The Intel NUC: Haswell is Here!

I've been blogging about the Intel NUC for a while now, and I hope what I've provided is a real-world user perspective on what I think is an awesome product. The NUC strikes the right balance of small, powerful and versatile. Those of you who saw my previous blogs know that while I have been thoroughly impressed with the NUC it wasn't perfect.

Recently I was up in Oregon discussing a few things with the NUC team and they were kind enough to let me lay hands on the soon-to-be-released Haswell version. That's right; I got my hot little hands on a sample test unit. Like a kid on Christmas morning I couldn't wait to tear into the box and drool over my new toy. I was anxious to see what they'd changed, what they'd added, and what they'd improved on. Here's what I found.

The test unit:

This is the i3 Haswell version and it's set up the same as my original NUC: 4 GB of RAM, 180 GB mSATA SSD, wireless NIC (the new 7260 NIC this time). As I said it's a test unit so it's not the FINAL final case design. The final design will have some boring out around the mini-HDMI port to allow for a more secure connection. Other than that it should be identical.  Here is a side-by-side comparison

Original NUC

Haswell NUC

How much of an improvement is it?

i3 Ivy Bridge CPU

i3 Haswell CPU

Should yield some performance improvement, although the original was fast enough that it may not be noticeable.

3 USB 2.0 ports

4 USB 3.0 ports

BIG improvement. Faster and more is always nice.

2 standard HDMI

1 mini-HDMI and one Displayport

Kind of a 6-of-1, half-dozen of the other thing for me as I don't have multiple monitors. It will require different cables or at minimum an HDMI to mini-HDMI adapter. Not a biggie.

No headphone jack

HEADPHONE JACK!

This is huge. It may seem minor but if you're using the NUC as a PC replacement this expands your options for audio many times over.

Built-in IR receiver

This is big for the HTPC crowd. It saves using up one of your USB ports for an external IR receiver for your remote. Very nice

1 GB ethernet port

1 GB ethernet port

No change here.  Still nice to have Ethernet when you need it, and it's not in the way if you don't.

Intel 4000 Graphics

Intel 4400 Graphics

This should be a real improvement for gaming…yes I said GAMING. Stop laughing, I'm serious. My original NUC played many modern games surprisingly well, so I'm going to try some more graphics-intensive games on this one.

Super-small case

Super-smaller-er case

If they keep making this smaller every time pretty soon we'll be able to just plug one into our brain.

Black on black finish

Brushed aluminum/black case

Purely aesthetic. Both look very cool. Some of it comes down to the use. If you have it somewhere where you want it to be noticed then the new finish is the way to go. If it's going to be mounted on the back of a monitor or tv it won't matter.

On memory, something I learned from the NUC team is that while the Haswell NUC still uses 204-pin DDR3 1333/1600 SO-DIMMS, they have to be 1.35 volt. 1.5 volt SO-DIMMS won't work.

In the box:

The first thing I noticed was that I didn't get a retail box, I got a developer's sample box. The contents are the same but I have to admit I missed the Intel bong when I opened it. As much as I griped about that being a pointless addition to the original NUC I came to find it pretty cool and when I opened the Haswell box my reaction could best be described as an internal frowny face.   I was jealous to know people who actually bought their units would be treated to the jingle.

The contents of the box are identical to the Ivy Bridge NUC. Besides the NUC itself you'll get your power supply, mounting bracket, screws, and a small booklet to get you started. What's still not in the box? Yep, you guessed it; a power cord. We've been through this and I am still on board with why you have to get a power cord separately. But this time I was well aware and so didn't leave the lab without a cable (I'm smart like that). UPDATE-I just heard from the head of the NUC team and have learned that the retail packages WILL in fact come with a power cord! 

The Unit itself is still 4" by 4" but it's a little shorter than the original NUC. Just looking at it I couldn't tell the difference but when I put my old one next to it the difference was noticeable. The finish is a snazzy brushed aluminum with a black top. As much as the original unit's design did it's best to blend into the shadows and become invisible the new one is begging to be seen. If you set this on a desk or next to a tv it looks very, very sleek. If you mount it on the back then your wall gets a very nice view.

Ports and connectors:

The first obvious change on the front is a big one, and it's one that I recommended to the NUC team when I reviewed the original: a headphone jack. On the original your only audio option was HDMI. That was it. If you didn't have a receiver or a monitor with built-in speakers then you were in for some quiet time. The new unit has a headphone jack on the front and it is a welcome addition. You can now plug in a pair of headphones, external speakers, line out to a receiver, whatever. Your audio out options just quadrupled. The headphone jack shares space with the IR receiver. If you didn't know the NUC had an IR receiver you'd never notice the tiny windows. It's one of the ways the NUC team managed to keep the sleek, minimalist look and feel while still beefing up the feature set.

Very Pretty!

Also new on the front is a second USB port. I'm a firm believer that you can never have too many USB ports these days, so doubling up on the front ports is another welcome change. On my original NUC I have the keyboard/mouse dongle, a webcam, a card reader, and an external hard drive. A USB hub is a requirement. With this one I could plug everything in and not need the hub. Plus the new NUC has all USB 3 ports, so you're going to have much better performance if you need it.

Turning to the back of the unit we see 2 USB ports just like on the old NUC, an ethernet port, a mini-HDMI port, a power connector, and a displayport…um, port. The old unit had dual HDMI ports for multiple monitors/tvs. The new one handles that by including the displayport…port (when I say that I get the same feeling as when I say NIC card or PIN number). I'm told triple-displays are a breeze with the new unit but I can't say I've tried.

Notice the milling around the mini-HDMI port. Mine doesn't have that but seems to work fine anyway.

When I asked someone on the NUC team why a mini-HDMI port instead of a full-sized HDMI port he responded "it was the only way to fix all the connectors" so you get an idea of just how much this little guy has in it. Just look at the picture of the back and you can see using a full-sized HDMI port wouldn't leave much room for case material.

Under the hood:

I'm a geek. Unlike some end users who might just want to plug it in and start playing I wanted to see what was on the inside. I'm glad I did because I found a nifty little surprise.

Inside you still have 2 SO-DIMM slots for memory as well as your 2 PCIe mini connectors for your hard drive and/or wireless card. What's new and unexpected is that you also have a standard SATA data and power connector. There is obviously nowhere to put a 2.5" hard drive in the unit so I'm assuming this was to allow the board to be used in the other new NUC coming out a bit later (see below). Still it could be useful for swapping data from an old drive, or even for a multiple drive setup in a different case.

Other than that the insides look pretty much the same, with the same "how did they get a whole computer in there?" reaction. There's more room in the case now too, which could help with cooling.

Seriously, how do they fit all that stuff on this little board?

The "other" new NUC:

I got to handle a test unit of the taller model, which should be coming out around December. It's still 4" by 4" but at 49.5 mm it's a good bit taller than the standard NUC which is 34.5 mm. The reason is that it includes space for a 2.5" drive. Now THAT will be awesome. No longer will you have to choose between a large, expensive mSATA or a tiny mSATA and a slow USB drive.

I'm waiting for the model that has a built-in 3-D printer myself.

When that NUC hits the market you'll have the best of both worlds; Get a smaller mSATA for your OS and pop in a high-capacity platter drive for data storage. For my current NUC HTPC I have to use a USB drive to store recorded tv shows and it sure would be nice to clean that up (hint, hint Santa…I mean NUC team).

Ok, so those are the ins and outs of the new Haswell NUC. Next time I'll plug this baby in and see what she can do. Does the Haswell CPU give the NUC a big performance boost? Will the graphics make gamers take notice of the little box that could? Will the new USB 3 ports make the difference?

And why am I talking like this is a cliff-hanger ending to an old episode of Batman? See you next time. Same NUC time, same NUC channel! (actually I can't guarantee it'll be the same time, but you get the idea)