I have been using small computers as dedicated media centre devices for years now. It all started running Windows Vista via Bootcamp inside a Mac Mini, which was later replaced by a Dell Zino HD. Those were pretty small personal computers, perfect for a home theatre setup where space is at premium.
The volume of high definition content available makes the search for more powerful machines a perpetual problem. The three year old Dell Zino HD, while pretty capable in terms of CPU, memory and HDD just isn't good enough to reliably decode 720 and 1080 content anymore.
A discussion here on Geekzone brought to my attention the Intel NUC, a small footprint (4.5" x 4.4" x 1.5") computing kit that comes with the basics of a personal computer - Intel motherboard (Intel QS77 Express Chipset), an Intel Core i3 3217-U CPU, Intel HD Audio ( 8-channel (7.1) digital audio ), USB adapters, HDMI and depending on the model gigabit ethernet.
You need only to add your own SODIMM memory (two slots, up to 16GB total) and use the two PCIe slots (full-size mini-PCI Express with mSATA support and half-size mini-PCI Express) to add a mSATA SSD and a wireless module. The WiFi antenna is integrated into the chassis. The external power brick is rated 19V, 65W.
Configurations vary depending on model and in my case the DC3217BY comes with three USB 2.0 ports, one HDMI, one Thunderbolt but no ethernet. Other models have two HDMI and ethernet but no Thunderbolt. For this review Intel supplied a Centrino-based wireless card and a 160GB mSATA SSD.
The system is "Windows 8 Compatible" but I decided to install Windows 7 64 bit as this is my choice for a media center. The kit requires drivers that should be downloaded from the Intel site, including the Centrino Wireless software and the Intel HD4000 driver. The Intel NUC also supports Wireless Display (WiDi), Intel FastBoot (great with Windows 8 but not tested) and Intel AntiTheft Tecnology.
Since this is a small form factor box, alternatives for media center include USB DVB-T, media server or Silicondust HDHomeRun. We have a HDHomerun here, so installed the software and drivers, configured Windows 7 Media Center and tried our HD TV content. Even though I have my reservations about HD content over WiFi, the Intel NUC had no problems decoding our Freeview signal:
We obviously run media centre in full screen, but I wanted to show that little tiny speedfan program.
I found that at times of intense activity the Intel NUC would freeze. Not a shutdown or reboot mind you. The mouse cursor would still move around but Windows would be completely unresponsive. I found this happened that while copying large files from a USB drive (for example my iTunes movie collection) or while streaming HD over WiFi. These activities seemed to cause the WiFi and SSD modules to overheat, and the system would go up to 80c.
By changing a BIOS option to keep the fans running at 50% and increasing speeds after 60c I managed to have a stable box. searching around, it seems to be something that affects this specific model though.
The kit comes with a VESA bracket so you can have this unit hanging from a wall, or inside a cabine - in which case I suggest a more aggressive approach to cooling settings.
In terms of total price, when you add memory, SSD and wireless adapter it may not be much cheaper than alternatives. But it's a good, well rounded package that works pretty well out of the box.
- Extremely small form factor, vibrant colour case
- Very quiet even if fan set to run at full speed
- HD capable, including the HD4000 graphics and a fast mSATA interface
- Easy to use Intel VisualBIOS
- Intel reference drivers work just fine, no need to hunt OEM versions
- The overheating problem may be a bit hard to track down.