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Compacting the future - Intel Next Unit of Computing review

Sabyasachi Biswas May 1 | Updated on April 29, 2013

The two Intel NUC variants

The NUC units are minuscule as compared to a conventional CPU tower. Intel has achieved this by simply shrinking the size of the desktop board and using small componets like mSATA SSDs.

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With HD media consumption, PC gaming, and the demand for computing on a big screen going up, our only hopes are powerful CPUs with a tiny footprint. And that is exactly what Intel is offering now.

Back in the day if you wanted a desktop computer, you went to a shop, chose the monitor, the cabinet, mouse and keyboard, speakers and the lot. The shopkeeper would then ask you what kind of usage you’re looking at, and fit in a hard disk, RAM and install the OS and a few essential software bundles for you. This was a short lived joy (or sorrow, depending on how you see it) with the advent of All-in-ones and laptops.

However, with HD media consumption going up, and the market lapping up big flat panel screens, we’re back to a point where we need a compact computing device that whets our high-definition appetite. And not just any computing device, because do you really want a bulky CPU tower next to your sleek LED TV? It HAS to be compact!

To cater to that need, Intel has now come out with a new range of desktop boards in a very compact form factor, which it calls the Next Unit of Computing. We’ve tried the NUC out and it has us wondering if this really is the future of personal computing.

What is it?

The NUC a CPU. It’s just a tiny desktop board (aka motherboard) that has been fitted inside a small cabinet. A board with slots for memory, storage and other paraphernalia that you might want to add. You will have to get your own RAM, SSD and network adapter card, along with the operating system and software bundles.

Right now, Intel is offering the NUC with only one processor option, which is the 3rd Gen Intel Core i3 chip. But there are two variants based on port availability. DC3217IYE, which comes with 3 USB 2.0s, 2 HDMIs (for simultaneous display systems) and one RJ45 Ethernet port and costs Rs 18,000. The other variant, DC3217BY, which costs Rs 20,000 has no Ethernet port, 3 USB 2.0s, one HDMI and one Thunderbolt port.

We asked Intel if this is the only level of customisation offered, to which we were told that Intel’s ecosystem and OEM partners would be working around the NUC platform for more chassis configurations. We really hope so too, because to be honest, I personally wouldn’t go for anything without a minimum of one USB 3.0 port. We’re also hoping for Core i5 and i7 processors, because Apple offers a Core i7 Mac Mini variant as well.

How big is it?

The NUC measures 4 inches on either side, and is 2 inches thick. To add some perspective, the iPhone 5 is longer than the NUC’s side. Because of its small form factor, it can be tucked away anywhere you want, and the box also includes a mounting bracket, so you can just hang it behind your TV and nobody will know. Its competitor Mac Mini is thinner at 1.4 inches, but is longer on the sides at 7.7 inches.

Building costs

While switching to the NUC users will first have to decide if they want the Ethernet version, or if they want the Thunderbolt one. The advantage of going with the Thunderbolt chassis is that you can still have an RJ45 to USB adapter, but you can’t have the Thunderbolt if you go for the Ethernet model. This, I would say is where Intel has left customers in the lurch. Mac Mini, on the other hand, offers everything – Ethernet, Thunderbolt, 4 USB 3.0s, SDXC slot, and even audio in and out!

Now let’s compare the NUC’s build costs to the Core i5 Dual-Core variant of the Mac Mini (the other variant is a Quad-Core i7).

Mac Mini Rs 39,999 (for the following components which come preinstalled):

Intel Core i5 2.5GHz processor

4GB (2x2GB) DDR3 RAM

500GB SATA HDD

Wireless Network Adapter (WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0)

OS X Mountain Lion

For a fully functioning NUC device, this is the closest and best configuration we could think of:

NUC Desktop Board with Intel Core i3 processor – Rs 20,000 (Thunderbolt model)

Intel 525 mSATA SSD 120GB (the board supports only mSATA) – Rs 7,450 (approx.)

Corsair Vengeance DDR3 4 GB RAM – Rs 2,746

Intel 4965AGN WiFi Network Adapter – Rs 2,900 (approx.)

Windows 8 OS – Rs 7,999

The total comes up to Rs 41,095 (approximately, prices of some components might differ depending on markets). So while the price difference between the NUC and the Mac Mini is not much, the Mac still has more ports and processing power to offer. What the Mac Mini does not have, as we found out, is the advantage of having an mSATA SSD. Our unit booted in 11 seconds from a cold start during the tests. The tiny heat sink and exhaust port are quite efficient in managing heat too. Other performance factors, of course, will depend on how you configure the device.

Verdict

As a platform and as a concept, the NUC is definitely what many would want to switch to in the near future. In fact, most of us would love it. But right now, it’slittle disappointing that Intel hasn’t launched any pre-built kits or tied up with partners yet to sell finished (with OS, storage and memory) versions of this compact form factor of computing. The lack of space for dedicated graphics (gamers will not be satisfied with just Intel HD 4000) and inadequate ports are also a bit of a bummer. In spite of all this, we really think that this is the computer that you can hook up to that big HD TV or monitor in your living room and have a lot of fun with!

Rs 18,000 onwards

Love – Compact form factor, versatile concept

Hate – Only barebones system available, inadequate ports

sabyasachi.b@thehindu.co.in

Published on April 29, 2013

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