The new Intel i7 NUC: Out of the Box

DISCLAIMER: I am an Intel employee.  The views/opinions expressed in this blog are my own.

My history with the NUC goes all the way back to the very first released version.  It started with me happening across the NUC online and wondering if we were getting it right.  The NUC team took a chance by sending me a unit and asking me to give it a try. They wanted honest feedback, and I gave it. While I wasn't thrilled with every feature I loved the form factor, the look, and the fact that we were finally selling something cool.  Since then we've seen new versions, new models, and new designs. I've tried to weigh in on each one and give my take, and while on the whole I've enjoyed them I've always tried to be fair and level-headed, looking at the device from a consumer perspective rather than as an Intel "cheerleader".  I've been consistently impressed with how well they've listened to users and made design changes to improve the product with every version.

Last summer I helped out on the NUC team, and that meant I got a sneak preview of the next generation, and let me tell you, I was geekin' out on a daily basis.  Everything I saw told me this one was going to be another hit, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on one.  Well, a few weeks ago the team sent me one to try out.  Christmas came early for me, and I've been working with the NUC for a couple of weeks.

Before we get into the NUC itself, I'd like compliment the NUC team on a change that has been a long time coming: model numbering. When I got my first NUC, I loved it, but the model number left something to be desired. Try looking up drivers for something with a model number like this: DC32171IYE.  In no way is that model number intuitive.  DC? 32171?  And IYE? Seriously?  While setting up my first NUC it was a pain to constantly have to check the bottom for the model number.  I did finally memorize it after a while, but since I haven't needed the number for so long I had to go look it up again to write this.  So it was a huge relief for me to see the new model numbers. Mine is a NUC5i7RYH. At first it seems just as complicated, but when you break it down, it makes perfect sense:

It's a NUC, duh Generation CPU Double-super-secret code name The "H" means it can support a 2.5" hard drive
NUC 5 I7 RY H

So with this new naming convention you know all the NUCs start with NUC, then follow with the CPU.  Consumers won't know the codes names automatically, but you know what? That doesn't matter.  If I go to downloadcenter.intel.com and search for drivers, I can type in "NUC5i7" and the site will fill in the rest for me.  So all I need to remember is the first part and I can find my drivers.  For the first generation I had a hard enough time remembering my model number started with "DC".  Anyway, great job on the model numbers…it's a small thing, but I always appreciate things that make my life even a little easier.

Another thing you should know is that there is no longer a single NUC line.  Rather than trying to make one device that works for every use, the NUC team has split into two NUC branches, one for commercial and one for consumer.  This idea started with the previous generation, and it allows them to add features that make sense for different uses, and remove features that aren't needed.  You still get to choose which CPU you want (i3, i5, and now i7), but now you can choose between a unit more geared toward commercial use (digital signage, mini server, etc.) or consumer (HTPC, gaming, PC replacement, etc.)  My unit is the consumer model.

As always, I'll include pictures where appropriate, but these aren't pictures of my actual unit.  The reason for that is simple: it's a test unit.  It's close to the retail version but just to be safe I'll use pictures of the retail version.  Plus, I received an i7 motherboard in an i5 case in an i3 box.

About the box: STILL LOVE IT.  As a consumer, I love this cube-shaped box.  It's stylish and it emphasizes the small size of the NUC. It's attention-getting. If I knew nothing about the NUC and saw one of these boxes, it would make me curious.  Of course I still miss the Intel bong from the original NUC box, but that's just me.

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Sexier than a box has a right to be

Inside the box you get your basic NUC stuff:

  • The mounting plate, for mounting it on the back of your monitor (or pretty much anything else)
  • Screws to attach the mounting plate
  • Screws to attach the NUC to the mounting plate
  • Getting started guide
  • Wall wart power adapter
  • A processor sticker (to brag about your new i7!)
  • The NUC itself (duh)

The wall wart is a little different than the last generation, with a thinner style that lends itself better to not blocking sockets on a power strip…another nice design choice.  As before, it includes different plugs for different countries.  Just snap on the one for your type of power and you're good to go.

This is the first generation of NUC to include an i7 model. In the past when I would ask the team why there wasn't an i7 the response was always "heat". The i7 chip just got too hot for such a small form factor.  A couple of other companies took the NUC mini PC idea and ran with it, coming out with i7 versions in larger cases.  Reviews of those seemed to confirm what the NUC team told me.  The i7s from these companies were prone to overheating, and when they weren't overheating they were assaulting the eardrums with loud fans. It seems the NUC team was able to figure it out though, because now we have an official i7 NUC, and that means not only an i7 CPU, but faster Iris graphics as well.

For complete features & specs on this unit, check out the official page here: http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/nuc/nuc-kit-nuc5i7ryh.html

At first glance the new NUC doesn't look all that different from the last generation; same silver case/black top combo.  But when you look closer some of the design changes become apparent.

For starters, there is now a rectangular black area covering not only the audio jack but the USB 3 ports as well.  I like it, but then I liked the old one too.  Also different is the coloring on the USB ports, one blue, the other orange.  This is to signify that the orange port is "charging-capable".

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Pictured: The Front

The back Includes your power connection, gigabit LAN connector, 2 USB 3 ports, a mini HDMI port, and a mini DisplayPort. This is similar to what was offered in the previous generation.

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Pictured: Not the Front

People have asked me a lot about DisplayPort vs. HDMI on the NUC. Why have both?  All I can tell you is it's nice to have the option.  I'd be fine to have two of either, but one of each is fine too. I've also found (and this is just my personal experience) that I have much better luck with DisplayPort adapters and cables.  HDMI to mini HDMI cables and adapters have been more hit or miss;  On several occasions I've had them work on one TV/NUC but not another.  Possibly cheap cables, I'm not sure.

Another question I get (and have asked myself) is about the mini HDMI connector.  Why not just go with a full-size connector?  Long ago I asked the team, and the answer was there just wasn't room. I'll be honest, I've never been crazy about the mini HDMI on the NUC. As a consumer I know I'd be annoyed to buy a NEW NUC and get it home, only to have to head back to the store to buy an adapter for my HDMI cable.  My opinion has always been either use a full-size HDMI port on the unit, or include the mini adapter in the box.  But that's just me. It's a minor gripe.

While the top may look the same as the older NUCs, it's got a little secret under the hood. This NUC generation includes removable, snap-on/off lids, allowing you to replace the lid in the future.  Why would you want to do that?  Well, sometime in the future (hopefully)you'll be able to buy a replacement lid that adds ports and/or features.  There are headers on the motherboard a replacement lid can attach to.  This opens up all kinds of possibilities. You can now add things like wireless charging, NFC, card readers...heck, even USB, VGA, and serial ports. You can even design your own lid. It's a pretty cool idea, and I've already decided I want to use RealSense to scan myself so I can print out a lid with a 2-inch tall version of me (dressed as a knight, of course) on it.

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I want a lid with a TV built in!

Inside you have the standard NUC configuration; motherboard, cage for holding a 2.5" hard drive.  The motherboard has 2 memory slots for 1.35v RAM, just as before. There are some important differences though. First, instead of an mSATA slot for storage, the motherboard now sports an m.2 slot. This means no swapping your old drive into the new NUC.  I'm no expert on SSDs, so I can't tell you all the advantages of m.2 over mSATA, but you'll want to know which port you have before buying.  I'm a little torn by this; on the one hand it's annoying to have to buy a new SSD. On the other hand the NUC is the poster child for the latest and greatest, so it makes sense to use the newest port.  Fortunately, with this "H" model, you have the option of just using a standard 2.5" drive.  If you have the shorter, non "H" model, you still have a SATA port on the motherboard for a full-size hard drive, but there's no room in the case for it.

Another important change is that the NUC now comes with an Intel 7265AC card on-board.  No more installing a WiFi card and fumbling with those incredibly tiny antenna wires (which are even tinier now).  The on-board card gives you 802.11AC WiFi, Bluetooth, and WiDi, so you're good to go for your wireless needs, and somewhat "future-proof". I can't stress enough what a relief it is to not have to connect those antenna wires myself.  Ever see those movies where someone has to cut the right wire to diffuse a bomb? That's what it feels like.

All that's missing from your shiny new NUC is memory and storage, so I threw in 8GB of Crucial 1.35v RAM (2 4GB sticks for improved performance) and a 240GB Intel SSD (because my new precious needs to be super-mega-ultra-fast). Installing both was straight forward. The memory snaps in, the SSD slides into the cage.  Hardware-wise the NUC is now complete and ready for an operating system.  And that's where I'll leave you with this installment. Knowing my tendency to be wordy, I've decided to split things up and give your eyes a break.

Next up: Operating systems, drivers, and performance.