Intel Next Unit Of Computing DC3217BY

4/7/2013 10:35:43 AM

Intel takes on its small form factor rivals with this tiny, Core i3-powered box

Intel isn't known for making its own computers, but the increasing popularity of small form factor systems as well as the improving efficiency of its own processors has seen it take to the drawing board. The result is the Next Unit of Computing, or N UC. That's a bold name for such a tiny PC, but it's easy to see why Intel is proud of its latest device: it's 112mm wide, rises just39mm from its base to its glossy lid, and an Ivy Bridge-based Core i3 processor is stuffed inside it.

Unit Of Computing DC3217BY

Unit Of Computing DC3217BY

In fact, Intel is so proud of the NUC that the box even plays you the Intel jingle as you open it. And then, of course, Intel is also proud of the N UC's bargain-basement pricing. Intel has produced two NUCs, and the cheapest of the two models, the DC3217IYE, costs just $340. Meanwhile, the more expensive DC3217IYB - the model reviewed here costs just $365.

For that money you get a modest Core i3-3217U processor. It's based on the Ivy Bridge architecture, but it's a mobile low-power part. That means it runs at 1.8GHz even the lowliest desktop Core i3 chip runs at 2.8GHz and Turbo Boost has fallen by the way side. Hyper-Threading is included, so its two cores can address four concurrent threads, but there's just 3MB of L3 cache. There's no room for discrete graphics either; the HD Graphics 4000 core is included instead, but it runs at between 350MHz and 1,050MHz, with the minimum speed being 300MHz lower than that of equivalent desktop chips.

The bare bones design of the NUC also means that the processor is the only major component that's included out of the box. It's easy enough to get started though; the processor is mounted on top of the motherboard, facing the lid, but every other slot and motherboard connector is attached to the underside, which is accessible by removing four screws. The NUC's tiny dimensions dictate what components can be used though. Storage is restricted to mSATA SSDs, and the two memory slots are only able to handle SODIMM memory the kind usually found in laptops.

Inside Unit Of Computing DC3217BY

Inside Unit Of Computing DC3217BY

The price difference between the two models is justified by specification differences. The cheaper DC3217IYE is kitted out with a 1 Gb/sec Ethernet port and two HDMI connections on its back panel, while the more expensive of the two machines swaps the Ethernet port for a Thunderbolt port and foregoes one of the HDMI sockets. That means the $370 DC3217IYB doesn't include any networking options, but adding your own is easy.

An internal half-length mini-PCI-E slot is crammed underneath the mSATA socket, and antenna connections are included - it's just a case of hooking them up to a third-party wireless card. Connections elsewhere include a trio of USB 2 ports, with two on the rear and one on the front. The inclusion of the older USB standard is baffling though; the NUC's QS77 Express chipset supports USB 3, and its omission leaves the tiny PC without any affordable high-speed storage options. This is a concern given the small capacities afforded by most mSATA SSDs.

Also, while the NUC starts with a low price, it's easy to see the costs mount up. ACrucial M4 256GB mSATA SSD, for instance, costs around $227 inc VAT, and a pair of 4GB DDR3SODIMMswillsetyou back at least $60. Adding wireless networking will add a few more quid, and then there's the OS- a new copy of Windows 8 will cost $106. The total cost could therefore hit $755 or more, and these additional costs hamper the NUC's value for money. Companies such as Acer sell Core i3-based systems-albeit without operating systems for $453, and Apple's cheapest Mac mini, which includes a Core i5 processor and OS X, costs $755.

The price difference between the two models is justified by specification differences


Intel's NUC is a tiny PC and, as such, performance expectations have to be tempered. The Core i3-3217U scored 810 in our image editing benchmark, which beats the 483 scored by the AMD-powered Sapphire Edge VS8 (see p36), but it's a long way behind a proper desktop PC. The Eclipse [NATO] Battle Edition (see Issue 114, p34), for example, scores 2,220 in this test.

The lack of speed is illustrated in the rest of our tests too. Aresult of 1,153 in the video encoding test is around a quarter of the score of the Eclipse machine, and the NUC's 798 in the multi-tasking benchmark lags too, although it beats the Sapphire VS8's 547. While the NUC is in a very different league from the Eclipse PC, it's important to see what you're sacrificing in the name of size and power efficiency too.

TheHD Graphics 4000 core isn't cut out for gaming either. The N UC returned a minimum frame rate of 7fps in Battlefield 3 at 1,920 x 1,080, and reducing the demands of this high-end game didn't improve matters. Running the game at its low quality settings at 1,366x768 still returned poor minimum and average frame rates of 14fps and 23fps respectively.

The integrated GPU is more adept with less demanding titles though. Our standard Left 4 Dead 2 benchmark runs the game at 1,920 x 1,080 at its high settings, and here the HD Graphics 4000 core returned borderline playable minimum and average frame rates of 25fps and 44fps respectively. We didn't have to make too many changes to get silky-smooth gameplay either-running the benchmark at the game's medium settings saw the minimum frame rate rise to 34fps.

This isn't the quickest machine, and you can't tweak the embedded chip to improve performance either

This isn't the quickest machine, and you can't tweak the embedded chip to improve performance either. The performance options in the UEFI system are ostensibly locked behind Intel's Performance Tuning Protection Plan, which is designed to offer a replacement CPU if the original is damaged by overclocking. However, the modest Core i3-3217U chip isn't supported by this scheme, and its locked multiplier means that extensive boosts aren't possible anyway. What's more, Intel's own Extreme Tuning Utility for Windows doesn't work with the NUC's CPU.

There are other areas, however, where the NUC excels. Its idle power consumption of just 8W is the lowest we've recorded from a fully-fledged PC, and it didn't top 20Wduring the most strenuous of our benchmarks either. It's about as power-frugal as a PC gets. Temperatures were similarly impressive: the chip idled at 39°C and hit a peak of 57°C during our stress tests. There's virtually no noise from the 40mm fan on the inside too - we had to place our ear against the case in order to hear anything at all.


Despite its initially tempting price, other pre-built system sare cheaper or more versatile, with low-end Core i3 PCs and even Apple's Mac Mini offering better bang for buck ratios at both ends of the spectrum. However, the NUC's small size and low power requirements mean that it's still enticing as a small media or office PC, as long as you're happy to buy the extra parts yourself.

We hope Intel develops this idea further with more powerful processors and USB 3 connections but until then, this is just an underpowered glimpse of its fledgling hardware plans.


§  Price: $365

§  Manufacturer: www.intel.com

In Detail

§  CPU: 1.8GHzIntelCore i3-3217U

§  Motherboard: Intel Desktop Board D33217CK

§  Memory: Not included

§  Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 4000

§  Sound: Intel HD Audio

§  Hard disk: Not included

§  Optical drive: N/A

§  Case: Intel NUC chassis

§  Cooling: CPU: 1 x40mmfan

§  PSU: Intel external

§  Ports: 3xUSB2,HDMI, Thunderbolt


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