The Intel NUC DIY Barebones Kit Arrives

During the Intel Developer Forum 2012 I was able to sit down with some Intel engineers that were in charge of developing the Intel Next Unit of Computing or NUC for short. This was back in September and they showed me the NUC in all its little glory.  I say little as this PC measures just 4.59"x4.41"x1.55" and it has a weight of just 18 ounces! Think of the Intel NUC as a desktop version of an Intel Ultrabook if you want to keep things simple. 

 

Intel NUC DIY Kits

Intel will be coming out with two versions of the NUC: the DC3217IYE and the DC3217BY.

Intel NUC Kit Versions Comparison Table
  DC3217IYE DC3217BY
CPU Intel Core i3-3217U Intel Core i3-3217U
Chipset Intel QS77 Express Intel QS77 Express
RAM 2 x DDR3 SO-DIMM slots 2 x DDR3 SO-DIMM slots
HDMI Output 2 1
USB 3 x USB 2.0 3 x USB 2.0
Gigabit Ethernet Yes No
Thunderbolt No Yes
mini PCIe (half-height) 1 1
mini PCIe (full-height, mSATA support) 1 1
Chassis Color Black Maroon
Power Supply External 19V DC External 19V DC
Street Price $308.99 Shipped $319.99 Shipped

As you can see from the table above, Intel is making you choose between having Gigabit LAN and Thunderbolt. You can't have both in this first generation device. Both versions come with three external High-Speed USB 2.0 ports. Why didn't Intel include SuperSpeed USB 3.0 support? I have no clue as the Intel QS77 Express chipset has native support for up to four of them.

Intel NUC DC3217BY Box

The Intel NUC that I am looking at today is the DC3217BY, which is the version that is equipped with Thunderbolt. Inside this unit uses the tiny Intel D33217CK motherboard that uses the Intel QS77 Express chipset along with a permanently attached Intel Core i3 3217U dual-core processor with Intel Hyper-Threading technology.

Intel NUC DC3217BY Retail Box

The Intel NUC retail box is very well made and clearly shows what the main features are and also what is not included. For example this is a barebones kit, so you need DDR3 SO-DIMM memory, a mSATA drive, and a AC power cord for a notebook power brick. This model doesn't come with an ethernet port, so if you want internet you'll need a wireless module for that. The Intel NUC DC3217BY will be available in early December if all goes well and Intel estimates the retail price to be between $300 and $320. By the time you add all the extra goodies you will be easily over the $500 price point.

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Inside the retail box you'll see the NUC with its maroon top cover and the power adapter.

Intel NUC DC3217BY Bundle

Under the NUC you'll find a VESA mounting bracket and the necessary screws for mounting the NUC behind a monitor.

Intel NUC DC3217BY Power Adapter

The switching power adapter that came with our test sample was a 19V, 65W power brick made by FSP Group. This adapter is rated with 'V' level efficiency, which is the highest category right now for these power bricks. It's nice that Intel included the power brick, but we are still scratching our heads as to why they didn't include the 3 prong power cord that goes to the wall.  Not many people have an extra 3 prong cable, but they are only $3 shipped if you need to buy a brand new one.

Let's take a look at what is inside the NUC!

Outside and Inside The Intel NUC

Before we go into testing we wanted to take a second and strip down the Intel NUC DC3217BY so you get a good understanding of what it is and what it comes with.

Intel NUC DC3217BY

According to Intel, the tiny little NUC uses the new uCFF form factor (Ultra Compact Form Factor), which from what we can tell means that the motherboards are no larger than 4"x4"x2". The Intel NUC uses a 4"x4" motherboard inside the case that measures 4.59"x4.41"x1.55". This chassis uses an aluminum center section that has been anodized black with a maroon colored plastic top and a black bottom cover with ventilation holes. The power button and storage drive activity light are located on the top and the only I/O port on the front of the unit is a lone USB 2.0 port.  The sides had no functionality.

Intel NUC DIY Kits

Spinning the NUC around to the back we can see the rear I/O panel has plenty more going on.  Along the top edge you'll see a couple exhaust ports for the CPU Cooler and to the right of that you'll see a Kensington security lock. For a PC that will almost fit in your pocket this is a very nice feature to have for theft prevention. Below that you'll find the DC power plug, two USB 2.0 ports, a full sized HDMI 1.4a  port, and then the Thunderbolt 1.1a port. 

When it comes to connecting a monitor you can use either the HDMI port or the Thunderbolt port for graphics.  The Thunderbolt port supports display port capability, but you'll need to purchase an adapter. Some might be thinking this board doesn't have audio, but relax it has 8-channel (7.1) Intel High Definition Audio! In order to get the 8-channel digital audio you must use the HDMI 1.4a output and/or the Thunderbolt connector (DisplayPort 1.1a). This means you can run a 2560x1440 display panel with this model!

Intel NUC DC3217BY Bottom

Here is a quick look at the bottom of the Intel NUC that shows the four rubber feet that keep it from sliding around a desktop. You should also notice the fresh air intake on the bottom of the NUC. This is the only place that fresh air can easily come in, so you don't want to sit the NUC on carpet or something similar as it would block the cold air supply.

Intel NUC DC3217BY Inside

Inside each rubber case foot you'll find a Philips screw. When each one is loosened the bottom covered can be removed and you gain access inside the NUC. Intel is using the D33217CK motherboard inside the NUC model DC3217BY. This board is held down by two small black Philips screws, so once you remove those last two screws, you can lift the board from the chassis.

Intel D33217CK motherboard

If you bought the Intel Next Unit of Computing Kit DC3217BY you'll find out quickly that it is a barebone kit and that you need to supply the memory, wireless card and mSATA SSD. On the bottom side of the motherboard you'll find two DDR3 SO-DIMM slots for up to 16GB of 1600/1333/1066MHz memory support. On the other side of the board you'll two mini PCI Express slots.  One is a full size mini PCI Express slot that is for the mSATA SSD and the other is a half size mini PCI express slot for a wireless card.  It should be noted that the half length mini-PCIe slot shares lanes with two USB 2.0 ports and is not on a dedicated path to the Intel QS77 Express chipset.

UPDATE 12/7/2012: Intel said this comment was incorrect and had this to share, "We route 2 dedicated USB 2.0 channels to the 2 mini PCIe slots. This allows for WiFi modules that have Bluetooth capability to function and or you can put a TV tuner in the full length mini PCIe slot and have it function if the TV Tuner uses that for its system interface."

Intel D33217CK motherboard

On the top side of the motherboard you'll find the CPU Cooler, which consists of a notebook style fan and heatsink that help keep the Intel Core i3-3217U processor and Intel QS77 Express chipset nice and cool.  This dual-core processor with Hyperthreading runs at 1.8GHz, has 3MB of cache and a 17W TDP. When it comes to graphics, you have the Intel HD 4000 Graphics processor that dynamically clocked between 350MHz and 1.05GHz. This processor currently has a tray price of $225, so roughly 70% of the cost of the $320 NUC kit is the processor! 

You'll just barely see behind the Legit Reviews watermark the power switch for the case on/off button and on the top side of the board you have the CMOS battery.

Intel D33217CK motherboard fan

Here is a quick look at the hot air exhaust from the CPU cooler and another look at the rear I/O panel connectors.

Intel NUC Case

With the Intel D33217CK motherboard entirely removed from the system, I can show you how the wireless cards antennas are routed around the top cover and are terminated with what appears to be conductive copper tape. That pretty much covers what the NUC is made of and how it all goes together! Let's take this DC3217BY barebone kit and put some hardware in it!

Building The Nuc

Intel NUC Parts

Since the Intel NUC is a barebone DIY kit we needed to add three major components before firing up the tiny little system for the first time.  When it comes to memory we turned to the largest and most respected memory company in the world, Kingston. The NUC officially supports up to 1600MHz DDR3, so that is what we wanted to use. We went with a pair of Kingston 4GB 204-pin DDR3 SO-DIMM laptop memory modules with part number KVR16S11/4. This means we will be running 8GB (4GBx2) dual channel at 1600MHz with CL11 timings at 1.5V. These modules each cost $19.49 shipped and are backed by a lifetime warranty, so you are looking at $38.98 for adding a memory kit like this. 

Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235

When it comes to wireless and storage responsibilities we turned to Intel. The Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 offers dual-stream (2x2), dual-band, 802.11n Wi-Fi plus Bluetooth 4.0 support for under $30 shipped. Hard to find something better with those features and price tag. When it comes to finding a mSATA SSD there are plenty to pick from, in fact Newegg currently offers 24 of them ranging from 20GB all the way up to 256GB. We went with the Intel 525 series 180GB SATA III (6 Gbps) drive. This LSI SandForce SF-2281 powered drive uses 3 x 64GB 25nm MLC NAND Flash chips and does work with Intel SSD Toolbox software for easy maintenance. This mSATA SSD isn't available yet, but should be priced around the $199 price point.

After adding up the rough costs of all the components in the NUC we are looking at a hardware cost of right around $592! The little tiny NUC looks like it costs a fair bit to build and you still need to install an OS on it. Windows 8 Pro currently runs $55 shipped, so we are looking at a final build cost of ~$650.

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To install the memory, SSD and wireless card in the NUC you are looking at about five minutes of work. You first need to install the wireless card by placing it in the half-height mini PCIe slot and screwing it down.  Once it's tightened down you can pop on each of the wireless antennas and the wireless card has been properly installed.

Intel 520 series 180GB SATA SSD

To install the mSATA SDD drive you need to use the full-height mini PCI slot. Just like on the wireless card you put it in at an angle and then hold it down flat for the screw to be put in place.

Intel 520 series 180GB SSD Install

Once you get the screw slightly tight you are done installing the wireless card and the SSD.

Kingston DDR3 Laptop Memory

Next up is the 204-pin DDR3 SO-DIMM memory modules! The Kingston modules easily slid into each SO-DIMM socket at an angle and then were easily laid flat and clipped into place with the retention mechanism. Installing the memory takes just a few seconds.

Kingston 4GB 204-Pin DDR3 SO-DIMM DDR3 1600 Laptop Memory

Once all the components are installed you'll end up with a fully assembled NUC that looks like what is shown above. All that is needed is a #1 sized Philips screwdriver and  about five minutes of time to get the job completed.

Windows 8 Installation & Issues

You might hate Microsoft Windows 8, but it is here to stay and you'll likely grow to love it after you adjust to the redesigned operating system. For this reason we installed Windows 8 Enterprise with an external USB powered optical drive. Remember the NUC doesn't have an optical drive, so you have to use a USB optical drive or a USB Flash drive in order to install an OS.  Windows 8 installation was very quick and I was pleased to see  that everything on the NUC working properly with just the clean install. I of course installed the latest drivers and all the available Windows updates to get every ounce of performance from the Intel NUC DC3217BY.

Intel NUC with Windows 8

Here you can see the basic information for the system with Windows 8 installed.

Intel NUC CPU-Z

Here are the CPU-Z screenshots for the test rig in case you are wondering what the full system settings were. The latest version of CPU-Z doesn't properly read the Intel Core i3-3217U processor and for some reason reports it as a Core i5-3427U. As you can see the 8GB of DDR3 memory was running at 1600MHz with 11-11-11-28 timings.

Intel Core i3-3217U Processor Idle

At idle the processor runs runs at 800MHz for power efficiency.

Intel Core i3-3217U Processor Idle

At full load the processor clock speed dynamically increases up to 1800MHz (1.8GHz) so you have the power to complete CPU compute intensive tasks.  This processor has two physical cores with Intel HyperThreading, so it should perform fairly well for most day-to-day tasks.

Let's take a look at the Windows Experience Index score as that is one that you can easily compare this system to other systems.

Windows Experience Index

As you can see the Intel NUC DC3217BY has a base score of 5.5 with the lowest scoring component being the Intel HD 4000 graphics that is inside the Intel Core i3-3217U 'Ivy Bridge' Processor. The processor scored a 6.3, the memory a 7.2 and the mSATA SSD got the highest score of the bunch at 8.1. 

Windows Experience Index

After running the Windows 8 rating test we went to download and install the benchmarks. Doing this puts a fairly nice load across all the components of the system as you are downloading, extracting files and installing files all at the same time. The only problem is that the system would keep locking up. While downloading 3DMark11 and unzipping Cinebench R11.5 the system locked up, but didn't crash.  We had task manager open to see what happened and it was very odd.  The CPU usage went down to 0%, but the mSATA SSD was 100% active even though the transfer rate was 0%.  The Intel 520 Series 180GB mSATA SSD was too hot to touch, so we thought the system was overheating.  We went into the BIOS cranked the fan up to 100% and left the top off the case.  Sure enough the system was still hard locking and unable to download large files (100MB+) without locking up. Not a heat issue.

We then installed some benchmarks from a USB key and tried running them and the system would still lock up.  For example we couldn't even run CrystalDiskMark without locking up. We swapped out memory kits and even did a clean install of Windows 7 and the issue was still present.  After eliminating heat, the operating system and the memory kits the options of what could be wrong was quickly shrinking. The only component in the system that could be removed and not needed was the Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 wireless card. With the card removed the system was found to be rock solid and could run benchmarks. What?  Yup, the wireless card isn't playing nice.

Windows Experience Index

Since I needed the internet to run some of the benchmarks I tried using the ASUS USB 2.0 to Fast Ethernet Adapter (ASIX AX88772B). This adapter runs $30 and comes bundled with the ASUS UX31E/UX21E Zenbooks, so if they are good enough for an Intel Ultrabook I figured it was worth a shot here!

Windows Experience Index

The internet would work fine for short period of times or long periods with sporadic light use, but when you downloaded a large file the ethernet would stop working. In the image above I was trying to download 3DMark11 again and the ethernet link was dead in the water before it would complete. 

Intel NUC Shared PCIe Lane

After doing some thinking I remembered the wireless cards mini-PCIe slot is connected to a pair USB ports. From what I can tell is that there is a critical issue with the lane sharing. I tried the ethernet in all three of the USB ports with the USB mouse and keyboard in the others and the results were the same.

Windows Experience Index

Something else that might confirm my theory is that just before the production boards were finalized, Intel did away with the two internal USB 2.0 ports and the connector for them. The odd thing is that Intel still lists the board as supporting five USB 2.0 ports on their website. Why did they remove two ports at the very last minute? This internal USB 2.0 header can be seen in pictures that I took at IDF 2012 here. Conspiracy theories anyone?

Intel knows that there is an issue with the NUC and had this to say when we reported our findings:

"We are seeing an issue that may be BIOS related on this SKU [DC3217BY] of NUC. Not seeing it all on the other SKU. Our guys in the lab are looking at it. We’ll get back to you very soon on this."

Since Intel thinks a BIOS update could be the answer I took a look to make sure I had the latest BIOS on the NUC.

Windows Experience Index

It turns out that Intel did not ship us the NUC with the latest BIOS on it and it had a non-public build installed. I quickly performed a BIOS recovery and went from BIOS 0024 to BIOS 0028.  I tried downloading a large file again and still had the same results.

Windows Experience Index

I then went back into the BIOS to disable everything I could and found that you could now disable LAN, which is something that could not be done on BIOS 0024. I disabled LAN and the Thunderbolt Controller, but it failed to help the situation!

I've had the NUC for two weeks and since the issue has yet to be fixed I have a feeling it isn't a super simple fix. Several other review sites and a system builder are having the same issues that I ran into. I hope that Intel fixes whatever is causing this issue soon, but I wouldn't be surprised if next weeks launch is delayed as you can't begin selling a retail product with a major issue like this. You really need to get the wired and wireless internet to work 100% of the time before you can call it ready to launch!

My improvised solution of using the ASUS USB 2.0 to Fast Ethernet Adapter worked good enough to run benchmarks, so lets get to testing the NUC!

General NUC Performance

3dmark Vantage Benchmark Results

The Intel NUC scored P594 on 3DMark Vantage with the performance preset. The Intel HD 4000 graphics scored 515 on the GPU test and the Intel Core i5-3217U processor scored 2385 on the Physics test.

PCMark 7 Score

In PCMark 7 we found the Intel NUC had an overall score of 4167.

PCMark 7 Score

Moving along to Cinebench we found the Intel NUC with the Intel Core i5-3217M processor scored 15.79 FPS on the OpenGL benchmark and then 1.82 points on the multi-core CPU test.

PCMark 7 Score

A quick look at the memory performance showed just shy of 18 GB/s of bandwidth. This sounds about right for a dual channel memory kit running at 1600MHz with 11-11-11-28 2T memory timings.  The Kingston 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3 1600MHz SO-DIMM memory modules ran perfectly on the NUC even though it is officially rated as supporting just 1333MHz and 1600MHz memory speeds. The NUC is capable of being overclocked, which is pretty impressive for such a small system with limited cooling options.

PCMark 7 Score

A quick run of CrystalDiskMark v3.0.2 showed the sequential read speed at 435 MB/s and the write speed at 254 MB/s! The Random 4K read speed was 20MB/s and the 4K random write speed was 44MB/s. The Intel Solid-State Drive 525 mSATA 180GB drive performed great as you can see!

PCMark 7 Score

Taking a look at another storage benchmark called ATTO, we find that the SSD reaching speeds of up to 550MB/s read and 529MB/s write!

Intel NUC Boot Speed

The last performance test that we wanted to run was Bootracer 4.0 to see how fast the system is able to boot Windows 8 Enterprise. We were happy it takes just 8 seconds to get to the logon screen in just 24 seconds everything was up and running on the desktop!

Intel NUC Boot Speed

The results ranged from 23-24 seconds of total time fairly consistently as you can see from the result log. The Intel NUC was is a fairly powerful little system that has basically the same numbers that we have become accustomed to on Intel Ultrabooks. This isn't a system that you'll want to run AutoCAD on

Power Consumption & System Noise

Intel Nuc Power Use

With the Intel NUC running Windows 8 the entire system was consuming just 6.2 Watts of power from the wall outlet! This was without a wireless card in the NUC, but it is an impressive number for such a PC!

Intel Nuc Power Use

At full load the NUC was found to often peak at 27-28 Watts in CPU+GPU intensive applications like the Cinebench GPU test and 3DMark11. Not a bad power draw from a very capable desktop computer and shows that the carbon footprint of running the NUC is very small.  It is clear that consumers want to be green these days and energy efficiency is a big deal.

Intel Nuc Noise

With the Intel NUC turned off we found the ambient room noise to be 31.9dB. We are showing you the baseline as you'll never guess how loud the NUC is. You'd figure with a small device that it wouldn't be too quiet, but check this out!

Intel Nuc Noise

With the NUC fully loaded running benchmarks we were seeing 32.5dB from about 5 inches away. This is an increase of less than 1dB and you can barely hear the fan slowly spinning when the NUC is running! The Intel NUC comes set to ramp up the fan at 78C, but with the room at 21C we were unable to get the NUC hot enough for the fan to kick into high gear. The top of the NUC gets warm from the hot air inside the tiny case, but that isn't anything to complain about.

Final Thoughts & Conclusions

I was able to get the NUC fully assembled and installed Windows 8 in well under 30 minutes. Everything flowed together nicely and this DIY system was easy and fun to put together. The Intel NUC isn't designed to replace everyone's desktop PC, but it has enough performance to satisfy the needs of the average PC user. If you play cutting edge game titles at high resolutions or do a ton of processor intensive takes (video transcoding for example) you are still better off with a traditional desktop, but everyone else needs to ask if a form factor like this will be able to get the job done. Having an entire PC in a 4" x 4" x 2" cube is pretty darn impressive and it allows you to completely hide the PC behind the monitor thanks to the VESA mount.

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As with any new product the NUC has some hurdles ahead of it. These being the price, the stability issues we encountered and the tough choice of which version to pick. Let's break down the pricing of the Intel NUC DC3217BY that we reviewed today:

After adding up the rough costs of all the components in the NUC you are looking at a hardware cost of right around $592! Windows 8 Pro currently runs $55 shipped, so you are looking at a final build cost of ~$650. At this price point it you are starting to get up there and you can get an ATX form factor desktop PC for less that has more options and higher performance than the NUC. That means those that will want the NUC will be looking at it from the space or power savings standpoint. Hopefully over time prices will come down and the pricing issue will work itself out.

The other tough choice is that do you have to choose between two models.  Do you want to use a model with Gigabit LAN (DC3217IYE) or Thunderbolt (DC3217BY). You can't have both in this first generation device and neither supports USB 3.0, which could be a turn off for some.

Lastly, the Intel NUC DC3217BY that I looked at today was having serious issues with the internet use. I covered that pretty well on page four, so I won't bore you to death, but something just isn't working right with this design. It appears that the network connection is unable to work properly through both the mini-PCIe slot and the USB 2.0 ports, which is a pretty major issue. We tried everything that we could think of and were not able to get the internet to work 100% of the time. Intel thinks they can fix this with a BIOS update and I really hope they can!

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At the end of the day I hope that Intel fixes the NUC and that the price point comes down a bit.  The NUC design concept is solid and the form factor and performance is plenty for the average PC user. Intel is rumored to be moving towards Ball Grid Array (BGA)  boards where the processors are soldered on and that is basically what the NUC is. The Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC) sounds like it could be the first device to test the waters!  I can't wait to get my hands on a fully working NUC to see how it does with 24/7 use online. I'll be sure to bring you more details on the NUC if Intel fixes the issues or if they send out a new model with a fixed board!

Legit Bottom Line: The Intel NUC brings the future a little closer, but it currently has some fairly significant issues that need to be worked out before it is released to the public.