Intel NUC: Next Steps

Posted on August 27, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Windows 10 with 40 Comments

When I finally decided to move past my unreliable AIO PC and use an Intel NUC, I had hoped to do so with no additional costs or effort. So much for that theory.

As I noted previously, I had already moved RAM and M.2 SSD modules from an older (2017-era) NUC into the Intel NUC (NUC8i7BEH) Mini-PC Kit I got last November. This setup worked/works fine, aside from the fan noise, and I had hoped to use the display from the AIO, thanks to its HDMI-in port, along with the keyboard, mouse, and other peripherals I use each day.

(Note: That’s an affiliate link, as are many of the links in this post. Seemed obvious to do so after writing it. —Paul)

This plan backfired pretty immediately: the AIO display was just as unreliable as the AIO itself, albeit for what I think are different reasons, and the only extra and reasonably-good display I have on hand is too small, at 24-inches, and runs at only 1080p. It’s OK for the short term, but I knew I’d need a bigger (preferably 27-inch) display that ran at 1440p or 4K/UHD. So there’s another $300 to $400 out the door.

Following the rule that if something can go wrong it will, my Microsoft Sculpt Keyboard inexplicably coughed up its “i” key while I was typing my previous NUC article, and a quick check with showed that I couldn’t get a new one for several days. So I ended up driving over to the local-ish Best Buy and bought the last Microsoft Sculpt Keyboard and Mouse combo in stock. Another $100 for that.

But the biggest obvious issue for me using the new NUC is the fan noise: It was something I noticed immediately when I first started testing it last fall, and it’s something I’ve noticed all too regularly since I started using it again over the weekend. I’ve heard from several people now that this is only a problem with the Core i7 versions of the product, and that the Core i5 versions are much quieter. I can’t speak to that; all I can say is that it bothers me. I’ve always been sensitive to noise.

Readers had some interesting suggestions for fixing the problem, which I appreciate.

One suggested lowering the maximum processor speed to 75 percent in Advanced Power Options (which is really hidden, you navigate to Settings > System > Power & sleep > “Additional power settings” to launch the old Power Options control panel, and then you change the plan settings for the selected power plan (Balanced, in my case) and then select “Change advanced power settings” to launch the Power Options properties sheet, and then navigate to Processor power management > Maximum power state and change Setting to 75%. Ah boy.)

I did this but didn’t notice any change in the fan noise. Another reader recommended going into the firmware and changing the BIOS cooling options. So I did that (by booting into the Windows 10 recovery environment, by navigating to Settings > Update & Security > Recovery > Advanced startup > “Restart now” and the navigating to Troubleshoot > Advanced options > UEFI Firmware Settings in the recovery environment).

I was a bit surprised by the firmware interface, called Intel Visual BIOS, which is very graphical, and unusual looking. I’m not sure I’d ever seen it before.

In any event, under Cooling, there is a CPU Fan Header section where you can configure the Fan Control Mode. It was set to Balanced, I think, but there were choices for Fixed, Custom, Quiet, and Fanless, too. So I chose Quiet.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to have made much of a difference either. I may need to resort of moving the NUC from under the display to behind and below the desk; there is a metal cable runner suspended under there that would hold the NUC securely and could help with the perceived noise. I’ll wait a day or two before deciding on that.

To solve the display issue, I had purchased a Samsung UE590 display while I was at Best Buy picking up the keyboard/mouse set. This set me back about $280, so below the low end of what I expected to pay, and it was a 28-inch 4K/UHD display that seemed to have good reviews. But when I got home with it, I researched it a bit further and discovered that it will only output 4K at 60 Hz if you use its DisplayPort (DP) port. If you use HDMI, you can only get 4K at 30 Hz.

That’s unacceptable, and since the NUC only has a single HDMI port, I’d have to improvise. Two options were obvious: I could replace the display—I was smart enough to not open the box—-or I could use an HP Thunderbolt Dock that I also have on hand; it connects to the NUC (or any other PC) over USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, which the NUC does have, and it can output to DP (there are two such ports!), VGA, or USB-C.

The Thunderbolt dock may still be required—see below—but the thing that really bothered me here was the 60 Hz/30 Hz issue. I didn’t want to be limited by that in the future. The Xbox One X, for example, outputs over HDMI, and you can’t play games at 30 Hz. (You can’t even use a computer at 30 Hz, not unless you hate yourself.)

Here, again, a reader recommended an interesting solution: You can get an inexpensive HDMI-to-DP cable that will go directly from the NUC to the Samsung display and (allegedly) achieve that 60 Hz refresh rate. This was interesting enough that I ordered one. It should arrive today.

But I eventually decided to return that Samsung display regardless. After consulting with several reader recommendations—thanks again for that—and with the Wirecutter, I decided to get a 27-inch HP Z27n G2 display from Amazon at a cost of $340. This was the Wirecutter’s top recommendation and also a favorite of at least one reader. It’s 1440p, which is just fine, and that will help alleviate any 60 Hz issues, as any cable can handle 1440p at 60 Hz. It arrives tomorrow (Wednesday).

But one of the things I like about the HP, at least on paper, is its ports selection: It provides DP 1.2 in and out ports, and HDMI 1.4 port, a USB-C port, and DVI-in for video. There are also two full-sized USB 3.0 ports, if I decide to forego further expansion—either via that HP dock or some other USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 dock—which is interesting to me.

The thing is, I will need some form of ports expansion. The NUC provides just two USB 3.1 ports on the rear, and those are taken up by the Focusrite Scarlett Solo audio interface that connects to my podcast microphone and the (now long-in-the-tooth) Logitech C920 webcam. On the front, the NUC provides two USB 2.0 ports, and one is used by the Microsoft Sculpt Keyboard/Mouse dongle, leaving only one port open. I prefer to keep a USB-C phone cable plugged into a front-accessible port, so if I need to ever plug in something else, I’ll need to juggle wires.

Ideally, the dongle could be plugged in somewhere in the rear, freeing up a front port. That’s a small job for the HP Thunderbolt Dock, but since the HP display comes with USB ports, I could use one of those instead. It’s an idea.

There is one more thing. Since my previous setup was an AIO PC, there were, of course, speakers built-in to the unit; in this case, they were in the base. Those speakers are not available when you use the AIO as a display, not that it matters, since it doesn’t work anyway. And since most displays don’t come with speakers, I’d need speakers too. More $$.

Again, I checked with the Wirecutter and was amused to discover that their highest-recommended pair of computer speakers is the Mackie CR4BT set, which cost $170 at Amazon. I was amused to discover this because I owned a pair—Amazon says I bought them in September 2015—and I just threw them out before our home swap because they had suddenly stopped working. They were great speakers, but I didn’t want to spend $170.

Mackie sells a smaller CR3 set that costs just $99, which was closer to what I was thinking. But based on my experience with the Edifier R1280T Powered Bookshelf Speakers that we use with Chromecast in the sunroom, I opted for its smaller sibling, the Edifier R1010BT Studio Monitors, which cost just $80. Those also arrive today.

So, here’s where I’m at.

The NUC fan noise is still present. Maybe it’s not as frequent as before, it’s a bit too early to say. In the course of writing this article, I didn’t pipe up much or at all, but I’m not sure that’s a good measure. I will keep an eye—an ear, really—on it.

The switch to the NUC has cost me an additional $530 or so—$100 for the keyboard/mouse, $340 for the display, $80 for the speakers, and $11 for a cable that might now be superfluous—some expected, some unexpected. I will probably still want some kind of simpler USB-C/Thunderbolt dock or USB-C hub, or whatever, but we’ll see what the display situation looks like. I assume such a thing will be relatively cheap if I need it.

Until all the equipment arrives, I’m using that smaller (but decent quality) HP 24-inch display, and it certainly gets the job done. Not ideal, but not completely terrible.

Overall, this was an unnecessary reminder that things rarely work when it comes to technologies. PCs are still very complex machines, and they can be expensive. Spending money always feels like the wrong way to solve a problem to me. But it’s interesting, maybe depressing, how often that’s how it works out.

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