How To Get More Graphics Performance From The Intel NUC

There is a fine line that all manufacturers must be watch when it comes to having the right balance between energy-efficiency and performance. Intel's motherboards have always been conservative when it comes to overclocking or pushing a system beyond its originally designed plans. We understand that Intel does this to ensure stability, reduce tech support costs and make sure all of their products have a long and successful lifespan. As enthusiasts, we understand that the shipping clock speeds of processors are safe and designed for mainstream users, but we want to push the limits and get the most from all of our platforms.

new-intel-nuc-hard-drive

One of our favorite Intel platforms right now would be the Intel NUC Kit D54250WYKH (supports 2.5" drives ) and Intel NUC Kit D54250WYK (no 2.5" drive support). These tiny platforms really make you rethink what form factor a desktop should be and pack a pretty powerful punch thanks to the 4th Generation Intel Core i5-4250U processor  and Intel HD 5000 graphics that powers the little system. We recently ran across a BIOS setting that allows you to unlock the graphics performance of this platform and just had to share it in the off chance you own this model or were looking into picking one up to try. It isn't every day that you find a BIOS setting that allows you to boost performance by over 30% and it got us excited.

Just to be clear, this modification only works on the new Intel Core i5 powered models as the lower cost Core i3 version does not have this capability.

Intel NUC Visual BIOS

To get significantly better graphics performance you have to go into the Intel Visual BIOS when the system it is powering up and change one to three settings depending on how aggressive you want to be. Entering the BIOS is simple as you just need to hit F2 when the system posts. Once you get into the Intel Visual BIOS you'll see a full color user interface and your mouse will be able to work. Click on the performance tab that is located on the top horizontal menu. You should see the menu above. 

 stock-bios-settings

Once you get into the performance tab you'll see a flow chart style diagram with the various voltage and multiplier adjustments for things like the processor, graphics, memory and so on. You'll want to click on 'Cores' and that will bring up the 'Processor Cores' menu on the right hand side. From there you want to click on the 'Config' tab and it then you'll be looking at what we are showing you in the image above. The last setting under the configuration settings is called Sustained Mode Power Limit and this gives you the ability to adjust the amount of Watts that the processor can hold at any given time. It turns out Intel might have been a little conservative or improperly set this limit to just 15 Watts. You can adjust this setting from 0-100 Watts and we've found that adjusting it above 15 Watts will give the graphics a major performance boost.

intel-nuc-power-change

You can raise the sustained mode power limit to 25 Watts without impacting any other settings, but once you get past 25 Watts the Burst Mode Power Limit and Sustained Mode Power Limits are linked together. This means if you set one to 27 Watts the other will also be set to 27 Watts. We found the sweet spot for performance on our NUC D54250WYKH was with the Sustained Mode Power Limit set to 30 Watts and we increased the Sustained Mode Time from 28 to 32 seconds. By doing this we are basically telling the processor that it can consume more Watts and hold that power for a longer amount of time. We ran some tests at various Sustained Mode Power Limits and found that CPU performance didn't budge, but Graphics performance jumped up significantly. Power consumption and temperatures also increased since we increased the maximum TDP that the processor can use. From what we can tell the Intel Core i5 processor shares the TDP load limit parameters and that the graphics core takes priority and that is why we are seeing gains there. What kind of gains are we seeing?

Cinebench R15 OpenGL Benchmark

Cinebench R15 has an OpenGL benchmark test and we went from 25.74 FPS to 33.33 FPS by doing this simple power adjustment in the BIOS. This is a 29.5% performance increase and when you are running integrated graphics you want all the performance that you can get. This is a huge performance gain and the best part is there wasn't a significant jump in power consumption or a huge rise in heat. The CPU benchmark remained between 233 and 234, so there was absolutely no performance gain or decrease on the CPU side by changing this power setting. The only gains to be had were on the graphics side with the Intel HD 5000 Graphics.

Let's take a look at some additional benchmarks like 3DMark and Metro: Last Light to see if there are also graphics performance gains to be had there as well.

 3DMark and Metro: Last Light Benchmarking

Futuremark 3DMark w/ Sustained Mode Power set to 15 Watts:

3dmark-stock-bios

Futuremark 3DMark w/ Sustained Mode Power set to 25 Watts:

3dmark-modified-bios

Futuremark 3DMark w/ Sustained Mode Power set to 30 Watts:

3dmark-30w-bios

Benchmark Results: Performance in 3DMark started out at 4321 in Cloud Gate and them moved up to 4895 when we raised the sustained mode power to 25 Watts and then up to 5093 with it set to 30 Watts.  This is an increase of 18% in the Cloud Gate Performance test. Fire Strike improved by 20.5% and Ice Storm went up an insane 55%!

metro-settings

We wanted to see what happened in a newer game title, so we fired up Metro: Last Light and ran some benchmarks at 1024x768 with the games built-in benchmark in order to get repeatable results. You can see our exact settings in the screen capture above.

metro-ll

Benchmark Results: We found that we were getting 18% performance gains in the real world as well by moving up from the stock BIOS settings (15 Watts) and doubling that up to 30 Watts. Not bad, but unfortunately the game was still choppy and did not give you a good game play experience.  If we could have gotten the 55% performance gain we found in 3Dmark Ice Storm we'd be at 30 FPS, but we are still happy with an 18% performance boost as in games that the NUC can play it will greatly help.

Let's take a look at temperatures, power consumption and then wrap this up!

Temperature, Power and Final Thoughts

The one downside to increasing the TDP on a processor is that it will of course consume more power and release more heat as a result. We wanted to look at a worst case scenario so we used Furmark to really push the graphics to the limits of what it can handle. Running just CPU benchmarks like Cinebench or anything along those lines didn't show any increase in performance or power use, so we had to use a graphics benchmark.

15w-tdp

With the Intel NUC Kit D54250WYK with default BIOS settings and Furmark rendering we were getting 58C on the CPU and 62 on the GPU. Notice that the CPU Total TDP is at 15 Watts and that the Graphics TDP is at 9 Watts. At the wall the system was pulling around 24 Watts of power after running Furmark for an extended period of time.

30w-tdp

When we increased the sustained power mode up to 30 Watts the CPU total TDP correctly increased up to 30W and now the Graphics TDP was at 24W! By giving it the ability to run at a higher TDP the graphics frequency was allowed to dynamically run at 848MHz instead of 499MHz and that is where the performance gains we are seeing are coming from. The bad part is that the CPU temperature jumped up to 71C and the graphics temperature was up to 79C after just a couple minutes of running Furmark. At the wall we were pulling around 37 Watts of power after running Furmark for a bit, so we saw about 13W difference at the wall. This makes sense as we increased the processors total TDP by 15 Watts.

Furmark pushes systems harder than pretty much any real world application though, but we wanted to push our system to the extreme to see what exactly was taking place here.

G.SKILL RIPJAWS 2133MHz DDR3L Intel NUC

Final Thoughts and Conclusions:

It appears that we found a simple and effective way to get better graphics performance from the new 4th Generation Intel Core i5 powered NUCs! Being able to boost the graphics performance by 18 to 55 percent is very significant and so far this simple BIOS tweak appears to be the best way to get more performance out of the Intel NUC. We've been running our NUC with these settings for the past seven days without any issues. We have also been talking with Intel about seeing if this setting could be increased by default, but was told that chances are slim. Intel has already thermally validated all these components and would have to completely redo all the thermal stress testing that they do to ensure this adjustment would still work in high ambient temperature environments. From the testing that we have done at 70F (21C) there has been no throttling issues, but there are increases in heat and we can hear the fan spinning louder.

If you have an Intel NUC Kit D54250WYKH or D54250WYK and would like to give this a try please let us know how it works out for you. We suggest moving it up between 20-25 as that gives you some nice performance gains without drastically changing the temperature and noise level of the NUC. Do some before and after tests and report back for us. We'd love to hear how it helps your individual situation and we are here answer any questions that you have!

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