The Intel NUC mini-PC—technically a mini-PC kit to which I’ve added RAM and storage—is that rarest of delights, a cost-effective yet powerful PC that just works.
I love this thing.
It is perhaps a sad indictment of the general state of this industry that a PC that actually works should in any way be delightful or surprising. But it’s not just how well it works—yes, the NUC is quiet, performs wonderfully, and sleeps/resumes like a charm—there’s just something amazing about this little device. It’s a perfect rendition of “just right” technology.
Part of it is indeed the size. The NUC ships in a small cube-shaped box which includes a surprising amount of stuff. The tiny NUC itself, of course, but also a power adapter with several interchangeable power ports for international compatibility, some documentation, and a VESA mounting kit, with all the needed screws, so you can mount (and hide away) the NUC behind a display. It’s an impressive package of stuff.
What’s missing, of course, is RAM and storage. The NUC unit I ended up purchasing—model NUC6I5SYH—supports up to 32 GB of RAM and two storage devices, one M.2 SSD stick and one 2.5-inch (laptop-type) SSD (or HDD). I went mid-range on both, and purchased 16 GB of RAM and a 250 GB SATA-type M.2 SSD stick. As described in BYOPC: Getting Up and Running with Intel NUC, adding the RAM and M.2 SSD to the NUC is a cinch, and a project any reader of this site could handle.
More problematic, perhaps, is the conversation to be had around which NUC you might want, or of course whether a NUC-like alternative—so-called “stick” PCs, Kangaroo and other SFF (small form factor) devices—makes more sense for you. Several conversations, I guess.
But looking just at the devices that Intel advertises on the NUC website, you’ll find an impressive lineup of these mini-PCs, and a fairly good explanation of which may be more suitable for certain tasks, such as home entertainment (a home theater PC, or HTPC), (casual) gaming, productivity, or even commercial uses. It would make a killer Hyper-V box, too. The NUC is fairly inspiring, especially if you’re as excited by such devices as I am.
That said, I’ve only used this one NUC so far, so I don’t have too much to say on this topic beyond a vague personal desire to stick with the latest Intel chipsets and to avoid very low-end products based on Atom, Celeron, or Pentium processors (with the possible exception of an HTPC solution, for which I’d need to do a bit of research). I base this on my experience with a wide, wide range of portable PCs.
Which is of course what makes the Intel NUC I did get so interesting. Based on a dual-core 6th generation Intel Core i5 chipset (the i5-6260U with Iris graphics), the NUC6I5SYH is basically a modern thin and light laptop/Ultrabook device in a different, desk-bound form factor. And that is A-OK with me: The performance is excellent in the productivity tasks that I perform every day, the power management works seamlessly and wonderfully, and the device itself is so quiet as to be called silent. (There is in fact a fan, but I don’t recall ever hearing it, and even the Xbox One’s power supply makes more sound than this thing does, even when the console is powered down. It’s quiet, and it’s currently positioned about 18 inches from my face. I do not hear it.)
The expansion capabilities are excellent for the form factor size: 4 USB 3.0 ports (2 on the front, 2 on the back, with one of the front ports also offering charging capabilities while the NUC is off or asleep), full-sized HDMI 1.4band miniDisplayPort 1.2 for video out, and an SDXC card slot on the side. (And let’s not forget that this particular NUC includes two mass storage connectors, so you could have two physical SSDs with literally terabytes of internal storage if you wanted/could afford that.)
Though I can’t claim this was much of a BYOPC (Build Your Own PC) experience per se, there was a lot of new here, for me. I had never installed or used an M.2 SSD stick before, and there were no troubles there at all. (And the performance, even on the mid-level stick I bought, is impressive.) I had also never used a DisplayPort cable before, though I have used DisplayPort adapters with Surface. So I grabbed a cable with miniDisplayPort on one end and full-sized DisplayPort on the other, and off we went. (No surprises here, it just works. And in fact works much like HDMI, with audio passthrough as well.)
While this doesn’t factor into my impression of the NUC per se, I did also purchase a new display as part of this year’s planned set of BYOPC projects, figuring I could use it with whatever PC(s) I end up with by year-end. I was looking for something bigger than the 27-inch Planar I’d been using for years, and I very specifically wanted something I could use sans display scaling in Windows 10, so that left 4K out of the mix. So I bought a32-inch HP ENVY 32 Media Display with Bang and Olufsen that is perhaps a bit too big. (Maybe 30-inches would have made more sense.) And at about $500, it basically doubled the cost of this particular BYOPC project.
But it is a stunning display, and it has a variety of modern inputs, including the DisplayPort connection I’d never used, so it is what it is. Long story short, the NUC has no trouble powering the 2560 x 1440 display. And while I haven’t yet mounted the NUC on the HP’s back, I probably will do so soon.
Day to day, I have nothing to report: The NUC just works. Power management is seamless, silent, and performant, and the NUC goes to sleep and wakes up with an ease that, again, shouldn’t be surprising or revelatory, but is in fact both. In using a tower PC at home each day for the past several years, I think I have just become immune to the kludgy way I had to basically just turn off sleep/hibernate every time I installed Windows. But the NUC delivers the type of modern power management that, to me, was previously more fantasy than reality.
So why not just use a laptop or Surface or whatever? For me, there are two main reasons: Windows’ display scaling issues kind of ruin the experience, and thanks to data sync through Dropbox and OneDrive, my data is always available on every device anyway. I subscribe to a “right tool for the job” mentality, and having a desktop PC at home where I actually work most of the time just makes sense. For me. And the NUC is priced so low, it’s sort of a no-brainer.
Two more bits of balls-out praise for this thing, because I just can’t help myself.
First, I can’t stress enough how nice it is to have something that just works. I often joke that “technology has never failed me” because the reality is that technology does nothing but fail me: In embracing personal technology, I seem to have a chosen a career that is nothing but one disappointment after another, from the laptops that don’t get anywhere near the advertised battery life in real-world use, to the PC makers who continue to sneak crapware onto their devices, subverting customer trust in both their own products and in Windows in general. It just goes on and on, and being able to finally recommend a product so thoroughly and without caveat is breathtaking and freeing. I forgot it was even possible.
And second, the NUC is so good, so affordable, and so appropriate for my needs, that were I just doing this for myself, I’d stop here and forego any other BYOPC projects. This thing just works, is small and silent, and is wonderful.
Put simply, Intel got it all right with its NUC lineup, in particular the Skylake-based model that I purchased. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, will do so for others around me when they need a PC upgrade, and am recommending that you do so as well. I have never been able to recommend a hardware product with such a clear conscience. The Intel NUC is a wonder, it really is.