Intel’s latest generation of NUC mini-PCs and kits represent a major step up from the NUC I reviewed two years ago. But they also retain the small form factor and basic functionality that are prized by NUC users such as myself.
As you may recall, Intel announced this latest generation of NUCs, which bore cute codenames like Bean Canyon and Crimson Canyon, this past summer. I was immediately interested: It’s been over two years since I bought my first NUC kit, which was based on a 6th-generation Intel Core i5-6260U chipset, after all. And my experiences with this NUC, which I upgraded with additional USB ports, has been overwhelmingly positive.
From a BYOPC—Build Your Own PC—perspective, a NUC kit is about as simple as it comes: All you need to do is crack open the case, add RAM and storage, and away you go. It’s so simple even I can do it. But if even that sounds daunting, you could also simply buy a preconfigured NUC mini-PC from Intel.
But the appeal of NUC, for me at least, is in the doing, and in the wide-open possibilities of being able to do more—via various expansion capabilities—should you want to do so. This was once the central essence of the PC experience, back when we might weigh the relative costs of buying a PC premade from a company like Dell or assembling the parts and doing it ourselves. With NUC, you can experience the satisfaction of actually making something, albeit on a small scale that is virtually free of risk.
You might also compare this experience to that of building a mini-PC or other device based on Raspberry Pi. There are two main differences. But building off of Raspberry Pi is far more difficult, and the finished result is usually more kit than PC. More to the point, the Pi can’t really be transformed into a working day-to-day computer. With NUC, you’re getting the real thing.
And with this latest NUC generation, you’re also getting a fairly high-end PC, and a nice bump up from the NUC I built two years ago. Two generations of processor upgrades have netted some historically significant performance improvements. And Intel has pushed into USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, which dramatically improves the PC’s expansion capabilities.
Those are seismic shifts. But the design of the NUC has been improved too, in ways both subtle and profound. In other words, today’s NUC looks similar to the one I previously assembled but this is really an-all new NUC.
On that note, I was delighted when Intel offered me a review unit: I was already considering buying one, after all. And while I have yet to even assemble the thing—it’s a kit, so it arrived sans RAM and storage—I already have a really good feeling about this. I can imagine this being my next desktop PC.
So what did I get? The review unit is an Intel NUC NUC8i7BEH, and if you look up this puppy, you’ll find it is full of modern and high-end parts.
First up is the Intel Core i7-8559U Processor, which runs at 2.7 GHz with a Turbo Boost of up to 4.5 GHz and is, of course, a quad-core part. But the 8559U also has a thermal design power (TDP) rating of 28-watts, almost double that of a mainstream U-series processor. That means that this NUC can deliver much better performance than a typical laptop, which wasn’t the case with the previous NUC. It also means that it requires more cooling.
There are no dedicated graphics, but the Core i7-8559U is paired with Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655, which is a step up from the Intel Iris Graphics 540 in the previous NUC. This is completely adequate for my needs, is, in fact, overkill. But those with a need for more power can take advantage of external Thunderbolt 3-based graphics, something that was not possible with the older NUC.
The NUC8i7BEH supports up to 32 GB of RAM via two DDR4 DIMM slots. This is on par with my previous NUC from a capacity standpoint, but the NUC8i7BEH supports slightly faster DDR4-2400 memory.
Like its predecessor, the NUC8i7BEH supports two internal storage devices, an M2-based card and a 2.5-inch SSD drive. I used an M2 storage card in my previous NUC and left the SSD connector unused, and would do so again with this unit.
Other internal circuitry has been upgraded as you’d expect as well. For example, the NUC8i7BEH includes Intel Wireless-AC 9560 and Bluetooth 5.0, compared to Intel Wireless-AC 8260 and Bluetooth 4.2 on the old NUC. Too, the antennas on the newer NUC are larger than those on the older one, which should improve wireless reception quality.
Looking on the outside of the NUC at the port selection, you’ll see many similarities between the two versions, but almost everything has been upgraded on the NUC8i7BEH. With perhaps one exception, no port has been left untouched.
The most obvious change is the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port, which as noted is a huge improvement over the past thanks to its nearly infinite expansion capabilities. The previous NUC simply included a mini-DisplayPort port, which was good for video-out only.
Like the old version, the new NUC has four full-sized USB ports, two on the front and two on the back. But the ports are all USB 3.1 Gen 2, which provide up to 10 Gbps of performance. The old NUC had two USB 2.0 ports and two (5 Gbps) USB 3 ports. (Both include two USB 2.0 internal headers if you need more expansion; this is how I added two USB 2.0 ports to my first NUC.)
The full-sized HDMI port is HDMI 2.0a, vs. HDMI 1.4b on the older NUC. The full-sized Ethernet port is, perhaps, unchanged: It’s listed as 10/100/1000 LAN as with the older NUC.
On the side of the new NUC, you’ll find a microSDXC storage card slot. This was a larger and more old-fashioned SDXC card slot on the old unit.
You’ll almost find two far-field microphones of the front of the NUC, which appear as pin-sized holes on either side of the front panel. These microphones can be used to control a digital personal assistant, like Cortana, from across the room. But Intel is actually going to start bundling Amazon Alexa with its own pre-built NUC mini-PCs, and you’ll be able to wake up the device—whether it’s fully off or sleeping—by using a configurable key phrase.
Physically, the NUC8i7BEH differs from the older NUC6i5SYH in some key ways.
Where the body of that older NUC was made of aluminum, the new version utilizes an internal metal cage that is covered in a dark gray plastic. Opinions may vary on the relative look of each, but I find that the newer one is more attractive and professional-looking.
Also, the darker new color helps the NUC8i7BEH mask the fact that there’s far more cooling going on here. The cooling vents in the back, from which connect to the CPU cooler, are much bigger than those of the older NUC. And the two sides of the new NUC are now meshed with air holes for more passive cooling. That new 28-watt CPU runs much hotter than the 15-watt part in the previous NUC. Hopefully, that doesn’t mean it’s a lot louder too, but I’ll find out.
Getting inside the NUC is as easy as ever: Intel cleverly holds the whole thing together with screws built-in to the rubber feet on the bottom of the NUC. And the top plastic panel can be easily pried off with your fingers, for customization opportunities.
The NUC motherboard, as before, is mounted upside-down to the top of the mini-PC. And it’s held to the bottom by the SATA and power connections for the 2.5-inch drive I’m never going to use, so I could just disconnect those at any time for even better access. (I did that on my first NUC.)
Inside, the layout is familiar: All of the main components, while upgraded over the past few years, are basically in the same locations. Adding RAM and M.2 storage will be very easy, and should be completed in minutes.
So that will be the next task. For testing purposes, I’ll probably just swap out the RAM and storage from the older NUC. But I’ll eventually buy newer, upgraded RAM and storage for this unit. And if it works out as expected, I’ll almost certainly use this with a 4K display as my new PC.