Back at IDF Intel gave us a hands on demo of its Next Unit of Computing (NUC), a custom form factor motherboard that fits into an Intel-supplied 4" x 4" x 2" chassis. The first-generation NUC is built around a dual-core ULV Ivy Bridge CPU, the Core i3 3217U (17W TDP, 1.8GHz frequency, no turbo, HD 4000 graphics running at 350MHz - 1.05GHz).

Intel will be selling two versions of the NUC: the DC3217IYE and the DC3217BY:

Intel NUC Kit Comparison
  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 Y N
Thunderbolt N Y
mini PCIe (half-height) 1 1
mini PCIe (full-height, mSATA support) 1 1
Chassis Color Black Black with Dark Red Top
Power Supply External 19V DC External 19V DC

Intel sent along the DC3217BY which it expects to see on sale via Amazon and Newegg around early December for $300 - $320. For that price you basically get the motherboard (including CPU) and chassis. Memory, mini PCIe cards and even the power cord all come separately. The power cord you'll need to buy is a C6 type that plugs into the power adapter's C5 type connector. The 3-plug C6 connector is also known as a cloverleaf connector. My assumption here is to keep costs down Intel avoided including this part as they'd need to have a different cable depending on what part of the world the NUC was being sold into. The kit also comes with a VESA mounting bracket.

The main difference between the two models is the presence of GigE (-IYE suffix) vs Thunderbolt (-BY suffix), although the version without Thunderbolt comes with two HDMI ports instead of one. The Thunderbolt version ships with a dark red glossy top (pictured in the gallery below). You can drive a 2560 x 1440 panel off of the Thunderbolt port, although the usual Windows Thunderbolt compatibility requirements apply here.

Building the NUC is incredibly simple. There are four screws that hold the chassis together, removing them gives you access to the motherboard:

You don't actually need to go any further if you just want to get the NUC up and running. From here you can install up to two 8GB DDR3 SO-DIMMs. The bottom mini-PCIe slot accepts a half height card (perfect for WiFi) while the top slot can take a full height card or an mSATA drive. The antenna pigtails for WiFi are already routed to the appropriate spot inside the chassis. This model has an integrated Thunderbolt controller which you can see in the upper right of the machine.

Intel sent along its mSATA SSD 520 (180GB), which is a SandForce based mSATA drive from Intel using 25nm MLC NAND. SandForce controllers work very well in mSATA form factors since they don't require any external DRAM. There are only four IC packages on the mSATA 520: the controller itself plus 3 x 64GB 25nm MLC NAND devices. Intel's SSD Toolbox labels the drive as an SSD 525, however the part numbers above indicate 25nm NAND which would make this a 520.

Going further, there are four screws that hold the motherboard in place, remove them and you can pull the board out completely:

On the underside of the motherboard you'll find the heatsink/fan covering the QS77 chipset and the Core i3 CPU:

Under heavy load the fan will kick in, but it's barely audible from more than 18" away from the chassis. The top of the plastic chassis does get quite warm (48.7C) while the CPU is running full tilt. The 65W power adapter will pull around 10W for the full system at idle and peak power consumption for the NUC tops out at 19.3W when running our x264 HD test.

Performance is obviously going to be in line with other 17W mobile Ivy Bridge CPUs. We don't have a huge library of x264 HD 5.0.1 tests to compare to, but this should give you a bit of an idea of how the NUC would compare to a full blown 65W Core i3 based desktop PC:

Windows 8 - x264 HD 5.0.1 - 1st Pass

Windows 8 - x264 HD 5.0.1 - 2nd Pass

Compute bound tasks will obviously be slower, but lighter usage models will be just fine. Remember that this isn't an Atom based system, you'll actually get decent performance out of it. I'll be running some more benchmarks on the machine over the coming weeks, including a look at GPU performance.

The NUC is a nifty little concept and I'm glad Intel is bringing it to market. Obviously I don't see the NUC replacing everyone's desktop, but if you've got a specific application where form factor matters more than absolute performance (albeit one where you still need good performance) there may be a good fit here. What I'd love to see is for the NUC to be turned into a standard form factor, with a real ecosystem of multiple parts suppliers building components. Intel keeping it all in house, at least for the first revision, makes sense in order to establish a good baseline.

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  • irieblue - Sunday, November 11, 2012 - link

    You guys really don't understand how thunderbolt works. You can run USB 3 , gigabit Ethernet over thunderbolt . Go look at apples TB Ethernet dongle or their monitor which hooks up via TB and has Ethernet , and USB 3 on the back of the monitor. TB is all you need. It is essentially a cable version of PCI express. As you already know you can buy a pci card that does whatever it is you want to add in. Now plug in card vendors just need to switch to a thunderbolt form factor. It really isn't much work for hw vendors.

    Apple doesn't own TB, it is a standard they developed with intel.

    The only problem I have with this platform is it uses too much power. Intel needs to get the power down substantially.
  • Pneumothorax - Sunday, November 11, 2012 - link

    You don't understand how angry many of us 2011 macbook owners who have TB, but no USB 3.0! Apple refuses to this day to offer a cheap TB-USB 3.0 adapter and the apple Cinema display you're talking about? USB 2.0! Please research on how useless TB is unless you like to spend $500 on an external RAID setup.
  • irieblue - Monday, November 12, 2012 - link

    Matrox has a product for you then.. Since TB is faster than USB 3, why go that route for connecting hd's. don't you want the fastest transfers?
  • 8steve8 - Saturday, November 10, 2012 - link

    yeah, I'm sure board real estate/cost/complexity were issues.. but I'd buy one if it had both.

    Wi-Fi is not reliable/consistent enough in my experience, and being stuck without displayport/tb worries me. I'd rather have dp than hdmi any day (since its easy to go from dp to hdmi, but not vice versa)

    This platform is exciting, and will definitely get more interesting with haswell... but I can't help but think they could have gone with a 35W processor rather than a 17W one... even at the cost of a little height/weight... the mac mini has a 35w.

    so strange it doesn't have usb3, hard to believe considering its in the chipset.

    anand, I'd love some analysis of the power adapter including, is it quiet (buzzing?), I assume the power brick is fanless?
    I think the smarter solution is to put the psu in the device, like the mac mini did... power bricks are a pain, and most of them are horribly low quality.
  • sna2 - Monday, November 12, 2012 - link
  • runeks - Monday, September 2, 2013 - link

    This board costs $455.00 *without* a CPU, and only has one DIMM slot, for a maximum of 8 GB RAM. It has two GbE ports and USB 3.0 though, but that's a hefty price to pay for only that.
  • sna2 - Monday, November 12, 2012 - link
  • UltraWide - Friday, November 9, 2012 - link

    I can finally replace my Optiplex 960 SFF. :)
  • Falloutboy - Friday, November 9, 2012 - link

    so this thing will cost 500ish all set and done and only a bit smaller than an microitx based computer?
  • inket - Friday, November 9, 2012 - link

    and significantly less powerful than the base Mac mini.

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