A while ago I wrote a brief (hah!) introduction to the new Bay Trail-based NUC. I was intrigued by the some of the changes made to keep costs down, but also curious about whether the performance would be strong enough. The folks on the NUC team put one together for me and said "Do your worst" (what? No Jim Caviezel fans out there?). I've been working with it for a while now and I feel like sharing. That's just me…I'm a giver.
First, as I mentioned in my previous blog the test unit I was given was "hot out of the oven", meaning they actually built it for me while I waited. While that was a cool thing it also meant the unit I was getting was still a little rough around the edges software-wise. While physically it's identical to what customers will get, the BIOS and drivers weren't quite finished yet. That meant some trial and error, some testing, and some limitations for me. It was a very cool experience for me getting to test out beta BIOS and drivers. But it also meant some delays while issues were sorted out. Not that I don't love living in the Wild Wild West of computing, because I do.
I used a 4GB sodimm and an 80GB Intel SSD (already had it so that was lucky). I originally planned to use my old Westinghouse 1440X900 monitor but it turns out I couldn't see the bios screen or boot screen because the monitor doesn't handle either 1024X768 or 1080p. So instead I moved into the house and used my Asus 1080p monitor.
Update your BIOS. Just do it. Don't even ask. The Visual BIOS is nicely put together and a great feature about the latest version is it lets you set which operating system you plan on using, and it then sets the BIOS settings accordingly.
Visual Boot Manager:
Yes this one comes with Visual Boot Manager, and I'm happy to report it works great. Unfortunately it's pretty empty. At this point you get icons for any bootable devices connected, but nothing else. Still, it's a nice clean boot screen if you're like me and you regularly switch between devices to boot from. You can turn it on and off in the BIOS so if you don't need it you can do without. I'm still eager to see where it goes because I think it has a lot of potential.
The first step was seeing how the Bay Trail handled Windows 8. The DN2820 released without Windows 7 support so Windows 8 was really the only choice. I made a USB 3 installer stick and…nothing. The system wouldn't boot from it, or even recognize it. I was still running the pre-release BIOS and after talking to the team learned there was an issue with some USB 3 sticks being recognized on that BIOS. So I updated the BIOS and tried again. This time it worked and installing Windows 8 from a flash drive went smoothly. I didn't notice any lag or slowness at all during the install, and it finished with no problems or errors. I booted into Windows and pretty much nothing worked, which is what I expected because I hadn't installed the drivers yet. I downloaded the driver pack from the download center. And here is where I have a compliment and a complaint: Great job on combining on the drivers into an easily downloadable bundle. But if we're going that far, why can't we have a combined installer as well? Is there some reason we can't have a single installer with check boxes to pick which drivers we want to install? I ask because installing the drivers separately is a P-A-I-N, especially since pretty much all of them want a reboot after installation. Anyway, that's just a gripe of mine.
After installing all of the drivers it booted up it looked great and, despite my dislike of Metro, it gave me an excellent Windows experience. Everything was smooth and functional. I installed XBMC, a few Metro apps, OpenOffice, some games. Then I just used it like I would use any computer. And you know what? It was pretty good. I didn't feel any lag, the graphics were good, and everything worked. As much as I'm a cheerleader for the NUC I wasn't expecting a whole lot in the way of performance from this "NUC-lite" but it was doing just fine. I watched some movie trailers through XBMC, streamed some video off of a flash drive, streamed some tv off of a network share. Everything went off without a hitch. I did notice a fraction of a second delay before starting playback of recorded tv. It wasn't enough that I'd call it a problem…just slightly slower to start than my i3 (I know...shocking, right?).
Then I tried out my Media Center remote and it didn't work. That was strange. I was sure I'd installed the drivers. I checked and everything in Device Manager looked happy but the remote didn't do diddly. So I uninstalled the IR receiver drivers and rebooted. Boom…the remote worked. I went through another round of installing and uninstalling the drivers to confirm and sure enough installing the drivers actually made the IR port stop working. I reported this to the team, they confirmed it in the lab, and before long (about a week) an updated driver was available that worked great. Unfortunately, it didn't work in the Metro apps. That's not an issue with the NUC, the port, or the driver, but with the Metro apps themselves. I can't for the life of me figure out why there would be a Metro app for Netflix that doesn't let you use a remote control. But whatever, the NUC was doing just fine.
I decided, reluctantly, to try Windows 8.1 next. I went through the installation again; same process, same complaint…I really have to install ALL of these drivers separately?
After a reboot it looked great but I couldn't help but notice the absence of the familiar sound effects. I did a quick check and found I had no sound through HDMI. I plugged in a speaker to the analog port…worked great. I paired a bluetooth speaker…similarly great. But no sound through HDMI. I tried uninstalling/reinstalling the drivers but it didn't help. The device was there in Device Manager and it was listed in the sound output properties, but it shows as "unplugged". I tried a different HDMI cable but no luck. So I pinged the team. They recommended I update to the latest available BIOS, which I did, but still no sound. Then they recommended disabling Legacy Boot in the BIOS. No I couldn't for the life of me figure out how the two were related but I took a chance and did as the asked. Sure enough when I booted back up the HDMI sound was working. They tell me a future bios release will make this work on its own but I was happy with it working so I moved on. That was the last piece and now I had a 100% fully functional Windows 8.1 system. Incidentally I went ahead and installed Classic Shell, which took me back to a Start menu and Windows7-like experience. If you have Windows 8 but don't have a touch screen I highly recommend Classic Shell. It's free and it makes Windows 8/8.1 MUCH more usable.
As I said earlier this NUC shipped without Windows 7 support, and it's the only NUC to date that has. That bugged me. After all Windows 7 seems to be the OS that would be most likely to choose if they want the Windows experience but don't have a touch screen. It's cheaper, it comes with Media Center, and…most importantly…it doesn't come with Metro. Well GREAT NEWS! The team has been hard at work on BIOS and driver updates. Most of the pieces are there for Windows 7 support, with a graphics driver on the way. You can actually install it now I'm told, you just won't have a good graphics driver. I don't know when the driver will be ready but I'm told it will be soon. Kudos to all the people who put so much effort into making that happen because it's huge. Once the driver is ready I'll give it a go.
Linux Mint 16:
Anyone who reads my NUC blogs knows I'm a big fan of Linux Mint. If you want a Windows-like experience but don't like the Windows price tag then Linux Mint is a good choice. The Cinnamon desktop environment is pretty similar to Windows, and Mint includes an update manager, and office suite, a software installer, even desktop themes. It looks great, works great, and makes your wallet happy.
Installing Linux Mint from a USB stick could not be easier. The best part is that there are no drivers to install…everything's included. On first boot I ran into a weird issue. It booted to the desktop but had no task bar. After toying around for a while I figured out that I could get to the display settings by right-clicking on the desktop and selecting Change Desktop Background, then clicking All Settings and finally going to Display. Once there I found that there was a phantom display set as my default, with my actual monitor set as a secondary monitor. By disabling the phantom display my monitor became the primary and everything went back to the way it should be. I reported this to the team and they're looking into it. It's minor thing and easily fixable but it would still be good to court the Linux world by making that work by default.
After it was installed a familiar issue emerged: no HDMI audio. I knew I had the right BIOS settings so this was weird. I started going through the Mint forums and learned that this time the issue wasn't with the NUC at all. Apparently "HDMI No Sound" is one of the more common search phrases for Linux Mint 16. Fortunately a little more digging revealed the fix. A few commands input at the terminal screen and HDMI audio was working just fine.
Just like with Windows I installed XBMC, a few apps, and then just generally played around. And like Windows the experience was top notch. Streaming worked great, movies worked great, web browsing, word processing…even Google Earth (wow!) all worked well. The IR port worked perfectly in XBMC too.
It really is a shame we can't make the driver experience in Windows better. That's not a NUC-specific comment, just a general complaint by me about the state of things. When you install Linux almost everything works by default. With Windows you have to go through eight or nine installers and several reboots. Annoying.
I'd never tried Openelec before, and honestly didn't know what the big deal was. Just another Linux distribution right? But looking through the XBMC forums I saw lots of raves about it so I thought I'd see how well it worked on the Bay Trail. Well it didn't work…not at all. I couldn't get past the install screen. Fortunately after some reading the XBMC forums I came across someone who had gotten it working on the Bay Trial NUC by downloading a beta version of the next release. So I downloaded it and tried it out and was really impressed. Openelec is basically a stripped down Linux distribution that does one thing: run XBMC. That's all it does and it does it very well. There is no desktop environment, just XBMC. It's very small so you can boot it from a smaller flash drive, and it's portable so you can switch between computers too. The only issue I had with Openelec on the Bay Trail NUC (and the other two NUCs I tried it on) was that I couldn't get bluetooth to pair with anything. Maybe I'm overly optimistic but I'm putting that down to it being a beta version and hoping the final version has bluetooth working.
It's important to know what you're getting before you buy any computer. To keep the cost down there had to be some compromises and they may affect your buying decision:
- For starters the graphics are Ivy Bridge-based, so you won't be running a 4k display. You can run 1080p at 60hz just fine but that's about as much as you're going to get. (note: playback at 1080p at 60hz looks great on it).
- Also because of the graphics this is not a gaming computer by any stretch. If you want something to play games look at the i3 or even i5 models.
- It's not as expandable as the other NUCs (maxes out at 8GB of RAM, only has one slot) so be sure you don't need something that handles more RAM.
- You get one HDMI port and no DisplayPort, so this unit is meant for a single monitor or TV.
- You only get three USB ports and only one of them is USB 3. I'm not crazy about it being the front port either. After all, if you use an external drive for media you're going to want to connect it to the fastest port, and that should be on the back, not the front.
- It's great that the Bay Trail NUC supports 2.5" drives, but it's a shame it only supports one drive. It would be preferable to have it support one mSATA and one SATA like the i3 and i5 Haswell NUCs, but then you run into the whole cost issue again.
- Finally the Bay Trail CPU has enough power for many tasks but I wouldn't recommend this system for double-duty. I didn't stress test it but I noticed things slowed down considerably when I was trying to do too many things at once. The fact that it only supports memory up to 8GB also points to a system not intended to be all things to all people.
Final thoughts and impressions:
The Bay Trail NUC is a surprisingly good performer. It's a great little system for the price-conscious DIYer who wants to build an economical workstation or HTPC. It's got enough power for day-to-day stuff like web browsing and word processing, and it handles audio & video for home theater very well. The fact that it comes with wifi and bluetooth is a bonus. As the BIOS and drivers are updated it gets better and better and I strongly recommend updating your BIOS to the latest version before you do anything else. The latest BIOS takes care of a bunch of issues and makes for a much easier experience.