Date: July 9, 2015
Author(s): Jamie Fletcher
Intel’s range of NUCs have always been about packing in the most performance, in the smallest space, for the least amount of power. The latest generation of Broadwell-based NUCs have arrived, packing not just a smaller manufacture process, but the latest generation IGP. Find out what the little box of tricks is capable of.
Small Form Factor (SFF) computers have come a long way since the early days of computing, where small and mobile was classified as two suitcases and a personal bodybuilder to carry them. Now, small really does mean small. However, small desktops have always had a bit of a stigma attached to them; it’s a desktop, why does it need to be small?
As anyone who’s worked in an office will tell you, desk space is often at a premium, and the last thing you want is a full tower under the desk ready to be kicked by angry employees; so what’s a company to do? Enter the SFF desktop, and an entourage of different sizes; starting at mATX, various ITX standards, and one under review today, the Ultra Compact Form Factor (UCFF): the Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC).
The NUC has been around since 2012, but it recently had an upgrade and now sports the all new Broadwell-based CPU architecture, or Intel’s 5th generation Core processors. The specific model under review is the NUC5i5RYK, which features the i5-5250U CPU, a 14nm scale CPU in one of the smallest form factors I’ve seen for a full x86 system.
The size of the system means that normal desktop components are not going to fit. In fact, even normal laptop parts won’t fit – that includes 2.5-inch hard drives with this specific model (larger NUCs support such drives). Sourcing parts for the NUC is slightly more tricky than usual, so we reached out to Crucial for some help.
First and foremost, the system makes use of DDR3L SO-DIMM memory, a specific low-voltage variant of DDR3, running at 1.35 volts. Not all 1.35v memory modules will work, so you will need to be careful. Intel has included a partial list of tested modules on its website if you are unsure. Crucial suggested a couple compatible kits that were not on the list, so if you are in need of some lower CAS latency memory, you can use the same Ballistix kit as in our review.
With the memory cleared, we still have storage to contend with – what hard drive standard is smaller than 2.5-inches? If you’ve been keeping up with technology trends, then you will already be aware of M.2 drives and some of the standard’s incredible speed offerings. If this is the first time you’ve heard of M.2 drives, we’ll quickly explain.
M.2 is an interface standard for small form factor installations, most notably laptops and netbooks. Quite often, M.2 devices are soldered directly to the motherboard and is generally not user accessible (and often not advertised), but in effect, the standard is a miniature PCIe interface. There are three main sizes, the smallest of which (22×42) is used for I/O and wireless interface technologies (WiFi, Bluetooth, NFC). The larger sizes (22×60 and 22×80) are used for storage.
To confuse things further slightly, there are two storage types for M.2 – M.2 SATA and M.2 PCIe, denoting whether a drive uses SATA or PCIe based transfer methods. M.2 SATA has the same restrictions as other SATA devices, that of 550MB/s transfers over SATA 3.0. The PCIe based drives are not held back by the interface and can exceed 2GB/s transfer rates with some drives – that’s bytes, not bits. The incredible speed and standard interface of the PCIe based M.2 drive is so remarkable, that some high-end desktop motherboards have started to include M.2 slots.
The NUC supports all three M.2 sizes, plus SATA and PCIe-based interfaces. SATA drives are by no means slow – they are still a thousand times faster than a normal hard drive – so don’t go thinking you’re missing out by getting one over a PCIe drive (the SATAs are still quite a bit cheaper). To help us test the NUC, Crucial also provided us with an M.2 drive for this review.
The NUC is a bare-bone system and doesn’t come with a lot out of the box, nor does it need a lot. There is an external power pack that looks more like a large phone charger (with wall adapters for different countries), a VESA mounting plate to attach to the back of a monitor, and documentation.
On the front, there really isn’t a lot of connectivity. Two USB 3.0 ports (one of which can be used as a dedicated charging port), and a two-in-one 3.5mm mic and audio jack. The top cover can be replaced for different colors or company branding. What isn’t immediately noticeable is an IR receiver in the blank space just to the right of the audio jack.
The back is the business end. Two more USB 3.0 ports are available, Ethernet, mini-DisplayPort, mini-HDMI and the power in. If you plan to plug this into a full-size monitor, you will likely need mini to full-sized adapters for either DP or HDMI, so keep that in mind. The exhausted air does get extremely hot at times due to such a compact system, so make sure it’s well ventilated.
If you flip the unit upside down, we can take the screws off and see where the memory and M.2 drive are inserted.
The battery is on the reverse side too, you will need to completely dismantle the NUC if something were to go wrong in the EFI (security reset for example). The CPU is soldered down, which is to be expected. That little fan and heatsink don’t look like much, but this is typically a 15W device. However, bump up the power and that little fan can make quite the noise.
If we move in closer, you’ll see the M.2 connector to the right and the SATA port to the left. Just below the M.2 slot, you’ll see a chip with two wires coming out of it. That is another M.2 device that’s soldered into place, and in this case it’s a multi-band wireless chip for 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and Intel’s Wireless Display technology. NFC is handled by an internal header.
On the other side of the unit, we have two slots for the SO-DIMMs, supporting up to 16GB of RAM. If you check the serial number as well, you’ll notice it says 5i5RYB rather than RYK. This is the motherboard model number.
Fitting the RAM and M.2 storage, we can see just how little space is left. If you look to just above the memory, you can see the IR receiver.
The full NUC5i5RYK specification can be found on Intel’s website, but below you can find the basics, plus the memory and M.2 drive we used for this review.
|Intel NUC5i5RYK Specifications|
|Processor||Intel Core i5-5250U 1.6GHz, 2.7GHz Turbo
Dual Core, 3MB Cache, 15W TDP
|Memory||2x8GB(16GB) Crucial Ballistix DDR3L-1600 9-9-9-24
|Graphics||Intel HD 6000 IGP|
|Storage||Crucial MX200 250GB M.2 SATA SSD (CT250MX200SSD4)|
|Audio||7.1 over HDMI|
|Wireless||802.11ac & Bluetooth 4.0|
|Connectivity||1x mini-HDMI, 1x mini-DisplayPort
4x USB 3.0
1x Combined Audio Port
|Power Supply||19V 65W AC-DC Adapter|
|Et cetera||115mm x 111mm x 32.7mm
Remember, both display outputs are mini ports, so if your monitor uses a full-sized connector, you’ll need an adapter, such as a mini-DP male to DP female adapter, or a mini-HDMI male to HDMI female adapter.
Intel’s EFI is very well laid out and easy to use, definitely one of the better systems I’ve used. There are plenty of options available, such as disabling devices, boot options, power management, fan control, secure boot, and fast boot. There is some minor overclocking available too with memory timings and GPU multiplier. Our NUC overclocking and overpowering article is now live. On the next page, we discus our testing methods and benchmarks.
Since this NUC is a bit unique with regard to available systems in our test lab, we don’t have any direct competition with which to compare the results (so far). As such, all results will be on their own for the time being.
The CPU has a turbo mode, taking the chip from 1.6GHz to 2.7GHz when needed. The 2.7GHz is for single-core only, while in multi-core workloads, the turbo drops to 2.5GHz. A problem arises in that the turbo can not be locked down and will float around, which adds inconsistency to the results. The turbo can be disabled in the EFI, but that is an unrealistic scenario. As such, we decided to keep the turbo enabled throughout testing and perform 4 passes per test instead of the usual 3 to confirm consistency. Throughout testing, the nominal turbo observed was typically 2.5GHz as most workloads were multi-threaded.
Another issue comes from thermals. For example, in 3DMark the core temperature is seen around the 60C mark for most runs, but during the physics tests, the temperature is seen soaring to a rather toasty 85C+ for a few seconds at a time. This led to some concerns over thermal throttling (despite there being a cutoff of 105C). As such, the fan was set to 100% during all tests to mitigate any clock variation in the turbo that may be the result of excessive temperatures.
The last bit of variation that can crop up is power related. The NUC has an intelligent power management system that’s configurable in the EFI. While we’re not talking overclocking here (there isn’t any outside of memory timings), there are a plethora of options related to power. Playing around with these options may result in a higher consistent turbo if the system is power starved. Details of this can be found in out NUC overclocking and overpowering guide.
We start off with some all-around system performance metrics with the help of SPECwpc. This is a suite of tests provided by industry standard applications to simulate real-world workloads, including Web browsing, document editing, archiving, 3D and image manipulation, and other miscellaneous activities. This takes into account the overall system and has tests that make use of both CPU and GPU at the same time, as well as testing of individual components such as RAM and storage.
|Media and Entertainment||1.3|
|Higher is better|
Due to the weighting put on storage, the General Operations score is elevated quite a bit above the other tests, as the M.2 drive sports some very good IOPS. The particular drive is still a SATA based M.2 device, so it is somewhat limited, but even if you were to get a slow M.2 drive, overall system performance wouldn’t be affected that much.
Futuremark’s PCMark suite performs similar functions to SPEC, but with purely synthetic tests built by Futuremark, rather than using live code from industry applications (however, MS Office and Adobe Benchmarks are available). These tests include teleconferencing, image editing, archiving, Web browsing and document editing.
|PCMark OpenCL Tests|
|Higher is better|
From now on, we have decided to make use of the OpenCL benchmarks within PCMark, as most industry standard applications leverage some kind of accelerated processing (i.e. making use of the GPU), this includes Web browsers such as Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer, as well as productivity and creative suites. As such this provides a more realistic workload.
SANDRA is a rather complex set of benchmarks and can take a very long time to complete, but offers some incredibly granular results for each individual subsystem. Below is just a tiny amount of the overall selected tests, but covers some of the important metrics, such a hashing, bandwidth, shader speed and system latency.
|SANDRA 2015 Results|
|Scientific||15.8 GFLOPS||Integer B/W||17.9 GB/s|
|Inter-Core Bandwidth||11.81GB/s||Float B/W||19.6 GB/s|
|Compute Shader||256.71MPix/s||Random Access Time||25µs|
During SANDRA and the wide variety of tests performed, we thought we’d take a look at some of the thermal issues outlined. Initially, tests were performed with the fan set to auto in the EFI, this was done twice with reboots in-between to confirm results. The second two tests were performed with the fan set to 100%. There was not a huge difference overall, 1-2% or less, but it was consistent overall. In all honesty, this could just be natural variation in the second set of runs since the increase is so small, so it’s hardly worth the extra noise from the fan.
The NUC isn’t really meant for gaming. While Intel’s integrated GPUs have improved massively over the years, it still lags behind offerings from both AMD and NVIDIA. This particular i5-5250U comes with an HD 6000 GPU, and since it’s limited to a 15W TDP, doesn’t come with the new generation Intel Iris graphics.
|Fire Strike Extreme||428|
|Higher is better|
We’re going to point out now that we’ve decided to drop Ice Storm from our usual round-up for a couple of reasons. First, it’s too easy to render. While the benchmark provides a good means of testing low-end tablets that are a couple of years old, modern low-end systems can render the scenes in excess of 250 FPS. Due to such ridiculous render speeds, any small variation in the system can cause huge metric swings. When originally tested, this NUC was producing Ice Storm results in the 56K range, then after a system update, was down to 46K, disable wireless, 51K. The scores are all over the place with simple changes made, while all other scores (Cloud Gate and above) remain the same.
We ran the Fire Strike Extreme test just for fun, with some very predictable results. While the CPU proves to be strong during the physics elements, the GPU really struggles with any kind of mid-range gaming over 720p. However, 3DMark did show us some rather interesting results when it comes to throttling. While I had suspicions that high GPU workloads were causing the CPU to lower its clock, the amount was quite surprising.
Follow the purple line and you can see the CPU is scaling all the way back to under 1GHz (800MHz to be precise) and spikes up and down frequently, barely going over 2GHz. Looking at the physics test and the CPU operates at its full 2.5GHz turbo. Following the temperature at around 60-70C, it’s not thermally bound, so there is a clear power limit on the processor.
While overclocking is not strictly available, there are other ways to improve the system. In an upcoming article (now live), we’ll take a closer look at the effects of overpowering the NUC through the EFI.
A nice and simple benchmark for 3D rendering on the CPU.
|Elapsed Time (Seconds)||126.9|
Maxon’s Cinebench has been a mainstay of benchmarking for a long time. Providing both CPU rendering, and now OpenGL GPU based rendering.
Part of our real-world benchmarks, we have some video encoding. Taking a 1080p M2TS Blu-Ray rip of a concert and converting it down to 720p using H.264. This is the first 10 minutes of the concert and encodes typically range within 10 seconds of each other.
|(seconds) Lower is better|
By comparison, a now aging i7-2600, which is a 4 core / 8 thread desktop part, will encode the same scene in 900 seconds or less.
Another real-world benchmark, this time encoding 500 FLAC files into 320kbps MP3s.
|dBpoweramp FLAC -> MP3|
|500 FLAC Batch||2570|
|(Seconds) Lower is better|
Although large music collections are becoming rarer due to streaming services, encoding music to different formats is still important, especially if you plan to stream over networks with devices that do not support various formats natively.
There are two benchmarks available from Unigine that cater to two different workloads. Heaven is the most common and probably memorable as it was the first benchmark to really showcase what tessellation could do, from cobbled paths to detailed dragon spines and scales. Valley is the open-world simulation, guiding you through forests, hills, mountains and shrubs, taking advantage of very long draw distances, as well as Level of Detail texture swapping.
|High-End System Test||Low-End System Test|
|Heaven 4.0||Valley 1.0||Heaven 4.0||Valley 1.0|
|177 (7.0 FPS)||237 (5.7 FPS)||177 (7.0 FPS)||237 (5.7 FPS)|
|Resolution: 1920×1080 – Textures: Ultra –
Anti-aliasing: 4x –
Tessellation: Moderate – DX11
|Resolution: 1280×720 – Textures: Medium –
Anti-aliasing: Off –
Tessellation: Off – DX11
Yup, pretty much no 1080p gaming on this poor little NUC. Even with AA disabled, no Tessellation, medium textures and running at 720p, you’ll be lucky to get 25-30 FPS.
While we mention with 3DMark that games are not at the forefront of the NUC5i5RYK, a couple have been included for future reference. These tests are performed differently compared to our usual graphics benchmarks, simply because the games with our usual settings will be completely unplayable. As such, we will be using more realistic settings that will provide a better target for low-end systems, such as those with integrated graphics or entry-level discrete GPUs. Some of these settings may not be completely playable with all systems, such as this NUC.
Where would we be without cell-shaded graphics, a billion guns and Torgue? Bouncing all over the moon without a care in the world, the nostalgia of low gravity and double-jumps. The Borderlands series brought some refreshing graphics and its own universe of humor, and injected it into the rather stagnant and dull First Person Shooter genre. The Pre-Sequel wasn’t quite what everyone was after, but it was still enjoyable.
|Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel|
|V-Sync: Off – Framerate: Unlimited, Anisotropic Filtering: 16x – Bullet Decals: high – Foliage: Far – Texture: High – Detail: High – Ambient Occlusion: On – Depth of Field: On – FXAA: On – View Distance: High – PhysX: Low/Off – Texture Fade: On|
With pretty much all the settings cranked up to full, it surprising to see the little NUC is capable of pushing more than 10 FPS at 1080p. Obviously, this isn’t remotely playable, but at 22 FPS in 720p, it’s quite possible. If you are prepared to drop some of the settings further, it’s possible to get 30 FPS out of the NUC.
The Witcher series is an RPG player’s dream. Sprawling open landscapes, rich and deep story, moral choices abound, and a healthy dose of mythology, politics and cut-throat combat. You can read our review of the latest Witcher game to see what you’re missing. The last two titles have been pinups for graphical achievement, boasting some of the most beautiful environments you’ll come across. Needless to say, it’s not a title we expect to render well on integrated graphics.
|The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt|
|Shadow Quality||High||Ambient Occlusion||SSAO|
|Terrain||Medium||Depth of Field||On|
These settings were put in place as a result of testing out an acceptable visual quality, but still low enough to be at least somewhat achievable with a low-end dedicated GPU. Despite the fact that some textures were set to high, the impact on performance was almost negligible. The big hitter would have to be SSAO, but turning that off results in a visually underwhelming game.
At 10 FPS, it’s pretty much unplayable, but for those interested, dropping all settings as low as they will go with the resolution set to 720p, the absolute best framerate you can expect is just 20 FPS, typically averaging around 15-18. Perhaps an Iris Pro GPU would allow The Witcher 3 to be at least somewhat playable.
Hong Kong’s answer to Grand Theft Auto, Sleeping Dogs can be Wei too much fun, from simple driving around, getting into fights with the local gangs; all working as an undercover officer. The best part of it? I get to drive on the proper side of the road! Sleeping Dogs may be getting a little old now, but it still proves to be a challenge due to its spectacular graphics and city landscape.
|Frame Limiter||Off||High-res Textures||On|
|World Density||Extreme||Motion Blue||High|
Turning back the graphics settings a bit and you can get 20-25 FPS. Due to the amount of driving in the game, a higher FPS is generally better, as 25 frames would get you into trouble quite frequently around sharp turns.
After a few weeks of working with the system, putting it through its paces and subjecting it to many hours of tortuous benchmarks, we can get an all-around picture of the latest offering of NUCs from Intel. If it’s not obvious, the first thing you will need is a USB Flash drive to load up your OS of choice, preferably USB 3.0. You can find details on how to do this in an article we wrote a while ago.
I would recommend that you download the driver bundle from Intel as well. Intel does provide its own universal driver installer, but this requires an Internet connection be available. Unfortunately, Windows 7 and 8.1 do not have any drivers available for the NUC on a fresh install, so you will need to download and transfer them over beforehand. However, if you plan to use the NUC with Windows 10, network connectivity is available out of the box. When installing your OS of choice, be sure to use the UEFI-enabled mode, as this will help improve boot-time significantly.
There is one small, innocuous feature which took me by surprise the most out of all the different tests I performed; the boot time. Being the highly integrated device that it is, the NUC5i5RYK, once properly configured, is capable of booting to the Windows 8.1 login prompt in under 7 seconds – from a cold boot. If you have auto-login enabled, you can be at the desktop, everything ready to go, in 8 seconds. This is not guessing, this is timed and repeatable. This is possible through two things, a UEFI enabled OS and the Fast Boot option in the EFI.
Fast boot effectively bypasses most of the startup procedures of the system and doesn’t respond to any input until the OS is loaded. This does mean you can’t select the boot device or enter the EFI either. If you need to get into the EFI later on, you can do so by holding down the power button for three seconds when you start the system up, 3 beeps will be heard (through connected speakers), and then you can press F3 to disable fast boot and get into the EFI as usual.
In the home, the NUC is likely to be used for at least some kind of streaming or movie playback. The incredibly small footprint, low power and generous processing efficiency, make it ideal. While the fan at full pelt will likely be distracting for most, it’s unlikely to rev-up under normal use.
For the purposes of a home theatre setup, there is little you can fault with the NUC. If the EFI is set for quiet fan control, it will remain barely audible, even during some heavy workloads. Testing was performed with a large PLEX collection, streaming over both the network and Internet. All menus responded instantly with the only delay being slow cache delivery from a backwater ISP. Scanning was equally quick too (skip 30 seconds, 10 minutes). Wi-Fi performance will be up to your local conditions, but I found no major issue with 802.11n. 1080p video was rendered perfectly with no visible frame loss.
The catch comes with newer formats, like the slowly deployed HEVC or H.265 codec. Currently, there is very little in the way of optimization or hardware acceleration. The success rate of the codec will depend on the individual movie compression and the software decoder stack. Using plain vanilla Media Player Classic – Home Cinema, the NUC can render most H.265 movies at 1080p, but high quality/high compression movies are likely to put a little too much strain on the system. Using MadVR as the rendering engine, things just don’t quite hold steady, with very regular frame drops, as there is no hardware decoding available.
Steam introduced its new streaming feature a little while back and this proved to be a good opportunity to experiment with the functionality. When initially setup, things were not terribly smooth. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel was the first test, a game that is hardly demanding on a modern system. Using the default settings, the NUC was only streaming at 24-30 FPS, which I originally thought was a limit of the streamer.
Tweaking a few things and enabling hardware encoding on the desktop, and hardware decoding on the NUC allowed the game to render at almost native speeds, 45 FPS+. Latency was pretty much non-existent over Ethernet too. This was tested by checking the monitor on the desktop while playing the game through the NUC’s keyboard and mouse – a strange feeling if ever there was one.
Other games that followed, showed similar characteristics, in that you won’t quite get native speeds due to the extra encoding the host has to perform while rendering the game at the same time. In terms of latency though, I was struggling to notice a difference.
The actual visual quality can be suspect under very fast movement. Even turning up the quality of the encode, there can be a lot of visual artifacts (looks like JPEG compression). When things are slow, you will hardly notice, but anything that requires quick movement will likely be distracting. This might just be a limitation of Steam more than anything, as it’s largely based on the codec in use and the available bandwidth of the network.
The NUC5i5RYK is a very capable yet incredibly small desktop. This is due in large part to the Broadwell CPU, Intel’s latest manufacture-process shrink, down to 14nm. This not only cuts power, but heat, too.
The Ultra Compact Form Factor standard has come a long way, with competition cropping up from the likes of GIGABYTE’s BRIX system, as well as Mini-ITX systems. While NUCs may not be cheaper than an Mini-ITX system of comparable capabilities, you definitely won’t match it in size.
If you only intend to use the NUC as an HTPC, you are likely better served by something like a ROKU, Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV or any of the many other integrated media ‘sticks’ that have flooded the market. However, if you are looking for something more, with HTPC as an extra, the NUC range is especially interesting, due to the use of a full-blown x86 based OS.
The only gaming you’ll be able to do is very light, be it old games, emulation, or low-resolution modern titles. For work, you’ll be able to use it as a light workstation, such as Web development, some graphics, and of course Microsoft Office. In fact, the NUC would be beneficial as something like a permanent fixture to a projector, instead of plugging in laptops.
If you were so inclined, the large memory pool that’s available would be useful for virtualizing (albeit just a couple of instances due to the dual-core CPU), although you would be best to use either a larger NUC with the SATA slot for extra storage, or a USB 3.0 external drive.
There are a couple of issues with the latest NUC range, one of which is the use of mini display sockets. Mini-HDMI and mini-DP are still not very common, especially on monitors, and the lack of an adapter of any kind included with the NUC does bring about complications. Adapters cost between $6 and $12, which isn’t expensive, but it’s yet another cost to consider.
The other issue is that the NUCs are bare-bones, and are sold without an OS, memory and storage. Those three items alone can add another $200-$300+ to the total system cost, plus the $380 for the basic NUC. This brings the starting cost of the NUC to $600+ (delivery, adapters, etc). You can save some cash by using either a spare retail copy of Windows, a Linux distro, or if you are so inclined, Windows 10 via the Windows Insider program.
Unlike normal desktop systems with discrete graphics cards, integrated GPUs in modern processor will take advantage of higher speed memory. If you intend to work with applications that make use of the GPU, then higher speed memory will be beneficial.
The intended use of the NUC will determine its value. If you are after a really small footprint system that’s very low power but still capable of moderate workloads, the NUC5i5RYK is hard to beat. If you are after a compact desktop you can hide away in a corner somewhere that will run as an HTPC from time to time, or even game streaming, you can do that. If you plan to run games natively… I’d look at something like a BRIX from GIGABYTE.
In all, I am genuinely impressed with the system, despite the price and requirements for the M.2 drive and DDR3L memory. For the right conditions, I’d happily recommend it – especially once you learn how to overpower the CPU.
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