Review: Intel’s NUC (Next Unit of Computing) — The Cutest Little PC

Review: Intel’s NUC (Next Unit of Computing) — The Cutest Little PC

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It goes without saying that the Ouya was a terrible disappointment to all of us; most particularly myself who was looking for a silent, tiny box to simply play my stash of retro games, emulated and upscaled on my big screen television. Having the ability to run my media files via XBMC was also a nice, expected bonus — I truly had no desire to mess around with unoptimized Android ports. Three months out, and the thing still doesn’t have a stable branch of XBMC out for it, third-party support is dead, and what emulators exist on it seem unoptimized and rushed.

Finally decided that I had enough and picked up an Intel NUC barebones kit, particularly the unfortunately-named BOXDC3217IYE. From what I understand, NUC is a formfactor standard, so third-party OEMs may also have their own takes on the hardware; I know Gigabyte sells the Brix kit as well, which is pretty similar.

intel nuc 3Though the great unwashed masses of the PC gaming milieu have long harped at HTPCs being the “fourth console,” their relatively prohibitive pricing and difficulty to set up (seriously—even as someone who used to work in IT, I can say with full confidence that those mini-ITX cases will murder your hands) have proven to be quite the proverbial barriers to entry for mass-market adoption. Consoles, for the most part are cheap, plug-and-play set-top boxes that eschew needless functionality for a more streamlined experience. Bridging the gap between HTPCs and consoles (or perhaps even supplanting the former), Intel’s NUC looks to be quite the value proposition for people wanting that extra bit of multimedia flexibility in their living rooms.

I purchased the barebones kit (which consists of a nice glossy black enclosure bundling an i3 3217U chip clocked at 1.8GHz and soldered on to a tiny motherboard) alongside an mSATA SSD drive, a mini-PCIe wireless card, and 8GB of DDR3 SO-DIMM RAM. Though I had some apprehensions about the onboard HD4000 graphics, both the CPU and GPU performed quite admirably in the few jobs I’ve thrown at it so far.

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I loaded the NUC up with Windows 8 Professional; which chugs along just fine with basic multimedia tasks. Windows Media Center worked fine and played every video I threw at it (of course, I didn’t have any of those crazy HD x264 videos handy, but WMV HD checked out fine). XBMC ran like a dream on this little treat, and — having used the software on various pieces of hardware ranging from the original Xbox to a Raspberry Pi — is probably the best platform I’ve ever seen it run on. Will it play your Gwiyomi fan videos? Yes it will; unfortunately for the rest of us it won’t purge every single video of it from the Internet and launch its participants on a catapult straight into the sun.

The NUC is small enough to be clipped on to a monitor or TV's VESA mount.
The NUC is small enough to be clipped on to a monitor or TV’s VESA mount.

But I’m getting too ahead of myself. We are a gaming periodical first and foremost, so I of course had to test how this tiny rig flew, gaming-wise. MAME coupled with the Hyperspin frontend was just gorgeous on the NUC; I had quite a blast just lounging on my couch, clutching my Sega Saturn USB pad whilst Bucky o’ Hare blasted on my big-screen TV. With simple, freely-available hacks, I was able to use my Wii remote as a stand-in air mouse, making adventure games like Monkey Island a breeze to play. Less-intense traditional PC games like Diablo 3, Fallout: New Vegas and Half Life 2 ran admirably on mid-range settings. That’s honestly all I have to say about performance — if you want meaningless charts and numbers to dictate your purchasing experience, head on over to Anandtech; this clearly is not the site for you.

But here’s the kicker: when you actually price out all of the components you’ll need to build out a good NUC rig, you’ll probably end up being really close to the price of a Mac Mini. Understandably, you gain more portability and a little bit more flexibility with Intel’s offering; but Apple’s little box has slightly better hardware and build quality than a fully decked-out NUC.

To cap this review off, you can consider me a fan of the Intel NUC initiative. Let this review serve as an introduction to the fun little form-factor PC, as I’m probably going to write more about my adventures with the little x86 box that could in the next few months.