Until recently, if you wanted the power and versatility of a desktop, you had to clear plenty of space on the floor or a table for a tower. Today, mini PCs like Intel’s NUC (Next Unit of Computing) series make ultraportable laptops look large. Fast enough to be your primary PC but small enough to fit anywhere, the 2015 NUCs feature Intel 5th-generation Broadwell CPUs, 802.11ac Wi-Fi and support for high-speed PCIe SSDs. Better still, there’s a Core i7-powered configuration, the NUC5i7RYH, which operates at 3.1 GHz. If you’re comfortable buying and installing your own RAM, storage and operating system — which brought the price of our Core i5- and Core i7-powered test units up to $670 and $770, respectively — Intel’s mini PC has a lot to offer.

Use Cases

The Core i5-powered NUC5i5RYK ($369) is undoubtedly fast enough to be a primary PC for students, business users and productivity-minded consumers. By pairing the NUC with a high-res monitor (or two), you can have all the space-saving benefits of an all-in-one PC, but with the ability to keep your displays after your next upgrade. The Core i7-powered NUC5i7RYH ($486), which we also tested, is fast enough to do hardcore productivity work, edit large videos or even do light gaming.

With a high-capacity drive inside or attached via USB, either NUC can also serve as a very strong home-theater PC. Retailers with space concerns can use the NUC in point-of-sale systems or kiosks.

Design

At 4.5 x 4.4 x 1.3 inches and just 1 pound (with storage and RAM installed), the NUC5i5RYK is about the size and shape of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The NUC5i7RYH and some of the other NUC models are 0.6 inches taller, so they can incorporate a 2.5-inch drive bay in addition to the M.2 slot (for SSDs) on the motherboard. At either height, the NUC is tiny enough to slip into the smallest entertainment center, sit next to the keyboard on your desk or strap to the back of a monitor, using the bundled VESA mounting bracket.

 

Even the NUC’s AC adapter is rather small and unobtrusive, as it measures just 1.75 x 3.25 x 0.9 inches and weighs a modest 6.5 ounces. The Gigabyte Brix GB-BXi7H-5500 is nearly identical in size and shape to the NUC5i5RYK, at 4.2 x 4.5 x 1.3 inches. However, most mini-PC competitors are significantly larger, including the Apple Mac mini (7.7 x 7.7 x 1.4 inches, 2.6 pounds), the Lenovo ThinkCentre M83 Tiny PC (7 x 7.2 x 1.35 inches, 2.9 pounds) and the HP Stream 200-010 Mini (5.73 x 5.7 x 2.1 inches, 1.4 pounds).

Although you can easily hide the NUC in a cabinet or behind a display, its svelte and sexy design makes it a great showpiece for your office or living room. The NUC’s chassis consists primarily of matte-silver aluminum, with a shiny, black, plastic lid and a matte, black, plastic bottom. The sides and the back are dotted with small vents that make the device look like a model spaceship, while a silver power button adds a touch of class to the top.

The top lid is easily removable, as we were able to pry it off without using any tools. Intel doesn’t sell replacement lids on its own. However, the company has made the specs available, so any company or individual can create a custom lid with a design on it, or even with extra functionality. At CES 2015, the company showed off some prototype lids, including one with a TV tuner and another with NFC. At press time, there were no third-party lids for sale, but enterprising consumers can 3D print their own.

Ports and Connectivity

For a computer this small, the NUC packs in a lot of ports. The front surface has a 3.5-mm headphone jack, an infrared receiver and two USB 3.0 ports, one of which remains on for charging devices while the system is asleep. The back has the power jack, a gigabit Ethernet port, both mini HDMI and mini DisplayPort connectors, and two more USB 3.0 ports, for a total of four of those ports. A Kensington lock slot sits on the right side.

If you want to watch ultra-HD content, the NUC can output to a monitor at full HD. Using a combination of its video ports, Intel’s mini PC can also support up to three displays at once. The DisplayPort supports DisplayPort 1.2 protocol and is capable of driving three different 1,920 x 1,200 screens through a splitter or by daisy chaining. However, the easiest way to use multiple monitors is to attach one monitor to each port, provided you have both mini HDMI and mini DisplayPort cables.

If you’re not using wired Ethernet to get online, you can connect using the NUC’s Intel 7265 card, which provides 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. The card can also beam video to your set-top box using Intel’s WiDi standard.

Needed Parts and Their Costs

Intel sells the NUC only as a bare-bones PC, which means that it comes without RAM, a storage drive or an operating system. So, prepare to spend at least $250 and a few minutes of your time to get the system going.

The system has two DIMM slots, which accept 1.35-volt, DDR3L SODIMMS. You can fill either one or both with a total of up to 16GB. It costs around $55 for 8GB of this type of RAM, though cost-conscious consumers can economize with a less-than-optimal 4GB stick for just $28.

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The NUC’s M.2 slot requires 22 x 42, 22 x 60 or 22 x 80 M.2 SSDs with a type M or B+M keyed connector. The motherboard supports M.2 SSDs that use the SATA bus or the PCIe x1, x2 or x4. Translation: The NUC will work with almost any M.2 SSD on the market. Most of those SSDs are SATA, which has an upper limit of about 540 MBps. You can purchase a 250GB drive for around $120, with 120GB alternatives available for well less than $100.

Though more expensive, PCIe x4 drives are capable of speeds more than twice as fast as those of SATA. For our tests, we used a 256GB Samsung XP941, which uses PCIe x4 and costs around $250 but offers read speeds of more than 1,000 MBps and write speeds of more than 800 MBps.

If you wish to install Windows, an original equipment manufacturer (nonupgrade) version costs about $99. Various versions of Linux, such as Ubuntu, are available for free.

Installation and Setup

Adding the RAM and SSD takes less than 5 minutes. To get to the inside of the system, you just turn the NUC over and unscrew the bottom panel, which is attached by four standard-size Philips-head screws. After that, it takes only a few moments to pop in the RAM, slide the SSD into the M.2 slot and tighten the screw that holds the drive in place.

Installing Windows takes 10 to 20 minutes. Just make sure you have the installer on a bootable USB key and have downloaded the latest device drivers from Intel’s site.

Performance

With its 1.6-GHz Intel 5th-generation Broadwell Core i5-5250U CPU, which can turbo up to 2.7 GHz, the Intel NUC5i5RYK is more than fast enough for serious productivity tasks like crunching spreadsheets, surfing the Web, viewing 4K videos or even editing videos.

During testing, it took the Core i5-powered NUC just 1 minute and 8 seconds to transcode a 2:30 movie trailer from 1080p to 720p using Windows Movie Maker while a 4K video played in another window. Its Core i7-powered sibling was only a little faster, finishing in 1 minute and 3 seconds.

Because they both use mobile CPUs, the NUCs’ benchmark scores are more on a par with those of ultraportable laptops than those of desktops, which use more power, have four cores and often run at higher clock speeds. Having a mobile CPU has its advantages in a desktop, though. Throughout our testing, the NUC5i5RK remained cool to the touch, and although it has a fan, it was also extremely quiet. The NUC5i7RYH made some audible fan noise while compressing a video, however.

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Our Core i5 and Core i7 test units, both of which had 8GB of RAM and a blazing-fast Samsung XP941 SSD, scored 5,611 and 7420, respectively, on Geekbench 3, a synthetic test that measures overall performance. The Core i5 model’s score is a bit lower than the all-in-one desktop category average of 7,013 but comfortably ahead of the 4,037 ultraportable laptop average and Core i5-powered Mac mini (5443), while its big brother outperforms a typical all-in-one. The Core i7-powered Gigabyte Brix GB-GXi7H-5500 wasn’t quite as fast as the Core i7-powered NUC, returning a score of 6,425.

Both NUCs showed they are more than capable of handling serious office work, completing our Spreadsheet Performance Test (matching 20,000 names with addresses in OpenOffice) in just 5 minutes and 2 seconds for the Core i5 model and an even 4 minutes for the Core i7 unit. Both mini PCs are more than twice as fast as the ultraportable notebook category average (10:17) and also faster than the 7-minute all-in-one category average. The Brix’s time of 4:31 falls between the NUCs, while the Mac mini (6:17) trails the field.

With their superspeedy PCIe x4 SSDs, the NUC5i5RYK and NUC5i7RYH completed our File Transfer Test, which involves copying 4.97GB of files, in just 16 and 14 seconds, respectively, for rates of 308.8 MBps and 363.5 MBps. Those are two of the fastest rates we’ve seen on any computer, and miles ahead of the all-in-one category average (58 MBps) and the ultraportable notebook average (120.5 MBps).

Graphics Performance

The Core i5-powered NUC5i5RYK is powered by an Intel HD Graphics 6000 GPU, while the Core i7-enabled NUC5i7RYH has faster HD Graphics 6100 “Iris” graphics. Both GPUs are more than adequate for watching 4K videos, but only the Core i7 model is recommended for playing some mainstream games.

On 3DMark Ice Strom Unlimited Strike, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall graphics prowess, the NUCs scored 41,369 and 77,084, respectively. That’s much better than the ultraportable average (38,251), but the Brix (61,718) did a bit better than the Core i5 NUC.

When we played World of Warcraft at autodetect settings and 1,366 x 768 resolution, the Core i5 NUC managed a playable frame rate of 37 fps, but that number dropped to a mediocre 26 fps at 1080p. The Core i7 NUC delivered much stronger rates of 65 and 41.5 fps — much better than the ultraportable averages of 33.7 and 31.5 fps. The Gigabyte Brix managed 61.7 and 39 fps. However, when we turned the settings up to ultra, Intel’s mini PCs offered slideshowlike 16 and 18.7 fps rates at 1080p.

Configuration Options

Intel sells several versions of the 2015 NUC, each with slightly different options. The base model goes for $295 and has a 2.1-GHz Core i3-5010U CPU. A version that’s just 0.6 inches taller and has a 2.5-inch drive bay goes for only $5 more. Our Core i5-powered test system retails for $369, but there’s also a version with a 2.5-inch drive bay, the NUC5i7RYH, which goes for $379.

The Core i7-powered NUC5i7RYH is available for $486 and comes only in the 1.9-inch-tall size. There are also business-friendly versions of each configuration that have Intel’s vPro management technology and two mini DisplayPorts in lieu of the mini HDMI + mini DisplayPort.

We strongly recommend getting an NUC with the 2.5-inch drive bay, because it gives you two storage devices: a spacious mechanical hard drive and a fast M.2 SSD.

Core i5 vs. Core i7

Roughly $100 stands between the Core i5-powered NUC5i5RYK ($369) and the Core i7-powered NUC5i7RYH ($486). If you plan to use the device for mainstream work or inside a kiosk or sign, the Core i5 model should provide more-than-adequate performance while generating less fan noise than its sibling. However, if you want to do processor-intensive tasks, such as editing large media files or crunching giant spreadsheets, the added performance from the Core i7 CPU is worth the money.

Value

If you buy a standard NUC with a 256GB SATA M.2 SSD, 8GB of RAM and an OEM copy of Windows, your $390 Core i5-powered NUC will actually cost about $670, and the Core i7 model will cost $100 more. Going with 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and a free operating system lowers the total prices to $490 and $590 for the Core i5 and Core i7 systems, respectively.

What you’re paying for with the NUC is the combination of small size and big performance, particularly if you use the PCIe x4 SSD. If you want a ready-made mini PC with all of its parts and software installed out of the box, you can find less-expensive systems with much slower processors and no SSD. The HP Stream 200-010 mini, for example, costs $179 but is half a pound heavier and more than an inch larger on each side, and uses a slow Intel Celeron CPU, 2GB of RAM and a 32GB storage drive.

For businesses, Lenovo’s ThinkCentre M83 Tiny Desktop is nearly twice the size and three times the weight of the NUC, but it comes with all its parts installed and starts at $483 for an Intel 4th-gen Core i3 model with a 500GB hard drive. A Core i5 model with an SSD and 8GB goes for more than $1,000. The Mac mini also looks big next to the NUC and starts at $499 for a Core i5 model with a hard drive; an SSD version starts at $699.

Bottom Line

You’ll come for the tiny, attractive design, but you’ll stay for the strong performance. Those who don’t want to go through the hassle of installing their own RAM, storage and OS may prefer a larger and more expensive mini PC like the Mac mini or the ThinkCentre M83. Serious gamers will want a larger desktop or a laptop with discrete graphics. However, if you’re willing to put in a little elbow grease and you need a small desktop to use as your primary PC or for your home theater, Intel’s Broadwell-powered NUC is the best option yet.