Review: Intel NUC Kit

Intel second-gen NUC is the basis for a great home theater PC (February 15th, 2014)

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Product Manufacturer: Intel

Price: From $360 Approximately $560 as tested

The Good

  • - Extremely compact design
    - Solid performance
    - Excellent connectivity
    - Class-leading value for money

The Bad

  • - Potentially narrow audience
    - 'Kit" concept could be off-putting to some
    - Non-descript looks

The Intel NUC Kit (Next Unit of Computing) (D54250WYK) is a "bare-bones" Mini PC that ships with the core components of a computing system, but requires users to add their own RAM, SSD, wireless card and operating system to make fully functional. Designed for PC enthusiasts and those wanting to dip their toes into do-it-yourself PC building, the Intel NUC is the smallest form factor that you can pack a fourth-generation Intel Core i5 "Haswell" processor into. Now in its second generation, the Intel NUC has the makings of an ideal home theater PC, or general purpose PC for use at home or in the office.

Design and build quality
The Intel NUC is a functionality-first design that is relatively non-descript. At just 4.59-inches-by-4.41-inches-by1.36-inches, it has a remarkably small footprint meaning that it can just about disappear into any set up, whether in your home theater or on your desktop. In fact, Intel supplies it with a VESA mount, meaning you can also attach it to the back of your computer monitor if you choose. While it won't win any prizes for design finesse, it is a tidy looking device that belies the amount of processing power at its heart.

The Intel NUC chassis is made from aluminum that has a neat bevelled edge, while its top and bottom are made from black plastic. The whole package is sturdy and well put together. A regular Phillips head screwdriver is all that is required to undo the four screws holding the base onto the chassis, which are thoughtfully hidden in the small rubber feet on the base of the device. Even though it is designed to be taken apart for easy access to its internals, it all fits back together with reassuring fit.

When you order your Intel NUC, you will need to add your own RAM, SSD and wireless card (although the latter is optional as you can hardwire an Internet connection over the built-in Gigabit Ethernet port). There are numerous places where you can get these components online through to your local electronics store. Intel shipped our NUC review unit with an Intel dual-band Wireless-AC card (incorporating Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) (Model 7260HMW - $20), 4GB of ADATA DDR3L 1600 SO DIMM RAM ($32) and a 120GB Intel mSATA SSD (Model SSDMCEAC120B3 - $150).

Fitting the components is very simple and made all the more easy courtesy of some very easy to follow visual instructions. We completed the full install in around 15 minutes. The RAM slots straight into the SO-DIMM slots, while the SSD and wireless card slot straight into the two available PCIe slots, although there is also a SATA port as an alternative option for a drive. The only other step required is to connect the on board Wi-Fi antenna directly to the wireless card. Once these simple steps have been completed, you just screw the bottom case back on to the device. To quickly test that everything is working, you can plug in the Intel NUC and attach a monitor, keyboard and mouse.

Installing the operating system
Although the Intel NUC does not come preloaded with an operating system, it comes with Intel's Visual BIOS preinstalled. Although not an operating system, it provides you with system information details and can report on an external drive sources that you might have attached. There is nothing particularly intimidating about the environment, but it certainly helps to make the process of checking your hardware and getting on with the system install much easier. However, to get anything done in terms of productivity or entertainment, you will need to load up an operating system. Although Intel has validated the NUC when running Windows 8.1 and Windows 7, it supports just about any x86-compatible software.

A good choice for people who want to use the NUC for general purpose computing and/or as a media center is Canonical's popular Linux distro, Ubuntu. While Windows is slicker, Ubuntu is very user friendly and easy to use and comes with a preinstalled suite of office software. Better still, it is free, or you can choose to donate some funds to help support its ongoing development. Although you can install the operating system via an attached optical drive if you have optical media, it is quite a simple process to create a bootable drive using a USB stick.

The Ubuntu website provides some guidelines on how to do this using the free Pen Drive Linux installer using Windows. Not only does it give you the option of downloading and installing Ubuntu, but it also gives you the option of downloading and installing an array of alternative Linux distros if you are feeling adventurous. After following the straightforward instructions and the utility automatically creates the bootable drive, installing the Ubuntu is as simple as following the onscreen prompts. The whole process is quite pain free and good fun, particularly if you have never done anything like it before. Following your install, you may then wish to download the free and very popular XMBC media player, converting your NUC into a fantastic home theatre PC in the process.

Hardware and connectivity
Perhaps the most amazing aspect about the Intel NUC is just how much hardware and connectivity Intel has packed into the second-generation model. In this regard, it contains all of the key components that you might expect from a full-size desktop computer. At its heart lies a fourth-generation Intel Core i5 4250U ultra-low voltage dual-core chip. It is clocked at 1.3GHz although it uses Turbo Boost 2.0 allowing it to clock all the way up to 2.6GHz for short bursts of processor intensive tasks. As an added bonus, it also supports Intel's Hyper-threading technology allowing each core to execute two threads simultaneously. The chip can be matched with up to 16GB of DDR3L 1600 RAM.

Intel's integrated HD 5000 GPU provides graphics, which is one of Intel's new generation integrated chip designs. It is has 40 Execution Units (EU), which is the same number as Intel Iris (5100) integrated GPU, although it is clocked lower at 1.1GHz against the Iris' 1.3GHz. That said, it is still more than twice as powerful as the superseded Intel HD 4000 integrated GPU from the 'Ivy Bridge' generation producing more than double the performance at 704 Gigaflops. The Intel HD 5000 is not far off the performance of the Intel Iris Pro, and actually outperforms the Nvidia GT 650M discrete mobile GPU, highlighting how much progress Intel has made with its integrated GPUs this generation. When Intel claims that you can expect to be able to play recent 3D gaming titles, it is not making an idle claim.

The Intel NUC also packs in a remarkable amount of connectivity. Video can be output over either Mini DisplayPort 1.2 or HDMI 1.4. Internet and LAN connectivity is supported over either a Gigabit Ethernet port or your optionally fitted wireless card - in our case, Intel supplied us with an Intel dual-band Wireless-AC card incorporating both Wi-Fi 802.11n and Bluetooth 4.0 (Model 7260HMW). To this, Intel has added dual front USB 3.0 ports and dual rear USB 3.0 ports as well as a combined headphone and line-in jack. It really is a pint-sized powerhouse that will give users plenty of options for connecting high-speed peripherals (wired or unwired) to what is a very solid hardware package. HTPC enthusiasts will also appreciate its standard IR port, allowing users to control the NUC from the comfort of their couch.

There is a lot to like about the relative performance of the Intel NUC. Even though it is running a low voltage mobile part clocked at just 1.3GHz, the fact that it is built using Intel's latest 'Haswell' microarchitecture and can also Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz makes it a solid performer. In the Geekbench 3 (32-bit) test run within the Ubuntu environment, the Intel NUC produced a single-core score of 2258. Its multicore score was also a solid at 4367, highlighting the benefit of Intel's Hyperthreading technology. Its Geekbench 3 scores compare favorably to our 13-inch Retina MacBook (mid-2012) running a third-generation dual-core Intel Core i5 2.5GHz. The older-generation chip running Intel's 'Ivy Bridge' microarchitecture, but clocked much higher, scores 2457 in the single-core test and 5052 in the multicore test. What the comparison demonstrates is that the Intel NUC punches well above its weight and will provide very good performance in general computing scenarios.

In terms of its graphics performance, as highlighted above, the Intel HD 5000 is a marked improvement over the Intel HD 4000 running in our MacBook Pro. Where the HD 4000 had limited gaming potential, the HD 5000 is quite capable of running 3D gaming titles with playable frame rates. Valve's Steam platform offers a number of games that are compatible with Linux and we were able to give an older title, Portal, a run on the Intel NUC. The game runs well, although there was some tearing noticeable, likely the result of drivers in Ubuntu not being properly optimized for the HD 5000 GPU. However, if you're into strategy titles, for example, or ported mobile titles, the Intel NUC will provide more than enough performance to keep you entertained. Video decoding and streaming performance, is however, flawless. XMBC for Linux worked beautifully, underscoring the Intel NUC's credentials as a home theater PC.

Wrapping up
At $360 plus parts (approximately $200 as tested), the Intel NUC represents very good value for money. It is also a lot fun, which is just as important. Even if it is a small step towards developing a customized computing solution for yourself, it could help to kick start a lifelong hobby in PC building. There is nothing intimidating about buying the parts and putting it together, while installing your own operating system is also quite a straightforward process. For HTPC enthusiasts, the Intel NUC represents one of the best and most powerful options in its class. Its wealth of connectivity options and general computing capabilities make it a very versatile and compelling product. While the Intel NUC is not for everyone, it is easy to recommend it to enthusiasts and those who are interested in dipping their toes into customized PC building.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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