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Intel's Next Unit of Computing (NUC): The PC Re-Imagined

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Imagine a blazing fast PC with 16 GB of RAM, a 256 GB solid state disk, and a capable 1.8 GHz 3217U processor. Now imagine that it fits into an enclosure not much bigger than a typical 3.5" hard disk drive. For users who don't require serious graphics capability or huge volumes of storage, Ed Tittel describes why the Next Unit of Computing (NUC) is definitely worth consideration.
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Imagine a blazing fast PC with 16 GB of RAM, a 256 GB solid state disk, and a capable 1.8 GHz 3217U processor. Let's throw in a couple of HDMI ports, three USB ports (one front, two rear), and an RJ-45 for Gigabit Ethernet. So far, this sounds like a plain-vanilla modern PC, right?

Now imagine that the whole shebang fits into an enclosure not much bigger than a typical 3.5" hard disk drive. You've just described what Intel calls its "Next Unit of Computing"[md]usually abbreviated NUC[md]which employs a standard 4" x 4" mini-ITX motherboard (with QS77 chipset) inside a small form factor (SFF) PC enclosure that measures 4.59" x 4.41" x 1.55" (117mm x 112mm x 40mm). See Figure 1.

Figure 1 The NUC enclosure is very compact, with only limited ports and connections. (Image courtesy of Intel.)

NUC Speeds and Feeds

With the NUC, Intel has redefined the barebones DIY home PC. The unit ships in an enclosure with the CPU preinstalled, but it lacks RAM (it has room for two DDR3 SO-DIMM memory modules up to 8 GB in size, for a maximum memory capacity of 16 GB). It also lacks internal storage (it includes an mSATA slot for easy insertion of a plug-in SSD card). Intel offers a video that shows assembly of a complete NUC system that takes under 60 seconds to complete (it simply requires seating one or two SO-DIMMs, inserting an mSATA device, and tightening one or two screws, and that's it).

The NUC motherboard offers built-in Intel HD 4000 graphics, thanks to its built-in Core i3 processor. For most applications[md]except intensive gaming, 3-D modeling, or image/video processing[md]that will be plenty of graphics horsepower (the HD 4000 is more than adequate for handling videos, Blu-ray discs, and other forms of visual entertainment).

The unit also includes a half-size mini-PCIe slot, which will happily accommodate a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth card (like the Intel Centrino Advanced N-6235 card, which retails for about $33) for those who don't want to give up a USB port for mouse and keyboard, or who don't like running Ethernet cables anymore (that's so twentieth century!).

By itself, the NUC costs between $280 and $320. By the time you equip an Intel NUC with memory (16 GB of DDR3 1600 will set you back about $85[nd]$95); an mSATA SSD (expect to spend anywhere from $55 for 32 GB up to $439 for 480 GB) you'll be out anywhere from $420 to as much as $850 or so (add another $33 if you want Bluetooth and Wi-Fi).

For a good 120[nd]128 GB model, you'll pay $395 and up; for a 240[nd]256 GB model, the price starts at $569 or so. As I write this article, Newegg is offering a bundle with the NUC, 16 GB of Crucial RAM, and a Crucial 256GB mSATA SSD for $562. All in all, that's a very nice and compact computing package at a tolerable, if not dirt-cheap, price.

The NUC works fine with both Windows 7 and Windows 8 (the only two OSs I tried out on the box), but it should also work with various Linux distributions, including Fedora, Ubuntu, and OpenSUSE (presumably Chrome OS would also work; it being based on Linux as well). Installers can visit the Intel NUC website to grab chipset and wireless drivers, or check out the Intel Download Center for other software they might need.

Model Number

Connections

D33217GKE

i3 3217U, Dual HDMI, HD Audio, GbE (RJ-45), 5 USB 2.0 (two via internal header)

D33217CK

i3 3217U, Dual HDMI, HD Audio, Thunderbolt, 5 USB 2.0 (two via internal header)

DCCP847DYE

Celeron 847, Dual HDMI, HD Audio, 5 USB 2.0 (two via internal header)

For those with a yen for high-speed media or display connectivity, there's another NUC model with a Thunderbolt (DisplayPort 1.1a) port. And for those on a rock-bottom budget, there's even one with a Celeron processor instead of an i3. For my money, I like the D33217GKE the best because it offers built-in GbE (I'm using it to replace an older mini-ITX unit for my wife, so her desk already has a CAT-6 cable).

What's the NUC Good For?

Intel is eager to sell lots of NUCs so it suggests lots of uses for systems built on this platform. Many of those[md]such as computer kiosks and digital signage computers[md]aren't likely to interest readers of this article.

Figure 2 Intel is pretty excited about broad market appeal for the NUC. (Image courtesy of Intel.)

Business applications aside, that still leaves plenty of ways in which the NUC is likely to be quite appealing to home and hobbyist computer users, including:

  • Basic desktop PC: For users who need to read e-mail, use MS Office, and surf the Web, the NUC is more than adequate (it runs dramatically faster than the 945-based T2300 mini-ITX system it replaced in my house, and drives my wife's 24" Dell Ultrasharp monitor quite nicely).
  • Student PC: The NUC is great for families seeking to provide their kids with a computer usable for schoolwork; it's also compact enough to take up residence on a bedroom desk without being obtrusive.
  • Media center PC: The NUC is very quiet, thanks to its low-voltage i3 chip and modest cooler (the only fan in the enclosure) and can take up residence in most home entertainment centers without muss or fuss. Network performance means you can stream your media from another PC elsewhere in the house, or you can add beaucoup storage using the Thunderbolt or multiple USB ports.

Build a More Perfect NUC?

By and large, the NUC is a nice little computer with a good collection of features and functions. My biggest beef is that Intel elected not to endow the device with any USB 3.0 ports (which might have made the Thunderbolt version unnecessary). For users who don't require serious graphics capability (which the NUC cannot deliver) or huge volumes of storage (which the NUC can only accommodate externally or through network access), the Next Unit of Computing is definitely worth consideration. As a second home PC for light-duty computing or student use, or as a compact media center PC, the NUC is hard to beat.

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