Who doesn’t love a good desktop setup? While laptops and tablets are becoming increasingly popular, many still can’t perform as well as a solid desktop. The problem, however, is that desktops traditionally take up a lot of valuable space, and can be difficult to justify in small offices.
As a result, the race has begun to create computers that take up as little room as possible, like the Android stick computer, while still maintaining power comparable or even sometimes greater than their larger counterparts. Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) is one such system.
What Is a NUC?
NUC can best be described as a barebone, small form factor PC. They’re pretty small, about the size of an external hard drive, although some are even smaller. Despite their size, they still pack as much power as a regular desktop. These are commonly used as home theater PCs, which combine the capabilities of PCs with home media centers, although they are also commonly used for programming and even gaming when hooked up to an HD television.
Set up involves installing a hard drive, memory, networking interfaces, plugging in a keyboard, mouse and display, and can generally be done in under fifteen minutes. Engadget calculated the price of setting up a system, minus the cost of a keyboard and display, and found that one can expect to pay about $600 for both the unit and the necessary components.
What Does It Do?
A NUC unit can do pretty much anything that a standard desktop is capable of. However, it does not have an optical drive and tends to not have a whole lot of space on the hard drive. A unit will also typically have a USB 2.0 port or two, sometimes a few USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, an audio jack, and some sort of antenna for Bluetooth or WiFi connections.
Because of the high level of customization required for NUC, these systems don’t have a lot of advantages over pre-assembled PCs for the average user. They cost about as much to set up as purchasing a good pre-assembled PC would. However, for someone who purchases NUC with a purpose in mind and assembles it for that purpose, it can prove to be a pretty great little machine.
NUCs have great reputations for running quietly without overheating, which is something that many laptop users unfortunately have to deal with. Certain models do have fans, although there are definitely fanless varieties, which surprisingly do not tend to have overheating issues.
What Makes It Useful?
Being a very small, very portable computing system makes a NUC system perfect for on-the-go users. Not only that, but when you set up a NUC system, you’re literally building it yourself. Unlike the Mac Mini, which comes pre-assembled with everything needed to run properly, NUC only comes with the case, motherboard, and the CPU. Everything else needs to be purchased separately and then installed by the user. While that may seem like a lot of work with not a lot of benefit, this actually allows you to customize it as you please.
They’re also pretty powerful for their size, with both i3 and i5 core processors and typically supporting up to 16GB of SO-DIMM memory. Intel is currently working on NUC with an i7 processor, although it is reported to be twice as thick as its predecessors, about two inches.
NUC systems really shine when used as home theater PCs (HTPC). They are capable of storing and playing high-quality media and have a reputation for running smoothly with HD televisions. They can also be attached to HD TVs and used for relatively lag-free gaming experiences.
Something cool about many NUC units is that they are small enough to be attached to the back of some televisions, which frees up space that would otherwise be taken up by the unit. For people who don’t have a lot of space to spare, or those who choose to live minimalist lifestyles, the convenience of these systems cannot be denied.
Where Can I Get One?
NUC units can be found anywhere that computers can be purchased. They can be purchased directly from Intel’s website, or through online retailers such as Amazon.
The units themselves aren’t incredibly expensive, but the price is comparable to a traditional desktop once you factor in the price of memory, storage, display, keyboard, and other components which aren’t included in the kit.
This i5 unit allows for 16GB maximum of SODIMM memory, an antenna for WiFi and Bluetooth, a mount bracket if the user wanted to mount the unit to the back of a television or some other sort of display, with Intel HD graphics 5000 and Intel Turbo Boost, and is made to be compatible with Linux and Windows. It can be purchased for $390 on Amazon and measures about 8.9 inches by 7.9 inches by 2.6 inches.
This similar i3 unit has Intel HD graphics 4400, 4 USB 3.0 ports, has extra space for a 2.5″ HDD or SSD drive, and can be purchased for $290. It’s about 4.4 inches by 2 inches by 4.6 inches.
At the end of the day, a NUC isn’t exactly a budget computer and shouldn’t be treated as such. The average user who may not necessarily be interested in what NUC has to offer would be better off purchasing a standard desktop or laptop. But for the user who requires heavy customization and power in a small package, NUC or similar units may be worth looking into.
Do you have any experience with NUC? What about other types of small form factor PCs? Leave a comment below and tell me about it!
Image credits: Intel NUC Haswell (case rear panel) by Intel Free Press, Intel NUC VESA mounted on the back of a LG IPS234V by Kai Hendry