Pat Pilcher: NUC Intel's Next Unit of Computing

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Intel's NUC. Photo / Supplied
Intel's NUC. Photo / Supplied

A Brit friend of ours, taking the mickey out of our kiwi accents, Once asked why we called a mutual friend "Nuc" - her name was Nichola (which we'd shortened to Nic), and to his non- antipodean ears it sounded like "Nuc". Since then we've all jokingly called her Nuc. So you can imagine my surprise when I was approached by Intel and asked if I wanted to review a NUC.

As far as I knew Nic wasn't working for Intel, and I was fairly sure she wasn't a Borg-like entity manufactured from one of their vast chip-making plants either.

Intrigued and unsure as to what I'd actually be reviewing, I agreed to check out the NUC. Turns out I wasn't disappointed. Intel have given the grandiose term "NUC" to its next generation ultra-compact barebones desktop PC, not Nic (Much to my relief), NUC stands for Next Unit of Computing and it's a great bit of gear (pun intended).

If it's Not Nic - What is it?

Essentially a bare bones Ivy Bridge Core i3 powered PC, the NUC is tiny. Form factor-wise it closely resembles an even more compact form of the Mac Mini, yet has enough processing oomph to do most general computing tasks. Its graphics are powered by Intel's integrated 4000 silicon, meaning that this puck-sized PC won't be much of a gaming machine (that said it did run retro arcade emulator titles effortlessly), but it did make a smoking hot home theatre PC.

Packaged with the NUC was a VESA mounting bracket which should fit onto the back of nearly all TVs and monitors, allowing the ultra-petite NUC to be hidden out of view. So far so good. Connecting up an infra-red receiver to one of the NUC's 3 USB ports, I noticed there was no Ethernet port. This meant accessing data off my Western Digital network attached storage drive wasn't going to be happening any time soon. Was NUCs outing as a Home Theatre PC over before it began?

Thankfully I persevered, connecting up USB wireless receivers for my keyboard and mouse, an HDMI cable plus a Windows Media centre remote receiver.

Hitting the power button, I was pleasantly surprised to note two things. 1) its boot time was blindingly fast thanks to its integrated SSD, and 2) moving my mouse over to the bottom right corner of the screen revealed that it had integrated wireless, meaning my network storage drive was visible. NUC's future as a home theatre PC was assured. It turns out that Intel have created two flavours of the NUC, one with integrated 10/100/1000 Ethernet, and another with the option of built in wireless expandability. ?

In Use

I downloaded and installed the latest version of XBMC media centre (essentially free, it plays nearly every file format known to humanity, and is blisteringly fast compared to the awfulness that is Windows Media Centre, plus it also played nice with my Windows media centre remote), which ran like a charm. Watching HD video, checking out photos or listening to music has been effortless.

The NUC's ultra-tiny form factor is both a blessing and a curse. On the blessings front, the NUC is practically silent - you almost have to put your ear directly on it to hear any of its cooling fans, which speaks volumes about how cleverly Intel have crammed everything into such a tiny space. That the NUC can be hidden from view or mounted onto the back of my TV also earns me potential brownie points from my long suffering wife who is sick and tired of technology cluttering up our house.

Unfortunately there are some downsides with such a petite form factor. The NUC's internal expandability is limited to an SSD plus RAM module slots. Externally there isn't much connectivity - 3 USB ports, a single HDMI and Thunderbolt (the thunderbolt port can do double duty as a second HDMI output) port and that's it.

Whilst both Thunderbolt and USB devices can be daisy chained via hubs, the ensuing clutter can undermine space savings gained via the NUCs tiny footprint. Thankfully, the NUC's expandability was pretty much spot on for use as a Home Theatre PC. Plugging in a compact unified wireless receiver and the infra-red remote receiver only took two ports and I was good to go with a kick-ass media box.

Cost

Price-wise the NUC is a mixed blessing. Checking on PriceSpy, I pleasantly surprised to see that the bare bones Ethernet equipped NUC can be purchased for a wallet pleasing 316.08+GST. This price doesn't however include a power cable for the external power brick and you'll still need to purchase and install RAM, an SSD as well as an OS (or install a linux distro), which will push the price up depending on how large an SSD and how much RAM you install. Versions with a wireless module, SSD and RAM were priced at around $958+GST.

Verdict

The sheer versatility of the NUC means that aside from being an awesome media playback box, it was also perfect for in lounge couch surfing, allowing me to indulge in some YouTube goodness and to also wander the web and/or do email.

Whilst other media streamer boxes can be had for considerably less money, few are as elegant or flexible as XBMC and as mentioned above, you also get the added benefit of a tiny, fully functioning windows 8 PC. If the DIY approach appeals and you want powerful yet hidden from view hardware for your media playback, Intel's NUC is definitely worthy of consideration. On the negative side, The NUC option can be costly once RAM, SSD and other bits such as a media remote and OS are factored into the mix, especially given the bang-per-buck already on offer via the Mac Mini and other similar boxes mean that doing some careful research is advised.

- NZ Herald

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