Intel’s Next Unit of Computing DC3217IYE Kit on the Inside
We have already mentioned that the primary distinguishing feature between NUC systems and all sorts of existing nettops is superb computing potential “under the hood”. This is what it means in specifications terms:
No, Intel NUC is not based on the next Atom, but uses an x86 processor with Ivy Bridge microarchitecture typical of CPUs in contemporary full-size desktops. Although the processor in this system is a Core i3-3217U originally designed for ultra-books. Therefore, its official TDP is 17 W, which is achieved due to lowered clock frequencies and lowered Vcore.
The DC3217IYE processor works at 1.8 GHz frequency and its core voltage varies between 0.75-0.85 V. Other than that it is a fully functional Core i3 CPU from the Ivy Bridge generation. It has two cores, supports Hyper-Threading technology, and features a 3 MB L3 cache. Moreover, the NUC CPU modification has the most advanced Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphics core with sixteen execution units and 1.05 GHz maximum frequency.
Frankly speaking, Intel NUC is far not the first compact system on the Core i3 processor. Zotac has similar products, but they are not as miniature as Intel NUC. All mini-systems from other manufacturers look like clumsy dinosaurs compared to NUC.
As for the chipset, Intel NUC uses a mobile one, too. It is Intel QS77, which has been specifically optimized for compact devices. Its heat dissipation is only 3.6 W, but its functionality is quite comparable to that of a Z77. The functionality of the chipset in the compact NUC system has been expanded with an additional network controller (Intel 82579V). Here is what the schematic layout of the DC3217IYE unit looks like:
Note that the absence of USB 3.0 ports is an enforced measure. The chipset supports up to four ports like that, but Intel engineers decided not to implement them just yet. However, giving up analogue and digital audio outs allowed removing the audio codec and an entire audio tract altogether. Considering the limited internal space, this could be a totally justified solution. However, in our opinion, an SPDIF-Out on Intel NUC could be very handy.
Now that we got an idea of what’s inside Intel NUC system, let’s actually take a close look with our own eyes. Since DC3217IYE is a barebone system that comes without the drives and system memory, it is designed to ensure that system assembly will be quick and easy. Getting inside the system is a no-brainer: just undo four screws inside the rubber feet at the bottom. This will separate the bottom of the system from the rest of it and reveal the mainboard inside with all useful slots and connectors: two DDR3 SDRAM slots for memory modules in notebook form-factor and two mini-PCIe slots – a half-size slot and a full-size one. Here you can also see two cables, which are part of the WiFi antenna laid out in the top NUC panel, in case you decide to use one of the expansion slots for a wireless network adapter.
The top full-size mini-PCIe slot is combined with mSATA interface. This is actually quite smart, because NUC doesn’t have any other ways of connecting internal storage drives. So, in order to turn DC3217IYE barebone into a fully-functional PC you will need at least two DDR3 SO-DIMM modules and a solid state drive in the corresponding form-factor. Moreover, you will also have a free (lower) mini-PCIe slot, which can take an additional WiFi controller or any other compatible device.
Intel NUC assembly is very simple. You will hardly need more than 5 minutes to take the system out of the box and install all the missing components. However, we are not your regular users and therefore, we do not want to rush into the practical tests just yet. Instead let’s take the mainboard out of the system case and take a real close look at its other side.
The center of the PCB is covered with a cooler on top of the processor and chipset. It is made of solid aluminum and is cooled down with a small 30 mm fan. Even though this cooling system may seem pretty weak, it is efficient enough to guarantee proper thermal conditions.
NUC doesn’t even overheat, although the temperature of its internal components may reach a certain level, which could be potentially dangerous for regular desktops. However, since there are no mechanical parts inside the Intel mini-system, this won’t cause any problems: all electronic components in Intel NUC are capable of working in pretty tough thermal conditions without any problems.
The cooler covers the processor and chipset that are permanently soldered to the PCB.
They do not have any marking, but the chip in the very center is the CPU. This is a BGA processor that is why there is absolutely no way to modify it in any manner. However, we didn’t expect anything different: there are very few 17 W CPUs in Intel’s product range and all of them are designed in BGA packaging.
Well, that seems to have satisfied our curiosity. We didn’t uncover anything revealing on the other side of the mainboard. Besides the processor and the chipset there is only the processor voltage regulator circuitry. So, at this time let’s put the system back together and move on to the practical aspects of our review. However, physical assembly is not all, you also have to configure the BIOS. And the BIOS is really interesting in terms of unique graphical interface (which you can see on all other new Intel mainboards), as well as in terms of its functionality.