray and 1.71 in CineBench, which makes the NUC’s performance comparable to that of an entry-level laptop. Our file compression test (100MB of assorted files in 7-zip using the Ultra preset) took 131 seconds and the MPG to H.264 video encoding test took 94 seconds for a 1-minute clip, which is longer than average for mainstream Ultrabooks. Similarly, the PCMark and 3DMark Vantage scores of 8267 and 9053 (entry) respectively reveal that the NUC is great for everyday computing and enjoying videos, but not for heavy work like gaming or video editing. Sequential read and write speeds for the mSATA SSD were 431.8MB/s and 251MB/s respectively, although your mileage will vary since you’ll have to buy your own SSD.
The NUC’s performance easily surpasses that of other compact PCs we’ve tested, including the similarly sized Zotac Zbox nano XS we reviewed last year. That device is based on an AMD E-450 APU with an integrated Radeon HD 6320 GPU and cost Rs 25,400 at the time of review (including a 64GB SSD, USB 3.0, an IR remote and a Wi-Fi adapter).
The insides are tightly packed with little room for expansion
The NUC is a fascinating device and we can easily see it working anywhere a tiny, quiet PC is needed. With Ultrabook-level performance in an Atom-sized box, the NUC would work well hooked up to a TV screen for casual games, Web browsing and home media streaming. It could even suffice as a primary PC for many people both at work and at home. It’s certain to end up as the centre of quite a few DIY projects and will probably also be used extensively in embedded systems such as smart interactive outdoor signage. Of course, the limited storage and graphics horsepower mean that gamers and enthusiasts will still favour ATX towers for the foreseeable future.
While tiny, it’s clear that this is not a budget-minded product. Beyond the barebones NUC’s MRP, you’ll have to buy your own RAM, mSATA SSD and Wi-Fi adapter or USB/Thunderbolt Ethernet adapter plus accessories. Given the unit’s price, we can’t really call it an Atom killer. It’s more evenly matched against compact PCs built around AMD’s E-series APUs which offer superior graphics at the cost of raw CPU power.
You'll need an mSATA SSD and a mini-PCIe Wi-Fi adapter
Conclusion and price in India
The NUC with Thunderbolt costs Rs 20,000 and the model with the extra HDMI port and Gigabit Ethernet instead costs Rs 18,000. This is slightly cheaper than Zotac’s recent Intel and AMD-based Zbox models, although those usually include a hard drive or SSD, RAM, Wi-Fi, IR remotes, USB 3.0, eSATA and a card reader.
Also, as impressive as the NUC is, we would have preferred a reasonably larger box with space for the type of slim 2.5-inch SSD that’s used in Ultrabooks, and perhaps a few USB 3.0 ports and Ethernet built in. In a perfect world, there’d even be a way to integrate a discrete GPU, such as the modular graphics cards used in laptops today. We hope that Intel isn’t the only one thinking about using low-voltage CPUs in this kind of form factor, and that companies like Zotac will build on the idea.
Dimensions: 116 x 112 x 394 mm; Weight: 511 g; Processor: Intel Core i3-3217U; RAM: 2 DDR3 SO-DIMM slots; Expansion slots: 2 PCIe/mSATA; GPU: Intel HD4000; Connectivity: 3x USB 2.0, 1x Thunderbolt
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