BYOPC: Expanding the Intel NUC and Troubleshooting a USB Problem

Posted on May 14, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Windows 10 with 0 Comments

BYOPC: Expanding the Intel NUC and Troubleshooting a USB Problem

For the past two months, I’ve used a tiny Intel NUC mini-PC every day as my main computer, and the experience has for the most part been very positive. But having twice run into USB issues, I decided to expanded the NUC with a new top lid that adds an additional two USB 2.0 ports.

It’s not clear that this will actually address the issues I’ve had, which I’ll detail here. But this new lid does, of course, appears to solve a related mini-issue in that the NUC comes with only four USB ports.

First, let me explain the issues I’ve had.

If you look at the Intel NUC site, you’ll see that there are a wide range of choices. I only considered two, however: a version with a 5th generation Core i7 processor or one with a newer 6th generation (Skylake) i5 processor. (At the time, Intel didn’t offer a Skylake-based Core i7 NUC, but you can now get the gaming-oriented “Skull Canyon” NUC6i7KYK if you’d like.)

Figuring that Intel would eventually fix its new generation Core processors—a fool’s bet Microsoft made last fall with Surface Book and Surface Pro 4—I purchased a Skylake-based NUC two months ago, added RAM and storage, and then began using it as my main PC.

I only danced around this conversation in my previous NUC articles, but as you may know, Intel makes a Driver Update Utility that has always been useful but has become ever more so as Intel-based PCs have evolved to include far more Intel components. For a NUC in particular—it’s an Intel PC, after all–you’d think this would be yet again more important still. Plus, a very easy and obvious way to ensure that you have all the latest Intel drivers.

So twice now, I’ve used this utility to upgrade the NUC with the latest drivers. And each time I’ve done this, video (via a USB-based Logitech HP Pro C920) has stopped working in Skype. Since I record two podcasts each week, this is a problem.

The first time it happened, I couldn’t be sure it was the Intel drivers that screwed things up. I ended up just paving over the Windows 10 install and everything was fine. But this past week—because I’m apparently the Homer Simpson of personal technology—I once again used the Intel Driver Update Utility, which replaced about 17 drivers. And once again, the video stopped working properly.

I’m not 100 percent sure it’s Intel’s drivers, I guess. But I’m pretty sure: When I use the stock Windows 10 drivers (which, yes, of course come from Intel as well), everything works fine. When I use the Intel Driver Update Utility to update the drivers, USB video stops working.

Would replacing the camera work? Maybe. For now, I’m going to blow away my Windows 10 install yet again, not use the Intel Driver Update Utility, and see how it goes. (My worry is that, over time, the offending drivers will make their way to Windows Update and I’ll be hosed anyway.)

Speaking with Andrew Zarian about this, I learned that the issue here could be related to a design change in the Skylake generation of chips. Looking up the CPU in my NUC—a Core i5-6260U—I see that it has 12 PCI Express lanes, the same number of lanes as the 5th generation “Broadwell” Core i7-5557U processor used by the older NUC I could have purchased. So that might not actually solve my issue either. But Andrew had enough problems with a Skylake CPU that he exchanged it for a Haswell generation chip, which predates Broadwell. Problem solved.

Anyway. A reader, Donald Simard, recommended GORITE to me. They make a number of Intel NUC accessories, including colorful replacement lids, and are an official Intel NUC partner. And among their many wares is a lid replacement that could solve that mini-issue I have with the NUC: It provides two additional USB 2.0 ports.

Ignoring the nagging understanding in the back of my head that this will not in fact solve my major USB issue, I decided to grab one and see how things go. After all, it’s only $20.

It arrived in the plainest packaging available. It has two header cables, for compatibility with different NUC models (you just need one of the two) and sans documentation. Worse, there is no documentation on the site. So I had to figure this out myself. What could go wrong?

You may recall from my NUC installation article that the NUC motherboard is mounted upside down in the case, and that I needed to remove screws in the device’s feet in order to open it up. But since this new accessory is a lid replacement, I’d also have to pop off the stock lid, which is of course easy enough.

Looking inside the NUC, I found the USB headers, which told me which of the two cables I’d need.

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Making the connection was a little bit difficult for two reasons: My large hands and the small spaces in the NUC made for some delicate maneuvering, and the other end of the header cable had to be threaded through a barely small enough hole so that it could come out of the top of the NUC where it would attach to the new lid.

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It took a while for me to fumble finger this, but I got. And I left the new lid’s plastic wrap protection on—and didn’t snap it onto the NUC—just to make sure it worked first.

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It did. To test this, I plugged the dongle for my Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic keyboard and mouse into one of the lid’s two USB 2.0 ports and booted up the NUC. Voila.

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With this success behind me, I removed the plastic wrap, snapped on the new lid, and reattached all the other USB accessories to the back ports.

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Knowing this change wouldn’t solve the video issue, I nonetheless tested Skype video with Andrew this morning and, sure enough, the video froze as it did before. (Skype video transitions to 1080p shortly after you start a video call, and it’s during this transition that the video freezes. You can stop and restart video, but it just keeps freezing.)

So, as soon as I publish this article, I’m going to move off any documents and other files that are on the NUC, de-activate a few applications, and blow away Windows 10 and install it again, for the third time. And then I’m going to ignore Intel’s Driver Update Utility and see whether this “solves” the problem. (I suspect many are wondering why I don’t simply rollback the drivers. This option is unavailable for some reason, with the button grayed out.)

Understanding what’s really happening is, of course, time consuming. And for the most part, everything works fine day-to-day, and if I wasn’t making video calls on Skype all the time, I’d probably never even notice that anything was amiss. But something is amiss. And I’m going to figure it out.

 

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