Welcome everyone to my Next Unit of Computing blog! The goal of this blog is to evaluate the NUC and provide feedback on the experience from an end-user standpoint. The NUC has many applications and uses; basically anywhere you want a small form-factor computer with plenty of computing power. It's an ideal fit for digital signage, a desktop replacement, a home theater PC, a home server. Let me apologize in advance for being extremely wordy. If you don't want to read through the entire article and just want the highlights/lowlights feel free to skip to the summary. Also please excuse the poor quality of the photos. I'm using my kitchen table, not a photo studio.
To get me started this entry will focus on setting up the NUC as a home theater PC. I will be looking at initial out-of-the-box impressions, installing components, and getting the system up and running. Later entries will look at content streaming, movie playback, performance, and usability. To get us started let's take a look at the specifics.
The unit I am testing is a DC3217IYE. Here are the key features:
- Intel Core i3-3217U Processor
- Intel QS77 Express Chipset
- Dual channel SODIMM DDR3 1066/1333 MHz, 2 SODIMM, 16GB maximum
- Dual HDMI
- 2 x PCIe mini slots (1x half-length & 1x full/half-length)
- 2 x USB 2.0 connectors on back panel
- 1 x USB 2.0 connector on front panel
- 2 x Internal USB 2.0 via 2x5 header
- Intel 10 / 100 / 1000 Network Connection
- Wireless option via mini PCIe card
- Bluetooth option via mini PCIe Cars
- Supports new Mobile SATA (SSD) card via full-length PCIe Mini Card
- 19V DC Power Input (external power supply)
- 4 × 4 × 2 inch form factor
The internal components used to complete the system are:
- 4GB Crucial DDR3 1600 Ram
- SSDMCEAC180B3 180 GB micro SSD
- Intel 6235 Wireless NIC
Opening the box you hear the familiar Intel bong. When I first heard about the bong box (well what else would you call it?) I thought it seemed a little silly. Still I have to admit the singing box thing is pretty cool. It's a snazzy way of saying "Hey, we're Intel...we can do ANYTHING. Hear that box talking to you? Yeah, we did that".
In the box you have the unit itself, the paperwork, the mounting plate, and the power adapter. There's also an i3 sticker but looking at the unit I can't imagine ruining the super-sleek look with a sticker. You don't slap a bumper sticker on a Ferrari! The mounting plate is a nice touch. A device like this is meant to be more or less invisible, and being able to mount it on the back of your monitor is handy.
Let's talk about what's NOT in the box: a power cord. This has rubbed some people the wrong way, especially when the bought it from a store or site that didn't bother to mention you need to buy a power cord. The cord itself is cheap ($2 or $3) so it's not the cost. It's the frustration of getting something home and then realizing you have to head back to the store for a cord. The reason you need to buy your own power cord is simple: Intel sells the NUC all over the world and different countries use different plugs. So rather than have separate units to send to different countries, Intel went with a single box where the buyer grabs a power cord when the buy the unit. This works well in some cases: when you buy one at NewEgg they give you a friendly "By the way, you'll need one of these cords" message. In other cases, like retail stores where the employee selling you the NUC probably doesn't know you need a power cord, it can be problematic.
I've read a couple of online reviews that complained about the large external power brick. I happen to disagree with them. I think the choice to keep the power supply outside the unit was the right one. Think about it; with a device this small if the power supply fails would you rather be dealing with replacing a custom internal power supply or just ordering a replacement brick?
My first impression of the NUC is that it is one cool looking piece of tech. It's like a shiny new car. Looking at my old HTPC next to this is like comparing an old Toyota pickup to a new Lexus; Sure they'll both get you to work, but one is a whole lot more fun and just looks NICE! It's smaller than I imagined. To give some perspective here is a side-by-side shot of the NUC next to my Raspberry Pi in its custom case:
As you can see it's larger but not by much. And when you consider just how much more is crammed into the NUC you can appreciate the difference.
But looks aren't everything. It's what's inside that really counts. And as most of you know the NUC isn't ready to go right out of the box. It's basically a "barebones" system so you'll have to install your own memory, hard drive, and wireless NIC. Some will complain that as expensive as it is it should come with these things. I agree it's pricey but at the same time consider that you're not going to have a one-size-fits-all option with a device like this. Some will want larger or smaller hard drives, more or less memory, or even a different wireless NIC. Unless you're going to market this as a custom PC, ala Dell, there are just too many configuration options...so again I get what they're going for here. In any case this isn't marketed to the budget PC buyer. If you read reviews of the NUC online you'll see very few complaints about cost vs. missing components. Opening the unit is pretty simple; four screws and the case pops open. One nice touch is that the four screws stay in the case even when they're unscrewed. Anyone who's had to crawl around on all fours searching for a case screw will appreciate that.
Inside it's pretty cramped but nothing to be worried about as far as cooling. Installing the memory, hard drive, and wireless NIC is straight forward. If you've ever added memory to a laptop you're in familiar territory here. The trickiest part is connecting the antenna cable, but even there it's nothing a typical PC enthusiast hasn't seen before. The SSD is held in place by a single screw, so there's really nothing too daunting.
Once the components are installed, the case slides back together and the screws go back in place. The whole process takes less than 5 minutes. Connecting the NUC to your TV is simple: Plug in the power brick, connect the hdmi to the NUC and the tv, and connect the usb receivers for the remote and keyboard. In keeping with the sleek design the power button is a minimalist, recessed button that glows blue. Already I like the fact that they include 3 USB ports (the raspberry pi has 2). With a usb keyboard/mouse, remote control, and external USB hard drive you're already at 3 ports.
For an operating system I debated between Windows 7, Windows 8, and a flavor of Linux (leaning toward Ubuntu). Ultimately I settled on Windows 7. It's the OS I have on my old HTPC, so I would have some good side-by-side comparisons. Linux is still an option for later, as I may opt for a dual boot configuration. Windows 8 was out because….well, it's Windows 8. I won't have that debate here, but suffice it to say I want to enjoy this experience and Windows 8 is the least likely choice for that. I won't bore you with the installation process. We all know the routine. This is an Intel system, after all, and it's expected to be ultra happy with Windows, which it was. No install issues whatsoever. I didn't time it, but it was very, very quick to install.
The first thing you'll notice about the NUC when you boot it is the lack of a boot screen. There's no BIOS information, no "F8 for setup". It just immediately goes to Windows. I can't say I miss the startup screen at all. You can go into the BIOS and turn the boot screen features back on, but for me it's refreshing to have the device feel more like...well a device...rather than a PC. I don't need to see the BIOS information, I already know how much memory I have, what hard drive, etc….just get to the OS and that's fine by me. Bonus points to the designers for keeping the minimalist thing going. It's a nice feeling to be oblivious to the device and be able to focus on the function. One of my complaints about my old HTPC was that it was really just a PC. I had to configure the BIOS to get the hardware to work, had to sit through the boot screen, etc. The NUC provides a much cleaner experience. Turn it on, and it's on.
WOW...how fast can this thing possibly be?!?!?. It booted to the Windows desktop in 7 seconds...yes, you read that right…7 SECONDS. My fastest system at home is a Sandy Bridge i7 running an older model Intel SSD, and even it takes close to 30 seconds to get to the desktop. This is hands down the fastest boot I've seen on any device, PC or otherwise. Even my super fast Sony bluray player takes longer! Now of course part of this is the SSD, but it's still very impressive.
I initially ran into an issue while configuring the display.When I ran the Intel display wizard it switched my resolution to 1184X666, which was strange because my tv is 1080P. As soon as the resolution changed Windows (not the Intel utility) popped up a warning that my display wasn't set at the optimal resolution. The Windows pop-up said my optimal resolution was 1280X720. Fortunately the wizard was sitting on the screen to change my resolution, which I did, to 1280X720. At this point the resolution changed and I was left with the windows desktop filling only about 1/3 of the screen. Most of the screen around it was black. So I went back through the wizard, this time choosing 1920X1080. This time I still received the pop-up about the resolution, but everything was in 1080P and looked good except that the outer edge of the image was cut off. So I exited the wizard and went into the graphics advanced settings. I found the image scaling option and adjusted it a bit and hit apply. That caused the screen to start flickering, which I didn't much care for, so I switched back. I could live with the loss of a tiny bit of real estate, especially since running media center would hide it anyway. After connecting the NUC to a different TV I found that the above resolution problem appears to be a quirk of my TV, NOT the NUC. When I ran the display wizard while connected to the other TV (a Vizio) both the wizard and Windows agreed that the optimal resolution for the display was 1080P. At that resolution everything fits the screen properly and there is no loss of real estate.
At this point it occurred to me I should probably check for updated drivers….duh. Luckily there was an insert in the box telling me where to go for updated drivers. And here I have a gripe. Including a piece of paper with a LONG URL is not a good idea. I see this from manufacturers all the time. They'll include an insert telling you that for updated drivers you should go to: "http://mysupercomplicatedurlthatgoesonandonjusttomakesureyouhavetotypeitseveraltimestogetitright.com"
Think I'm exaggerating? Here's the actual URL from the insert with the NUC (it comes on a piece of paper...remember paper?):
I entered it several times and was never able to get it to work, so I ended up going directly to the download center, typing in my model, and going straight to the download page. Wouldn't it have been easier to just tell users to go to downloadcenter.intel.com and type in the model number in the first place? After all that, it turned out I already had the most current drivers installed.
My NUC is now ready to roll!
- The NUC looks awesome and comes packed with some serious power. It has a sleek design and is surprisingly small.
- The mounting plate to attach it to the back of a monitor is a nice touch. for some extra cool you could even use it to mount the NUC on the wall next to your TV.
- Users will have to install their own SSD, RAM, and wireless NIC but the process is surprisingly simple.
- The lack of any visible boot screen is a nice touch.
- Boot time is ridiculously fast.
- The missing power cord is a necessary evil that may or may not come up, depending on where you buy it. MAKE SURE TO GEAT POWER CORD.
- The URL provided for driver updates is unnecessarily long and cumbersome. Pointing users to downloadcenter.intel.com would make more sense.
This is where I'll stop for now. I've configured the hardward and OS and am ready to start playing with the various HTPC functions. I hope you found the blog useful!