Last year I spent some time with Intel's first generation pint-sized PC. Intel have branded the range as 'NUC' (which stands for next unit of computing). This year they're offering a slightly larger version that can fit a 2.5-inch hard drive or SSD.
The NUC may have a silly sounding name, but in use it proved to be a pretty nifty piece of hardware. Small and silent, it comes with brackets to bolt onto the back of a TV or computer screen. When paired with a wireless keyboard/mouse combo it's a tidy low fuss way to compute.
Look and Feel
The first thing you notice about the NUC is just how tiny it is. It's about the same size as a traditional desktop PC's power supply. This means it occupies a fraction of the space of most desktop PCs yet offers similar computing muscle.
The NUC has brushed alloy sides and a glossy black top which has a power button and an activity indicator LED. On its front are two USB 3.0 ports, and a headphone jack.
The NUC's rear has two USB 3.0 ports, a mini-HDMI and mini-DisplayPort video outputs, plus a gigabit LAN port and power socket.
Its petite size makes it ideal when space is at a premium. People wanting a PC in apartments or boats or who value uncluttered computer desks will find the NUC ideal.
Feeling the Heat
Its small size makes for a cramped interior and this means airflow and heat dissipation can be a big issue.
Noisy cooling fans or overheating components can be the difference between slick and annoying. Intel got it right with the NUC, which ran quietly and didn't get hot with extended use.
Adding extra room for storage saw Intel adding ventilation holes on both sides of the NUC's case to improve airflow.
The addition of an SSD didn't seem to noticeably raise the internal temperatures, which speaks volumes about the cleverness of the NUC's design.
Under the Hood
Intel has updated the NUC by incorporating USB 3.0 and a DisplayPort. Gigabit Ethernet is also present as is a Haswell Core i5 CPU and Intel's HD Graphics 5000, making it ideal for home theatre duties.
I was also pleased to note that the NUC had 802.11ac which meant streaming HD content was possible with no throughput issues. The NUC was in the opposite room from my router but throughput was a speedy 96 Mbps.
Unscrewing the NUC's bottom cover reveals a metal SATA drive tray. A 2.5? drive slots into the tray which can take drives up to 9.5mm deep. Taller drives won't fit without making modifications to the tray, invalidating the NUC's warranty.
Installing a hard drive can be tricky as the NUC's interior is pretty cramped, but the final results are definitely worth it. Installing an Intel 530 series SSD drive and Windows 8 saw the NUC booting in just under 20 seconds.
Intel's NUC is proof that good things do come in small packages. Its a powerful device that can do most things you're likely to need from a PC.
The fact that the NUC can mount onto a screen makes it ideal for specialist roles such as a Point of Sale box through to a media centre using XMBC. It'll also replace aging desktop PCs.
This said, there are limitations. It's usefulness won't extend to high-end gaming as its lack of internal space rules out installing dedicated graphics hardware.
While there's plenty of USB 3.0 ports which means external peripherals are an option, they'll add to cable clutter.
This said, the NUC offers decent bang per buck value and is available as a barebones kit for just under $799. As simple Media PC solution, cheaper options like WD's TV streamer are available, but you'll be hard pressed to beat the NUC for sheer flexibility.