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Product Review: Intel NUC (Mini PC)

The Intel Mini PC is a range of tiny but fully-fledged PCs. They fulfill an area of the market where even a small-form factor desktop is too large, and a laptop may be the wrong size or awkward to use (being essentially a joined keyboard/monitor with a fixed display size).

As of late 2015, the range offers units with low-end processors as well as Core i3, i5 and i7 processors. All feature gigabit ethernet networking, and some models have inbuilt wireless LAN.

Pros

  • Small form factor and low power consumption.

  • Provides a bay natively suited to 2½″ drives which allows the easy use of SSD drives.

  • Windows 8/10 installs easily and all drivers install automatically.

  • Onboard graphics chip and interface support relatively high-resolution displays or televisions.

  • All models have multiple display ports (of various types) so multiple monitors can be accomodated easily (with appropriate adaptors in some cases).

Cons

  • Only the very low-end units feature VGA ports. The remainder use Mini DisplayPort and/or Mini HDMI. This means that virtually any display device you attach will need an adaptor, and this adds to the bulk of the kit to deploy.

  • Some models use a bulky external AC adaptor, also adding to the size of the kit.

  • Some models lack a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip, so drives cannot be protected by BitLocker without a manual startup key.

  • The only expansion is via USB, which admittedly is to be expected in such a unit.

  • Only available in a bare-bones format; storage and memory must be added and installed, and the operating system must also be installed manually. This adds time and expense to the deployment.

  • Accessing the memory slots and drive bays is not as easy as it should be.

  • Securing the drives requires two small screws which are not always provided as part of the unit.

  • Despite the base units seeming inexpensive, once storage, memory and operating system are added, they cost about the same as a mid-range notebook.

Summary

Despite the apparent attractiveness of such a device, we find that the limitations outweigh the advantages to such a degree that it is essentially a niche device — suitable for a very narrow set of deployments, but not very useful for general business computing. In particular, the need to install memory, storage (and to find some suitably small screws sometimes) and an operating system adds significant costs to a unit that is already relatively pricey.

If Intel releases more units with TPM and preinstalled storage, memory and an operating system, the NUC will be much more attractive. Also, more use of VGA and DVI would be beneficial, to avoid adaptor cables. It should be possible to attach a standard monitor and boot to Windows straight out-of-the-box.

Pre-Setup

  • By default, some units with TPM will boot in Legacy mode, and this later prevents Bitlocker from using the TPM to unlock the drive. Before installing an operating system, disable Legacy mode and ensure it boots to UEFI mode.

Post-Setup

  • Although Windows can install most required drivers, additional Intel drivers and software can be obtained using the Intel Driver Update Utility.

  • Additionally, use the Board Id tool to identify the motherboard and update the BIOS.

  • If using a SSD drive, use the vendor's CD or download the setup utility to optimise the configuration.

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