You may have heard of NUC mentioned on my columns and between the pages of various tech magazines. While the concept isn’t new, it’s a entirely new direction for Intel, who is now pretty much concentrating on their invasion into the low-power market with their x86 designs, making computers with just enough power to operate as you would normally expect them to. That’s also been AMD’s aim with the birth of the APU and the now-defunct Fusion brand, but it seems like Intel had a different idea in mind.
NUC was shown off at least year’s Intel Developers Forum and that was the full, shipping retail product. Intel’s challenge to its engineers was to design a motherboard and chip combo in in the smallest size possible with passive cooling, but big enough to fill a chassis that could be VESA-mounted into the back of a monitor. It was to have enough USB ports to be functional, HDMI-out along with Thunderbolt as well as an external PSU so the chassis could be as small as possible. And it needed to look smart. This is what they came up with.
The NUC comes by default without an OS, RAM, Wi-Fi card or a SSD – all that stuff you choose yourself. It uses a standard mSATA connector situated right on top of the smaller PCI-Express slot which can be used for a half-height Wi-Fi card. There are actually two SKUs, both employing the same processor – the entry-level DC3217IYE and the DC3217BY. The numbers indicate which processor is embedded, in this case the Core i3-3217U, a low-power Ivy Bridge dual-core chip with a 17W TDP and Intel HD4000 graphics. The IYE version is all-black and features a Gigabit ethernet port with an additional HDMI port; the BY version, pictured above, has a red top and features Thunderbolt instead with a single HDMI-out. Those differences aside, they’re pretty much the same machine. Both SKUs can drive two 30″ screens at their native resolution which is asking a bit much, but it’s do-able.
Flip the board over and there’s a laptop-sized cooling fan, designed to meet the TDP requirements of the 17W processor. Its entirely possible that this same shell and design could be used by AMD for their APUs. If they manage to scramble their “Kabini” chip into something like this before its expected launch in June, they may have a winner on their hands. Intel also employs the QS77 chipset, a derivative of the Q77 and B75 chipsets designed for use in motherboards designed for business-use and corporate environments. It provides only the basic amount of connectivity and there’s very little going for it outside of its application in NUC. Will you be playing games on this thing? Possibly, but only ones that aren’t demanding. Team Fortress 2 might be a stretch, but its do-able.
So why is this thing desirable? Well for one, there’s almost nothing like it in the market. The closest you could get to its size is a custom chassis made for the Raspberry Pi, but that also has a totally different target market. Where would you use NUC? I’m guessing whoever snaps one up will see some use as a low-power Linux server, doing duties for menial things like serving as an internet proxy, a mail server or something equally low-key that doesn’t require a lot of power. Others may even figure it could run Windows Home Server and do things like run backups to storage attached through USB.
Mostly though, I see NUC as a proof-of-concept that Intel just decided to sell because it can – I say this because many online reviewers experienced the same behaviour with copying files to the SSD over Wi-Fi, with the NUC crashing in most cases and requiring the power cord to be removed. That aside, it could go into many, many places besides desktop use and the other scenarios I considered and its a very capable little machine. In the future I might actually be looking for something similar because I don’t need to be writing this post from my gaming desktop – I can relegate it to purely being a gaming machine, while everything else gets done on the NUC stuck to the back of my monitor, running Linux.
That’s a scenario I’d happily live with. Sadly, this kind of convenience doesn’t come cheap. Before you get it all together, its going to cost around $550 without an OS. Some people might take one look and move to AMD’s ITX boards with an integrated APU but know that it won’t be as powerful as NUC, even though they’re similarly capable.
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