Intel NUC review
A basic but irresistibly tiny PC that sets a new standard for compactness and power-efficiency
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.
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 wattsThe 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.
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.