Intel’s Next Unit of Computing Review: Desktop of the Future or Another Nettop?

Intel decided to give it a shot in the ultra-compact desktop systems market. And they immediately came up with a unique product: a miniature system case only 12x11x4 cm in size based on Core i3 processor. It boasts a truly impressive combination of features, but does it make practical sense to give us a large desktop box in favor of a tiny guy like that?

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
01/28/2013 | 10:31 AM

Miniaturization is one of the directions technical progress takes in the today’s computer market. As finer production technologies become more common, the semiconductor manufacturers manage to integrate more features into their chips, which pushes us faster towards having fewer chips on the PCBs and therefore overall smaller PCBs. At the same time new semiconductor technologies lower the chips heat dissipation, which in the end allows the engineers to design much more compact solutions. As a result, small size or low weight of the micro-electronic devices becomes a very powerful argument in their favor, which everyone attempts to use to their advantage. You can easily follow the miniaturization evolution almost in any market segment: almost all components and products keep growing smaller, lighter and thinner year after year.

 

Although hunt for finesse primarily matters for portable devices, such as notebooks, smartphones and tablets, the traditional desktop segment also tries to keep up with the popular trends. Over the past few years we had a chance to witness the increasing popularity of Micro-ATX and then Mini-ITX platforms. There was a time when nettops, compact desktop systems, were at the peak of their game. As a result, the system case, which used to be pictured as a gloomy massive box, finally managed to move from the floor to the desk or even get hung behind the monitor in some cases.

But some believe this isn’t enough. For example, Zotac Company has been producing their ZBOX Nano series for a while now, which distinguishing feature is much smaller size than that of a standard Mini-ITX system. And it looks like desktop computers inside a system case with a size of half-a-dozen CD disk stack continue to win the users’ hearts. And Intel’s intention to start offering products like that is year another piece of evidence confirming this statement.

However, the approach this microprocessor giant took this time is slightly different from what we have already seen in the mini-systems market. So far, miniature size has been a synonym to low performance, because compact desktop systems like that had to use Intel Atom or AMD Zacate processors. More powerful CPUs simply couldn’t get proper heat dissipation inside a tiny system case with less than a liter volume. But, Intel decided to change the rules of the game and introduced a series of desktop mini-systems built on mobile Core i3 processors. Moreover, these were not the common Core i3 CPUs, but the ultra-book modifications with Ivy Bridge microarchitecture, which boast 17 W TDP and therefore can easily work in very tight spaces where no other processors can survive. This unique combination of different market ideologies produced a very interesting result – energy-efficient mini-computer only 117x112x39 mm in size (which is even smaller than Zotac ZBOX Nano, but still a little bit larger than Zotac ZBOX Nano XS) with very decent performance. It was named Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (or simply NUC), which could be considered a hint that this is where the future of desktop computing is going. And if that is the case, let’s give this future a taste and see what we will have to deal with, according to Intel’s vision. We are going to start with the first generation Intel’s Next Unit of Computing, which is not a concept, but a complete mass production device currently available in retail.

Intel’s Next Unit of Computing DC3217IYE Kit on the Outside

We know Intel primarily as a manufacturer of processors, mainboards and solid state drives. However, NUC is not just a mainboard with a processor in it, but an almost complete computer system with not just a mainboard and a CPU and additional controllers, but also a system case. In other words, this is a classical barebone system, where the user needs to add system memory, disk drive and an expansion card if necessary. Of course, Intel NUC system cases are not manufactured by Intel, but are ordered from contractors. Nevertheless, company engineers undoubtedly monitor the entire process closely, so you won’t be disappointed with the quality of the NUC system case.

The design of this compact system case is fairly simple. The skeleton that holds the computer system together is a black anodized frame made of 2 mm thick steel. It is covered with plastic panels at the top and bottom reinforced with metal plates on the inside. The bottom panel has four rubber feet and vent holes.


Bottom view

The top panel is a purely decorative component. It has a storage drive status LED and a Power On button with a built-in diode inside. The top panel has glossy surface (in the negative way), and in our particular sample it is also black, just like all the other parts of the case.


Top view

However, besides the DC3217IYE model, which we are discussing today, Intel also offers a DC3217BY model in beautiful burgundy color of the front panel.

Of course, I would like to draw your attention to the size of the Intel NUC system in the first place. It is really hard to adequately describe it, because NUC is so tiny that it can hardly be associated with a fully-functional computer system. And this isn’t because black makes anyone look slender. The dimensions of the Intel NUC, which are 117x112x39 mm, are more common for something like an external optical drive, for instance, that is why your first impression is that this is a toy computer system, but hardly a real one.

However, we are old stagers, and we are already familiar with Zotac ZBOX Nano XS computer with comparable dimensions before, so we were much calmer this time. Moreover, I have to admit that the Zotac system case seemed a little more refined due to contrasting colors and soft glow of the front panel. Intel’s design is not as flirty. NUC looks strict and even brutal, if we could only use an attribute like that for a system case of this size. Nevertheless, NUC will look great not only in the traditional office setup, but can also fit nicely into a living-room environment. Moreover, its small size will make it easy to hide altogether. In other words, the exterior is not a deal-breaker.

All connectors for external peripheral devices have been moved to the side panels. The DC3217IYE model we are discussing today doesn’t have anything on the left and right sides, features only one USB 2.0 port on the front panel, and two USB 2.0 ports, a Gigabit network port, two HDMI-Ins and a power out on the back panel. There is also a metal mesh on the back of the NUC, covering the cooling system exhaust.


Front view


Back view

Not much, really. But the fact is undeniable: Intel didn’t just disregard analog and digital audio ports, but also didn’t equip their system of the future with any quite promising USB 3.0 ports. The issue with the sound ports can be easily resolved by using HDMI outs for sound output. However, the missing USB 3.0 is most likely the results of Intel favoring the new Thunderbolt interface, which is implemented in the NUC DC3217BY model. However, our particular DC3217IYE mini-system didn’t have Thunderbolt support, but also didn’t have USB 3.0. This is a little disappointing, because it means that this Intel NUC system doesn’t support any high-speed interfaces at all, which doesn’t agree well with the whole “computer of the future” concept.

However, since the only peripheral interface in Intel NUC DC3217IYE is USB 2.0, it is a shame that there are only three ports onboard. Two external ports will most likely be taken by the mouse and keyboard, so there will be only one port left for everyday needs. And it means that NUC users will most likely have to resort to a USB hub. Luckily, many contemporary monitors can make up for the lack of USB ports, because many of them offer this additional functionality, too.

NUC system case can be integrated into your workspace in two different ways. It can be used as a traditional desktop system, though it may be really hard to notice on a desk under a pile of papers, for example. Or it can be hung behind the monitor, for example, with the help of an enclosed VESA mounting kit.

NUC is powered via a small notebook type 19 V external power supply unit with 65 W capacity. Our particular sample came with a unit like that made by FSP Group.

Power supply units of this sort are quite common in netbooks where we have seen them multiple times before. So, it would be fair to say that Intel NUC has all the external attributes of a common nettop. But this is only true until you remove the top panel.

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.

BIOS Functionality

The startup screen is called “About” and it provided system info summary for your reference. Here you can also change the order of boot-up devices and get an overall report on the NUC thermals.

All settings are located in the “Advanced Setup” section. They are very similar to the settings of regular desktop mainboards, so we are only going to single out the most unique ones. The first sub-section worth checking out is “Cooling”. It allows you not only to monitor the current CPU temperature and fan rotation speed, but also set the dependence between these two parameters. Besides standard profiles, you can also fine-tune the fan speed to your liking. So, NUC users will be able to flexibly configure its cooling system to match their usage scenarios and their subjective thermal and acoustic comfort levels.

The “Performance” sub-section where you can usually see options related to CPU overclocking is pretty scarce in Intel NUC’s BIOS. For the processor you can change the number of active processor cores and disable Hyper-Threading technology; for the memory – adjust timings, but not the frequency, but nothing can be adjusted or modified for the graphics core. In other words, overclocking or downclocking are not applicable to NUC systems.

Another interesting sub-section is “Boot”, where you can enable boot-up optimizations.

If you enable all of them, then NUC will start up so quickly, that it will take no longer than 2-3 seconds between pressing the Power button and seeing the OS startup screen.

Testbed Configuration and Testing Methodology

To test our DC3217IYE mini-system, we completed our barebone with two 4 GB DDR3-1600 SO-DIMM modules with 11-11-11-28-1T timings and an Intel SSD 520 180 GB mSATA SSD drive.

This configuration received a pretty high Windows Experience index of 5.5, and according to Windows, Intel HD Graphics 4000 core was the primary bottleneck of this system.

For comparison purposes, we decided to use a Zotac ZBOX Nano with similar geometrical parameters, namely, the flagship AD12 PLUS model. This miniature computer has almost the same size (127x127x45 mm), but is built on AMD Brazos 2.0 platform with an 18 W dual-core E2-1800 processor working at 1.7 GHz frequency and equipped with a built-in Radeon HD 7340 graphics core.

As you can see, Zotac ZBOX Nano is very similar to Intel NUC. However, the use of an AMD platform limits its memory sub-system to a single-channel mode only, so the AD12 PLUS configuration we tested featured only one 4 GB memory module. Moreover, the BIOS limitations forced us to clock the memory as DDr3-1333 with 9-9-9-24 timings. However, Zotac engineers managed to fit a 2.5-inch drive into their system, so we could use a fully-fledged Intel SSD 520 240 GB solid state drive.

Moreover, we will also compare the performance of Intel NUC against that of Mini-ITX systems assembled using traditional components. So, today we will also test a system built on MSI Z77IA-E53 mainboard with desktop Core i3-3225 and Pentium G2120 processors. This platform featured 8 GB of dual-channel DDr3-1600 SDRAM and an mSATA Intel SSD 520 180 GB drive.

As a result, we benchmarked four different systems within our today’s test session:

All tests were performed in Microsoft Windows 8 Enterprise x64 operating system.

Performance

To check the systems performance in general purpose application we used Futuremark PCMark 7 benchmarking suite. Note that besides the average performance score, we also used PCMark 7 to test systems performance in unique usage scenarios: in office applications, during digital content creation and processing and for use in gaming and entertainment tasks.

We also used Futuremark 3DMark11 to test the systems computing performance during gaming. This benchmark emulates the behavior of a complex gaming system with multiple objects.

The performance in Internet-related tasks was tested with SunSpider JavaScript launched in the latest version of Google Chrome available at the time of tests (version 23). The chart shows the time it took to complete the test, therefore smaller numbers indicate faster speed.

Besides, we also used three popular synthetic benchmarks: WinRAR archiving tool, Fritz chess application and Cinebench 11.5 rendering task.

Intel NUC based on Core i3-3217U processor managed to set new performance records among miniature systems. Intel’s platform with ultra-book components turned out several times faster than Brazos 2.0 with AMD E2-1800 processor. The progressive Ivy Bridge microarchitecture and 22 nm process are definitely the ones to thank for this success. They allowed squeezing full functionality of an x86 processor into a 17 W TDP. AMD can’t boast the same: their Brazos 2.0 uses more primitive Zacate processors, which explains a significant performance difference between Intel NUC DC3217IYE and Zotac ZBOX Nano AD12 PLUS.

At the same time, I have to stress that the Core i3 inside the compact Intel NUC is actually not the Core i3 that we see in desktop systems. Although the NUC processor does have two cores, which also support Hyper-Threading technology, its clock frequency is only about half of what the regular processor have, that is why its performance is more like that of a desktop Pentium rather than desktop Core i3. In other words, if we regard Intel NUC as a potential replacement to a regular desktop PC, we should keep in mind that its performance will be that of an entry-level system.

Another aspect of Intel NUC performance is its 3D graphics speed. The remarkable thing about Core i3-3217U processor is that it has HD Graphics 4000 inside – Intel’s best graphics core available today. However, can it successfully compete against Radeon HD 7340 from Brazos 2.0 platform? Let’s try answering this question by running some 3DMark11 benchmarks and gaming tests in FullHD resolution and with low image quality settings.

As we can see, Intel HD Graphics 4000 core outperforms Radeon HD 7340 graphics integrated into AMD E2-1800. The performance difference between Intel NUC and a Brazos 2.0 based system is again pretty significant and not in AMD’s favor. In other words new Intel platform is indisputable superior to energy-efficient solution from AMD, while staying within comparable power and thermal envelope. This is great news for Intel, because no configurations with Atom processors could successfully compete against Brazos 2.0.

At the same time, the graphics performance of Intel NUC system almost places it at the level of a desktop Core i3-3225 and way above a desktop Pentium G2120. Of course, it doesn’t make Intel NUC an ultimate gaming machine, because Intel HD Graphics 4000 is not powerful enough for that, but it should be more than sufficient for numerous online and casual games.

Power Consumption and Temperatures

Compact size is not the only advantage of systems like Intel NUC. There is another important feature closely connected to the first one: they are incredibly energy-efficient. The DC3217IYE discussed in our today’s review uses a CPU with an integrated graphics core and only 17 W TDP, and the power supply unit for this computer is only 65 W. But these are all indirect consequences of the high energy-efficiency of this system. As for the objective data, only practical power consumption tests could provide those to us.

To measure the actual power consumption of the tested platforms we used a portable voltmeter, which measures the power consumption from the wall power outlet. We took measurements in four different modes: in idle mode, under full load created by LinX 0.6.4, under full graphics load created by Furmark 1.10.3, and in case of simultaneous high utilization of the CPU and graphics core.

As we have expected, Intel NUC is not only a miniature, but also a highly energy-efficient computer. Its power consumption is comparable with that of a Brazos 2.0 platform, which is really great considering that its performance is a few times better. If we compare NUC with a DIY system built with traditional desktop Ivy Bridge processors with 55 W TDP, the ultra-compact computer will guarantee significant energy savings ranging between 40 and 120% depending on the type of operational load.

Here I would like to draw your attention to one interesting thing: NUC’s power consumption increases significantly in case of heavy graphics load, while the computing processes do not load this system to such an extent. It means that Intel lowered the clock frequency of the Core i3-3210U processor to an extreme level. Trying to retain high performance of the graphics core, but at the same time stay within the 17 W TDP, Intel engineers sacrificed the traditional performance. In our opinion, users could be more interested in NUC modifications with higher traditional performance, maybe even at the expense of some graphics speed. Luckily, we have good news for these users: Intel will have another NUC modification - DCCP847DYE, which should use a faster Core i5 processor supporting Turbo Boost. It should be available in Q1 of this year.

However, let’s get back to the Intel NUC DC3217IYE. Power consumption is not the only important parameter for computers of this form-factor. You should also keep an eye on their thermals and what it takes to get there. Luckily, Intel engineers made it possible to flexibly configure the cooling system in their mini-computer. In fact, the users can choose either lower level of noise or lower internal temperatures, depending on what their priorities are. Here you can set the maximum CPU temperature, which shouldn’t be exceeded at all times even at 100 degrees, and in favorable operational conditions the only existing fan may be temporarily turned off.

Of course, you won’t be able to completely eliminate the noise from the cooling fan. Core i3-3210U is not cool enough to do well with just a small passive aluminum heatsink. So, at some point you will have to deal with it. And I have to admit that it can be quite annoying. While it is only 30 mm in diameter, it may speed up to 6500 RPM and produce very distinct lisping whistling sound. Luckily, it is fairly hard to speed up the fan that much. If you use the existing “mixed” profile for the cooler settings shaped up around 77 degrees for the CPU temperature, the temperatures and fan rotation speeds will be as follows:

In other words, the cooling system is under maximum stress under heavy graphics load. I am sure you will agree that this isn’t a common situation for systems like Intel NUC. The applications that do not involve the 3D capabilities of the integrated graphics core, do not heat up the CPU that much at all. In this case DC3217IYE system does very well and causes no acoustic discomfort of any kind.

Conclusion

Intel’s Unit of Computing is not just another cute little nettop-like computer, like dozens of others out there. Intel’s new miniature system stands out at least due to two unique distinguishing features. On the one hand, it is exceptionally tiny, and could clearly be one of the most compact systems existing today. On the other hand, it is quite powerful, because it uses a Core i3 processor. No doubt, Intel NUC offers the maximum performance per case size units, which none other mass production or DIY solutions can match.

However, is the ratio between performance and size really that important? This is one thing we are not so certain about. Of course, miniaturization is great for a desktop, too, to a certain extent. It will save you valuable desk space or will allow to hide the system behind the monitor altogether. However, making the system case even smaller than a thin Mini-ITX form-factor, may seem like a little too much. The new form-factor Intel engineers introduced in their new NUC systems, doesn’t unveil any principally new usage models for this computer system. Yes, it does give you that “wow” moment when you compare it side by side with other desktop systems, but that’s about it.

However, Intel NUC being so tiny does have its negative consequences. It lacks peripheral connectivity (no audio outs and only three USB 2.0 ports), requires a processor with 17 W TDP, which has relatively low performance compared against standard desktop CPUs. In other words, we could only consider Intel NUC a suitable replacement to a desktop PC with a number of allowances.

So, why the Next Unit of Computing? There must be a very good reason to give a new product a powerful name like that. Most likely NUC represents the systems of the future not in the performance aspect or infrastructural fit, but mostly in the principles of its internal organization. Remember the news we have been reporting about Intel focusing on mobile processors for the desktop segment, or Intel giving up processors installed into sockets… All this was about NUC! So, it is quite possible that the system discussed in this review is a concept intended to show the users what type of desktops the microprocessor giant envisions for the future. Watch and be prepared!

And today Intel NUC DC3217IYE system should probably be called an ultratop (similar to a nettop) – a desktop relative of an ultrabook. In this case everything will make perfect sense: miniature size, few external ports, performance compared to a fully-functional desktop and a nettop, relatively high price of about $300 (without the memory and SSD). Therefore, it isn’t surprising that NUC sales will probably face the same challenges as ultrabooks did in the very beginning. They will hardly become mainstream right from the start. But do not forget: Intel NUC is the very first member of generation Next.