Tiny Computing With The Intel NUC

Intel NUC - the next step in tiny desktop computing

It shouldn’t be a surprise that computers don’t have to be large any more – we’re accustomed to laptops that are razor thin and weigh three pounds, after all. But it’s still surprising to see the Intel NUC, a powerful, full-featured computer stuffed into a four-inch square box that weighs eighteen ounces.

The NUC, two inches tall, is pictured above next to my mouse. That’s all there is to it. But there’s a fourth-generation Core i5 Haswell processor and a fast SSD hard drive inside, along with USB 3.0 ports front and back, HDMI and DisplayPort to deliver HD video from the Intel HD 5000 graphics system, and Gigabit Ethernet. It runs whisper quiet. It’s perfectly capable of replacing the tower under your desk.

The small size and low power consumption encourages thinking creatively about what to do with it. For now, Intel is primarily focused on the living room, which has not had a satisfying media center computer for some time. Various small devices have come and gone; the Intel NUC is in my house to replace a deceased Dell Inspiron Zino, now discontinued.

Media center PCs are not a big market. The NUC arrives at a time when most people have no interest in a living room PC. Lots of cheap devices deliver the major streaming video services (Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu) to your TV and for most people a cheap Roku or Apple TV or Chromecast is sufficient. The XBox 360 and XBox One have extensive support for online media.

Still, there are still a few diehards with curated music and movie collections stored on a network device. We need a PC to play them back. The Intel NUC can do that.

Intel has made this more of a proof of concept than a full-fledged consumer product. The names for the different versions are typical Intel – the version with a fourth-generation processor is the D54250WYK, as distinguished from the third-generation DC32171YE. But it goes beyond poor branding: Intel sells the NUCs as kits that require more hardware components and work before they can be used. The Core i5 kit is only $350 but you have to purchase and install the RAM, hard drive, and wireless card (if desired), and then install an operating system (another hundred dollars for Windows if that’s your choice). You will have spent $800-900 before the computer is up and running, and you’ll need to have some pretty good tech skills to get the operating system installed.

I chose to purchase one pre-assembled from Assassin HTPC, which did a nice job of choosing the pieces and putting it together, and then provided good support when the first one turned out to be defective. Buying from Assassin HTPC helped me avoid some of the initial stumbling blocks. My favorite: some of the Intel boxes don’t include a power cord. On purpose. You have to buy it separately. Apparently it makes it easier to use the same package in multiple countries but really, can you imagine how you’d feel if you opened the box and hadn’t seen that coming?

My first stumble was the discovery that the audio/video connector on the back is Mini-HDMI, which is different from full-size HDMI (the cable in my left hand) and Micro-HDMI (the adapter cable in my right hand). Off I trotted to Amazon to order the right cable and wait a couple of extra days before setup.

That’s done now. The Intel NUC is set up in the living room so it launches JRiver Media Center’s Theater View, connected to the embarrassingly large media collection stored on the Synology NAS in my office.

This isn’t for everyone. Think of it as a glimpse of what it means to have computer components shrinking in size. That large tower under your desk may come to seem quaint and archaic before too long.