The Intel NUC: And now for something completely different

Up until now all of my NUC blogs have been focused on the NUC's viability as a consumer product.  The NUC has found a home and a fan base as an HTPC, home server, PC replacements, and pretty much anywhere a tiny, powerful computer is needed.  But that's only scratching the surface of its potential.  The NUC has many applications in the commercial space; digital signage, kiosks, ATMs, interactive displays, and thin client all seem to be a perfect fit.  The smart folks on the NUC team understand this and what they have created for the commercial market is radically different from the consumer NUC.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the DE3815TYKHE (we really need to come up with easier names!):


You can get the run down on specs here: The board itself will retail for $99.  If you want the snazzy kit pictured above it should retail for $130-$140 (The same as the DN2820FYK NUC).

The first thing you'll notice about this new unit is its size…it's a bit bigger than the NUCs you've seen before, roughly the size of two Haswell NUCs side-by-side.  What they've done is essentially take the DN2820FYK design, bisect it and lay it flat (sounds like high school biology class, huh?).  So where the DN2820FYK had the 2.5" hard drive sitting right below the motherboard, this one sets it off to the side.  What you end up with is a wider (or taller, depending on whether you stand it up or not) but thinner (or shorter) case.  If you think of the DN2820FYK as a sandwich then this would be an open-face sandwich.


(side by side with the DN2820 to give you an idea of the size)

This design allows it to run without a fan by dissipating heat better. Even with the extra size it's sleek, with the same attractive two-tone finish as the other models.  Just as with the other NUC models it comes with the power adapter and a mounting bracket to mount it to the back of a monitor.  Unlike the other models, this unit also comes with a spiffy little stand to have it standing upright on a desk.  Just based on the look of it I really like the design.  With the stand it's a very cool looking thin client. With the bracket it's out of site.  As I said this NUC isn't meant for the consumer crowd.  It's targeted directly at the business environment.  The main intended uses are thin client, point of sale, kiosks, and digital signage.   I have to say I prefer the power button on this model over the power button on the other NUCs.  Don't get me wrong, I have no issues with the power button on the others.  But this one is larger and just feels more...substantial.

So aside from the new look, what makes this NUC so different?  Well for starters it uses a low-power single-core Atom processor (A 1.46GHz E3815) so it's passively cooled.  That's right...fanless.  It runs completely silent.   Silent running is great in a business environment, but it also means there are no moving parts in the NUC.  No fan to fail or get loud as dust builds up (and let's face it, in a business environment dust WILL build up).

It has a full-size HDMI port, which I very much prefer to the mini HDMI on the Haswell NUCs.  Functionally there's nothing wrong with mini-HDMI, it's just a pain to have to get a new cable or adapter to go with your new toy.  Full-size is easier.  It also includes a standard VGA connector, so it's able to easily connect to older monitors and displays, like the ones you might find in a school.  Like the DN2820FYK it includes USB 2 ports on the rear and a USB 3 port on the front (I'm still not crazy about that.  I'd rather have the USB 3 port on the back of the unit myself).  Unlike the DN2820FYK it doesn't include built-in IR.  At first I was disappointed by this, but when you think about it IR probably wouldn't make sense for a commercial unit.  It's not designed for a remote experience.  The applications it's meant for would more likely use touch (kiosk), a keyboard/mouse combo (thin client), or nothing at all (digital signage).  Putting an IR port on it would move it more back into the consumer space and there's already a model for that.

But here's the biggie: it comes with 4GB of storage built-in.  A 4GB partition is available to install a (very) thin client.  It still comes with full SATA support so if you're running something like Windows Embedded or a larger Linux distribution you can drop a drive in, but it's nice to know that if your space requirements are small your NUC has you covered with 4GB of built-in storage ready to go.  Now 4GB isn't much.  Windows embedded is about twice that.  But there are several Linux distributions that can be stripped down to be small enough for 4GB.  And if you have an in-house GUI (for running a kiosk for example) 4GB should be enough to get you going.

Performance-wise you should set realistic expectations.  This is a single-core Atom processor, not a Haswell.  It's not meant to be super-fast, it's meant to be inexpensive and quiet.  Still, I was surprised at how responsive it was.  I ran a couple of Linux distributions on it.  I started with my old standby, Linux Mint.  As with the DN2820FYK it ran just fine.  No issues, no crashes, and no complaints.  From that I moved on to a smaller distribution, Lubuntu.  The interesting thing about Lubuntu us that it's just about small enough (with some tweaking) to fit on that 4GB built-in storage.

Opening the case is slightly different.  Instead of the four beefy screws (that stay attached after they're unscrewed) on the consumer models this one has a couple of tiny screws on the back of the unit.  Remove those and the back cover releases.  While this might seem less convenient than the consumer models, you again have to remember the target market.  These units aren't for tinkerers who'll be in and out of the case on a regular basis.  The idea here is that a company would open it up, install the memory (and optional drive), close it up and put it into production.  Barring a malfunction there would be no need to get back into the case.  Here's a peek inside:


Installing an operating system with a 2.5" drive in the system is a no-brainer.  As you'd expect it's no different than any of the other NUCs…download an OS image, create a bootable USB stick (or install it from a DVD if you have an external drive) and you're off and running.  With the 2.5" drive (I used an Intel 80GB SSD) I installed Linux Mint, Lubuntu, Linux Lite, and even XBMCBuntu.  I know I said this one isn't for the consumer, but I still wanted to see how it handled content.

For each of these the installation went off without a hitch, I had no hardware problems, and the operating system ran just fine. In fact it ran smoother than I would have expected.  That being said Linux Lite and Lubuntu are based on older Ubuntu versions so they didn't include an accelerated graphics driver.  Not really a problem but I wouldn't recommend trying anything graphics intensive until an updated version is available.  XBMCbuntu, on the other hand, is built on Ubuntu 14.04 which does have the accelerated graphics driver.  Video playback was surprisingly smooth. I had no issues watching movie trailers and all animations were smooth and clean.  Through the Youtube add-on for XBMC I played some HD content and it looked great.  I even selected a 4K video (which XBMC nicely scaled down to 720p for me) and it played smoothly.

Next I wanted to try Windows.  In a first for me I downloaded Windows Embedded.  It installed easily, although the installation wizard is quite a bit different than standard Windows.  Once installed it ran very well.  It looks very much like regular Windows 8 and the performance was more than adequate.  In many ways I wish Windows 8 was more like Windows Embedded; it's got a much smaller footprint (about 8GB) and cuts out most of the clutter.  Playing Youtube videos through a web browser was somewhat problematic though.  I tried in Internet Explorer and Chrome and the result was the same; the CPU spiked to 99% and stayed there, and the video was choppy until I dropped down to 320p.  At 320p the video looked good but the CPU was still maxed out.  Again, it's all about expectations.  Playing Youtube videos in a browser really isn't what this model is for.  Still with a maxed out CPU the unit barely got warm, which I liked.

This was all fine and good but what I really wanted to know was how well the built-in 4GB of storage would work. So I removed my SSD and set about trying to install an OS to the built-in eMMC device.  The first thing I found was that Windows Embedded was out…not going to happen.  In fact, if you set your installed OS in the BIOS to Windows Embedded the 4GB eMMC doesn't even show up.  I spoke with the NUC team about this and they did that intentionally. Knowing there was no way to get Windows small enough to fit into 4GB, they decided to not confuse folks by letting them see the storage at all. Makes sense.  I also learned that the next BIOS for this model will include an enable/disable checkbox for the eMMC. This will allow you to manually enable it if you want to be able to see it in Windows 8/8.1.  But it will continue to be grayed out for Window 7 as Windows 7 doesn't support it.

Next I tried Linux.  I set the installed OS in the BIOS to Linux and started my Linux Mint installer. It saw the 4GB and let me select it for the installation.  Unfortunately that was as far as I got as the installer complained there wasn't enough space to install. So I tried Lubuntu (smaller than Linux Mint).   Lubuntu got me all the way to the point of installation, then complained about there not being enough space.  It let me install anyway, but the installation failed at about the 90% point when it ran out of space.  So I went back to the NUC team.  They explained that because the space is so tight you can't let the installer partition the 4GB as it normally would.  Instead you need to create a single root partition and install there.  So I gave it a try with Linux Lite (the smallest distribution I had) and that did the trick.  A single root partition for the install forced Linux to share the space rather than split it up. That worked great so I tried again with XBMCBuntu and it also installed.

Once installed the performance of this "mini" install was not noticeably different than the install to the SSD.  I wouldn't want to do any heavy work in it, but it performed just fine.  From what I know about solid state storage (and that ain't much) the eMMC should be slower than an SSD.  But for what I was doing I can't say it showed.

And since I'm a sharer, here's a shot of my workbench at home:


(Yes I cleaned up before I took the picture.  It usually looks like a rat's nest, but nobody wants to see that)

As you can see I've added several NUC mounting brackets to the peg board so I can keep them handy.  Not sure if it’s by design but the inner mounting holes on the bracket line up perfectly with the peg board. 

By the way, that’s the DE3815TYKHE in the middle there running HD video to two monitors like a boss. It’s running XBMCBuntu on the 4GB eMMC (no hard drive installed).  This little guy is a champ!

The DE3815TYKHE is a very cool concept for a NUC.  The passive cooling is a big win and opens up uses in new areas.  It's cheap, attractive, and comes with some nice feature touches for commercial applications.  The on-board storage is great.  I'd like to see it increased to 8GB or more to allow for Windows Embedded, but even with the super tiny footprint I can see it being useful for companies with home-grown GUIs.  This is a great device for kiosks, digital signage, ATMs…heck I could see Internet-enabled jukeboxes built around these.  Thin Canyon feels like a natural, logical extension of the NUC family.

Jason Hoffman

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