Back to the Intel NUC

Posted on August 25, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Windows 10 with 63 Comments

Last November, I began using the Intel NUC (NUC8i7BEH) Mini-PC Kit, to which I added the RAM and M.2 SSD card I had previously used with an older NUC. As I noted at the time, the newer NUC was a big step up from its predecessor, thanks to its quad-core 8th-generation Intel Core i7 processor, Iris Plus Graphics 655 integrated graphics, Wireless-AC 9560 and Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity, and USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 expansion capabilities.

I had big plans for the new NUC. But what I discovered, and pretty quickly, was that some combination of its 28-watt processor, small enclosure, and cooling system resulted in a lot of fan noise. So, while I continued using the NUC over the intervening several months—most of the screenshots in the Windows 10 Field Guide were taken on that NUC—it was more of a secondary thing, and not my daily-use PC.

But that just changed.

Thanks to ongoing and increasingly maddening reliability issues with the HP EliteOne 1000 All-In-One (AIO) PC I had been using, I started looking around for a replacement. Not being rich, I looked at what I already had in my own house, and what I’ve arrived at is perhaps overdue: I will use the NUC, and in doing so perform some of the many tests—around Thunderbolt 3-based docking and external GPU/gaming.

First, of course, I had to get up and running. Long story short, my original plan, which was to use the EliteOne 1000 as a very expensive 4K/UHD display thanks to its DisplayPort-in capabilities, started off well but then fell to reliability issues. I’m not sure if they’re related to what had happened previously with the PC itself, but the display would go to sleep after very short time intervals, regardless of how I configured the power management settings and, even worse, regardless of whether I actively using the computer. So that wasn’t going to work.

I only had one other semi-reasonable display in-house; it’s an older HP business display that is crystal clear but is only 24-inches (the AIO display was 27) and is only 1920 x 1080. I’ve been using it all weekend, and it’s OK. But I would like to switch to a display that is at least 27-inches and at least 1440p.

Speaking of needing to spend money, as I was typing this article this morning, the “i” key suddenly failed. I was typing “around Thunderbolt 3-based docking” and that last word came out as “dockng.” I’m kind of a gorilla-like typist, so the spelling mistake didn’t surprise me, but as I went back and tried to fix it, the letter “i” would never appear. I looked down at the key and saw that it was slightly askew. And that it was no longer connected. And that it would no longer connect as it was physically broken.

Noooooooo

For the love of …

I would need to wait two days for Amazon, so I checked Best Buy and the (not so local) closest physical store had one unit of my preferred keyboard and mouse combo—the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop USB Port Keyboard and Mouse—left. So I paid for it online and ran off to Best Buy to pick it up. Since I was heading to the store, I figured I’d look at displays, and after some quick research, ended up with a Samsung UE590. This is a 28-inch UHD/4K display, and it advertised 60 Hz refresh rates and seemed to have good reviews. $300 later—$400 if you add in the keyboard/mouse—I was back home.

And… I won’t be keeping this display. Wisely not opening it, I looked more closely at the reviews online and discovered that 60 Hz is only possible over DisplayPort. And the NUC only has HDMI, which will provide an unacceptable 30 Hz at 4K. The one out here is that I could use an HP docking station to connect via DisplayPort, thanks to the Thunderbolt 3 connectivity on the NUC. But I don’t want to rely on that. So I will keep looking.

In any event, my experience using the NUC over the weekend has been very positive for the most part. The fan noise I’m so sensitive to is present, but not omnipresent, and I’m thinking that if it’s unworkable over time, I can just mount the NUC behind the display or under the desk; basically, just get it out of direct ear-shot.

Performance has been great: The 16 GB of RAM and M2. SSD I bought almost three years ago are not in any modern, or as fast as the components that the new NUC will accept. But they work fine and are adequate for my needs. Which is mostly productivity work, of course. The addition 8 GB of RAM will help with the virtual machines and for the software development tools (Visual Studio, mostly) that I use for the Programming Windows series.

Which, of course, reminds me of the recent discussions around sub-$500 laptops and how there is, in my experience and opinion, no such thing as a good PC in that price range. I was curious how the NUC fell into this discussion, if at all.

To be fair, it really doesn’t: The NUC kit I have requires one to buy RAM and storage and to have or buy a keyboard, mouse, and display. I already had all of those items, so there was no initial additional cost.

Having just spent an additional $400, however, I realize that that is pretty unusual. Many people who choose a NUC may have a few components to reuse, but few will have RAM and storage, for sure. I looked up the prices I paid on Amazon in February 2016: $73 for the RAM and $90 for the SSD, plus $386 for my original NUC kit; a total of about $580. The newer NUC kit, the one I’m using now, is/was more expensive: It’s about $500 now on Amazon. So about $665 with the (older) RAM and storage.

Granted, a Core i7 and 16 GB of RAM is overkill for most users. And while it’s hard to differentiate between the generations of processors available in various NUCs, it looks like a NUC kit with a Core i5 can be had for $300 to $450, depending on model/supplier.

Basically, when you add in monitor and peripherals, you’re looking at anywhere from $700 to $1000 for a full-featured NUC-based mini-PC with reasonable performance. That’s closer to my ideal for portable PCs, but I’m not as familiar with the cost of desktop PCs. I assume they are similarly or lower priced. Either way, the NUC isn’t a particular bargain. Which is almost certainly not how Intel sells this product anyway.

Ah well.

Regardless, I’ll forge ahead with the new NUC and will try to figure out a better display this week.

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