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Intel NUC review

Verdict

A basic but irresistibly tiny PC that sets a new standard for compactness and power-efficiency

Review Date: 14 Jan 2013

Reviewed By: Darien Graham-Smith

Price when reviewed: DC3217IYE, £185 (£222 inc VAT); DC3217BY, £204 (£245 inc VAT)

Overall Rating
4 stars out of 6

Features & Design
5 stars out of 6

Value for Money
4 stars out of 6

Performance
3 stars out of 6

Despite the pompous name, Intel’s “Next Unit of Computing” is actually one of the most modest PCs we’ve seen. Measuring less than five inches square, and standing a squat inch-and-a-half tall, it’s an attractively diminutive box that manages to make even Apple’s Mac mini look big – and at first glance the price appears sensational.

What you’re buying isn’t a complete system, however. Whether you choose the all-black DC3217IYE (£222 inc VAT) or the pricier maroon-topped DC3217BY (£245), all you get is a motherboard, processor and case. There’s no OS included, nor any memory or storage; there isn’t even a power cable in the box.

The requisite extra components aren’t at all difficult to install – with the right screwdriver you can fit everything in sixty seconds – but they up the budget significantly. And if you were hoping to populate your NUC with old spare parts, be warned that Intel’s lilliputian design demands DDR3 SODIMMs and storage in the modern mSATA format.

The colour isn’t the only difference between the two NUC models. The DC3217IYE provides a Gigabit Ethernet socket at the back along with two HDMI sockets, while the DC3217BY bears a Thunderbolt connector instead, with a single HDMI socket. That means the DC3217BY has no networking capabilities at all out of the box – but both models provide an internal half-length mini-PCI Express slot with antenna connections, so you can add wireless networking if you wish.

Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC) - gut shot

The only other connectors on offer are a pair of USB sockets at the back, with a third at the front. Oddly, these all run at USB 2 speeds, rather than USB 3, which is crazy. With internal storage limited to a single mSATA drive, the NUC is crying out for high-speed external connectivity. The BY model does offer the possibility of hooking up external disks via Thunderbolt, but these are far more expensive than their USB 3 equivalents.

Inside, both NUCs are powered by a surface-mounted Core i3-3217U, clocked at 1.8GHz. Like all Core i3 systems the NUC lacks Turbo Boost, so you won’t see that frequency ramp up, even under heavy workloads. The processor does, however, offer two physical cores, with Hyper-Threading providing two additional virtual cores, and in practice we found Windows 8 running on a NUC (the DC3217BY in this case) with 3GB of DDR3-1066 and a 32GB Samsung PM830 system disk was perfectly smooth.

To quantify that, we ran our Real World Benchmarks on a system hooked up to a 1080p display: its Responsiveness score of 0.67 confirms that sense of slickness, while a more ponderous 0.37 in the Multitasking test exposes the limits of the dual-core CPU.

We also tried running our standard Crysis benchmarks, to test the NUC’s integrated HD 4000 GPU. Here, the system averaged a barely playable 28fps in our Low quality Crysis test, falling to 18fps in the Medium test and 8fps at High detail.

Sitting at the Windows 8 desktop, our NUC idled at an absurdly low eight watts

The NUC's low-power design has upsides. For one, cooling requirements are minimal. At all loads, the built-in CPU fan is barely audible, even when you stick your ear near the vent; use the VESA mount that’s included with the BY model to affix the NUC to the back of your monitor and you won’t hear it at all. Another benefit is power efficiency: sitting at the Windows 8 desktop, our NUC idled at an absurdly low eight watts, and even in the throes of our multi-apps test it never topped 20W.

The two versions of the NUC offer different connections at the rear.

With its frugal processor and limited connectivity options, the NUC will never be as capable or versatile as the Apple Mac mini – and the cost of adding storage, memory, an OS and a networking adapter eats away at the price advantage. Our test system would have set us back a total of £397 if we had bought all the elements from scratch.

Yet there’s something delightful about the tininess, quietness and overall simplicity of the NUC design. For a front-room system, an always-on server or a basic office desktop, a NUC could be just the ticket – and if Intel ever produces a version with USB 3, it will deserve serious consideration from anyone seeking a stylish compact PC. For now, though, while these first two models prove that the NUC concept has tremendous promise, they’re simply too limited for a general recommendation.

Author: Darien Graham-Smith

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User comments

Throttling

The German test review I read (c't magazine), said that the processor doesn't have sufficient cooling and the system throttles its performance under constant heavy load.

By big_D on 14 Jan 2013

I can't find the c't article to which you refer online, but I have to say we didn't observe any throttling problems: the benchmark scores our test unit achieved are just as we'd expect from a 17W Core i3 (cf. our review of the Asus VivoBook S200E which uses the same processor). Could it be that that the problem has been fixed in a BIOS update? Our NUC had the latest available BIOS, dated 13 December 2012.

By DarienGS on 14 Jan 2013

@DarienGS

The article is in the current paper issue, so only available online behind the paywall.

http://www.heise.de/ct/inhalt/2013/03/060/ You can order the mag, leave a comment or send a letter...

By big_D on 14 Jan 2013

Danke schön.

By DarienGS on 14 Jan 2013

USB2? WTF?

Absolutely mental design decision to put USB2 ports on this. In fact, it's mental to put USB2 ports on ANYTHING. It's 2013 FFS!

By PaulOckenden on 14 Jan 2013

USB2? WTF?#2

Mr Ockenden has put it very succinctly.....

I rather suspect that the V2.x will include the next generation "Haswell" chips\chipset (or a version thereof).

Failure to include both USB3 and better graphics will be just silly....

By wittgenfrog on 14 Jan 2013

It is Intel...

Therefore, they would prefer you bought Thunderbolts and Lighting instead of USB3...

By big_D on 14 Jan 2013

I want this for my main ubuntu station

Seriously tempted by this for my everyday machine - will install ubuntu.

The small form factor and quiet running v tempting.

Will be interesting to see what the v2 looks like.

By longn on 14 Jan 2013

Does it fit to the Vesa mount on the back of a monitor to produce an 'all-in-one' PC?

If not, why not?

By grimerking on 14 Jan 2013

A Chip on the old Block?

Sorry but I find the thing just looks like a brick!

Far better to have given it a good graphics card and put it inside a Hi Res, Hi Def, Television so that online games can be played from scratch.

OH so sorry... That exists already in the shape of other consoles.

Still rather a brick then?

By lenmontieth on 15 Jan 2013

Ahh yeah!

Instant order from me! I have a spare 256Gb Crucial mSata sitting there along with 8Gb Vengeance ram which should ensure the HD4000 runs well.

By rhythm on 20 Jan 2013

I'm amazed this didn't get a more resoundingly positive response in Hot Hardware; this a great but if kit especially if a cheap upgrade is needed and you already own other items of hardware.

One question: by "five inches square," do you actually mean "five square inches?"

By captaintau on 23 Jan 2013

Ooo Nice.

Hope they put Thunderbolt on it or Lightpeak.

By FRETPICK on 24 Jan 2013

Perfect XBMC

I got one as replacement for my ASRock 330 ION that had started playing up and is running Windows 8 XBMC and MediaPortal and it is superb for this.

It is silent and very quick. Cost was a tad high for a media centre at £335 - with 8GB RAM and 40GB Intel SSD (NAS streaming running so no more needed).

Overall I am very pleased with it so far.

By kralcs on 25 Feb 2013

Thunderbolt

@ FRETPICK

They did include 1 Thunderbolt port on the "Campers Lake" motherboard and "Box Canyon" barebone.

You can find it here: http://www.logicsupply.com/products/dc3217by

By mk3090 on 13 Mar 2013

VESA mount

The NUC will mount to VESA, but it requires an extra mounting plate.

Some providers are offering a solution that wouldn't need an additional mounting plate:

http://www.logicsupply.com/products/ag960

By mk3090 on 13 Mar 2013

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