Intel NUC £239.99
30th May 2013 | 08:00
With a small form factor comes great responsibility
Mobility. Mobility. Ultramobility. Everyone in the computing industry is obsessed with ultra-mobility, and make no mistake, that's where all the growth is, where all the additional currency tokens are to be made.
But the fact is, if you want to produce something pukka on your PC or get on with some proper gaming, you'll still be needing a full-fat desktop rig. One with serious computing power, proper peripherals and a decent screen.
Problem is, with all the focus on mobile machines of various persuasions, some of the key players in computing have taken their eye off the ball when it comes to the desktop. There's no question that the raw processing power of Intel's mainstream CPUs is increasingly compromised in the name of low power and mobility.
For several generations, we've been stuck on four processor cores while Intel has spent the extra transistors that come with improved manufacturing tech on ramping up the performance of its integrated graphics. And that only makes sense in a mobile context.
Having said all that, there's one angle to all this ultramobility malarkey that's actually quite interesting on the desktop, especially now that we're a few generations into processors that fuse CPU cores with graphics into a single chip. If the future is mobility - if proper computing will soon be held in the palm of your hand - surely powerful desktop computing can be squeezed into a smaller package than ever before?
That's pretty much the proposition on offer from Intel's Next Unit of Computing (otherwise known as the NUC). On paper, what it promises is modern processing power, sophisticated DX11 graphics and plenty of connectivity in a positively puny package. These are very small boxes indeed.
It's also worth noting that historical objections to really small form factor PCs probably no longer apply. Wireless may be an added extra, but you do get digital video interfaces and ports to allow for as much external storage as you can eat.
Okay, it isn't as upgradeable as a conventional PC, but the big test is going to be performance.
Intel's NUC currently comes in two flavours, and both sport an Intel Core i3-3217U CPU with HD 4000 graphics. It's a 1.8GHz chip with two cores and HyperThreading for a grand total of four software threads.
We've got the DC3217BY version, which sports a single HDMI video port, along with a Thunderbolt socket. This adds a wide range of connectivity options, even if many are currently somewhat theoretical. Finally, you also get three external USB 2.0 ports. All of this is packaged in a shallow little cuboid that measures around 11cm a side and 4cm deep.
What you don't get is memory, storage or wireless networking - at least not as standard. You have to add those features yourself.
Then you're looking at the cost and hassle of installing the operating system of your choice. For most punters, installing Windows via an optical drive is bad enough, but the process of creating a bootable USB and loading it with the correct installation files is a complete non-starter. The same goes for Intel's bare bones approach. Few will want (or, frankly, be able) to choose components to complete a functional system.
Single-thread CPU rendering performance
Cinebench R11.5: Points: Higher is better
INTEL NUC DC3217BY: 0.74
Multi-thread CPU rendering performance
Cinebench 11.5: Points: Higher is better
INTEL NUC DC3217BY: 1.82
CPU Video encoding performance
x264 v4.0: Frames per second: Higher is better
INTEL NUC DC3217BY: 10.4
Graphics rendering performance
Heaven, tessellation: Frames per second: Higher is better
INTEL NUC DC3217BY: 11
AS SSD: Mb/s: Higher is better
INTEL NUC DC3217BY: 469
AS SSD Incompressible data: Mb/s: Higher is better
INTEL NUC DC3217BY: 237
As a basic proposition, the Intel NUC is attractive, configurable and optionable Crack it open and you're treated with neat engineering. It's all very nicely integrated and gives you the feel of a device you'll be able to open at whim without risk of breakages. But it does have its own limitations.
The CPU is soldered into the socket. What's more, your choice of storage solutions are limited to mSATA and mini-PCI Express. You can't simply slap in any old 2.5-inch hard drive or SSD. There's no space or standard SATA connection, so the NUC can't offer lots of cheap internal storage.
The thing is, you realise that it doesn't actually matter. Solid-state storage is a critical part of making these puny PCs feel plausible on the desktop. That's apparent the moment you begin the OS installation process.
Our NUC arrived fully configured with a fast 180GB Intel 520 series mSATA, so while it lacked USB 3.0 connectivity, it absolutely tore through the install process from a USB key. Once complete, it booted into Windows in a flash. It's every bit the desktop experience.
The NUC's Intel 520 SSD is pretty nippy by any standard - it's as quick as a full-on 2.5-inch 520 Series drive.
The NUC gives us the hots as a general purpose system. With the Intel 520 SSD, it's slick and super responsive to use. And while the Intel HD 4000 graphics fail the fragging test, you do get QuickSync. Within certain limitations, then, you could even use the NUC to crunch video encodes.
If you ignore the gaming angle, we only have two real objections to the NUC. Firstly, it's a bit pricey. By the time you add memory, an SSD and a mini PCI Express Wi-Fi card you're looking at £400 or thereabouts. The other disappointment is lack of support for screen resolutions beyond 1,920 x 1,200. It's a niche complaint, perhaps, but we like the idea of running the NUC with a 27-inch, 2,560 x 1,440 display.