One question I get asked a lot when talking to people about the NUC is whether there are ways to bring the total cost of the unit down. People love the NUC; the sleek design, the versatility, the compact yet powerful nature of it. But when you factor in the cost of the wireless module, the memory, and the mSATA drive, and the operating system it can get up close to $500. For a powerful little computer like the NUC that's not bad. But if you're using it as an HTPC you might not want to spend that much.
There are in fact ways to lower the final price tag of the NUC. I decided to take a look at ways to lower the cost. I came up with a few substitutions that drive the price down but still provide respectable performance.
I started with the base NUC Centrino, the DCCP847DYE.
Then I added a generic, tiny USB wifi :
Next I searched for a deal on memory. I didn't want to buy the absolute cheapest no-name memory because I wanted a stable system. So instead I opted for some well-reviewed memory that was on sale.
Finally, instead of an mSATA SSD I went with...wait for it...a USB thumb drive:
(Fast and cheap, but not pretty in the NUC)
Oh, and I also ditched Windows in favor of Linux Mint. Even on sale Windows isn’t cheap. Obviously a couple of these require a bit of explanation, so here goes. These numbers are based on my original NUC.
NUC i3 - $280
NUC Celeron - $150
Minor impact on performance-negligible for HTPC use.
Intel 6235 Wifi adapter - $25
Generic USB wifi adapter - $10
Wifi performance and Bluetooth. Benchmarks put it at about 1/3-1/2 the speed of the Intel adapter. You also won't have Bluetooth, which you could add with a Bluetooth USB adapter, but if you want Bluetooth just spring for the 6235.
Intel 525 mSATA SSD - $240
Adata S102 Pro 16GB USB flash drive - $10 (after rebate)
Performance and storage. Let's face it, comparing an mSATA SSD to a flash drive is just silly.
4GB DDR3 SO-DIMM - $50
4GB DDR3 SO-DIMM - $30
Windows 7 Home Premium
Ease of use, ease of configuration, Netflix, Media Center, bluray playback
This brings the build cost down to about $200. As I mentioned in the table above there are some sacrifices both in terms of performance and usability. I like Linux Mint a lot but it can’t do Netflix, and installing applications tends to be more complicated. Also, Linux typically means being familiar with command line unix commands.
A note about flash drives: When I started this mini-project I was tempted to find a tiny, low-profile flash drive to keep the clean look of the NUC intact. The wifi adapter is low-profile and you can barely see it so I thought about the same for the flash drive. After doing some research what I found was the super tiny USB flash drives seem to have a MUCH higher failure rate than your standard flash drives. They also don't generally have the best performance. When looking for a flash drive for this project you want to pay close attention to the performance before the form factor. Also, I can't speak to how long the flash drive will last as an OS drive. I've never done it this way before and don't know how hard the OS hits the drive. Your mileage may vary.
(The wifi adapter is tiny and keeps the clean look of the NUC)
(The S102? Not so much)
The Adata S102 might look a little silly sticking out of the back of the NUC but it's a solid performer and when you're going with a flash drive for your OS you want the fastest most reliable you can find. I did find a flash drive on Amazon with an extremely low profile and 4.5 star reviews. It's a little more expensive ($17) but might be worth it if your NUC is somewhere visible.
For most uses the NUC’s USB 2.0 ports are more than adequate. I was able to watch blurays through an external drive with no playback issues whatsoever. Still, when booting the OS off of a flash drive USB 3 would provide a performance increase.
USB ports get scarce while building the NUC, but once you're set up you shouldn't need a USB hub unless you go peripheral crazy. With this “economy” build the ports are at even more of a premium because you’re using the two back ones for your wifi and flash drive. You’ll almost certainly want a USB hub.
Once the memory is installed and the wifi adapter and flash drive are plugged in you’ll boot to your install media, install Mint, download updates, install XBMC and you're done. Mint installs to the USB flash drive just like a hard drive so the process is the same. Booting from the flash drive also has the advantage of giving you a portable OS. If you have more than one NUC, or if you like to switch quickly between various OSes, installing to flash drives is nice.
I was expecting serious lags due to the flash drive, but to be honest it was still quite snappy. The only time I noticed a lag was when I was downloading Mint updates, installing XBMC, and looking at a web page at the same time. Things slowed down quite a bit then. Other than that it ran great. Boot time is obviously slower; more like booting Windows from an old platter hard drive. I installed the HD Trailers add-on for XBMC and was watching the latest HD trailers in seconds. Playback was smooth and pretty. Playing a ripped movie off of another flash drive was equally impressive. Playing a movie from the OS flash drive would skip occasionally, so I would advise against it.
I was pleasantly surprised with the performance of the build.The downgrade from i3 to Celeron is negligible. The flash drive OS is slower but not so much that it makes the system un-fun to use. Of course you could go with more expensive components to improve the performance but the goal here was to see what we'd get for the cheapest possible solution. You could also drive the price down even more by waiting for $0-after-rebate deals and other sales. It seems the biggest hit is the wifi performance. When streaming from HD-trailers.net I did get some buffering.
Against my better judgment I even attached my USB tuner (by then I HAD to use a USB hub) and set up MythTV. MythTV is an absolute pain to set up, but once it’s working it’s pretty nice. TV performance was not noticeably different than the original NUC setup. It isn’t nearly as easy to use as Media Center under Windows but it gets the job done.
After using the build on wifi I decided you’re really better off going with the Intel wireless module rather than the generic USB. It’s only about $10-$15 dollars more and it offers much better performance, not to mention bluetooth.
So there you have it; a fully functional NUC-based HTPC for about $200.