Apple (AAPL) has had a pretty good thing going with the Mac Mini, the mini PC that’s become a favorite for driving home theater setups. It’s also Apple’s cheapest Mac option — although buyers need to add a keyboard, mouse and monitor. Intel (INTC) decided to try its hand at tapping this market, taking the unusual step of releasing its own mini PC, the Next Unit of Computing (or NUC). I guess if Microsoft (MSFT) can release tablets, then a CPU maker can release its own computer.
The newest edition of the NUC was recently released, and I had the opportunity to try it out. If you thought adding peripherals to a Mac Mini was a pain, Intel’s extreme approach of supplying nothing but the case, motherboard and power adapter may make you think twice.
Is it worth buying this $399 Mini PC over something like a barebones, $299 desktop PC from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ)? Read our Intel NUC review to find out.
Intel NUC Review: This Mini PC Packs a Punch
Intel makes sure you know exactly who makes this Mini PC. As soon as you open the box, you’re greeted with the Intel “chime.” Just make sure the box is closed securely after you’ve unpacked everything, or that chime is going to play repeatedly –presumably until the battery finally dies.
Speaking of unpacking everything, that’s not a long process. The Intel NUC itself is a tiny box (the photo shows it beside my iPhone 4s), there’s a power brick and an instruction pamphlet. That’s it.
To make this Mini PC virtually invisible, it includes a built-in VESA mount so it can be bolted to the back of a monitor or TV set.
Despite the diminutive size, this is a powerful device. The review unit was powered by the latest Core i5 CPU with Intel HD Graphics 5000. The company describes it as being “as small as a game controller, as powerful as a jackhammer.”
I’m not sure about the jackhammer, but the Intel NUC is definitely capable of driving a home theater system or covering basic home and business computing needs.
Intel NUC Review: $399 Can Quickly Escalate
The problem with the $399 Intel NUC is that it’s sold as a kit. That $299 HP bare bones PC? It includes RAM, a hard drive, an optical drive, Wi-Fi, Windows 8.1 and even a cheap keyboard and mouse. The Intel NUC has none of that.
By the time you buy RAM, an SSD, a WiFi card and a copy of Windows, that $399 could nearly double. And then it’s not a cheap option any longer.
If you’ve ever shopped for a car, you’re familiar with this approach. Ford (F) advertises a new Fiesta at $14,100 but by the time you add options you take for granted — like air conditioning and an automatic transmission — you’ve added a few thousand dollars to that price.
You could can cut costs with this Mini PC by installing a free operating system like Linux or Google’s (GOOG) Chrome OS, but you still have to add a bunch of “options” before it will even boot up. So consider that $399 the starting price only.
Intel NUC Review: Specs
As tested, the Intel NUC was equipped as follows:
- Dual-core Intel Core i5-425OU (Haswell) processor at 1.3 GHz (2.6GHz with Turbo Boost)
- Two SO-DIMM slots capable of supporting 16GB DDR3L RAM
- One Full length mini PCI Express slot with mSATA, one half length length mini PCI Express slot
- Wireless antenna integrated into case
- Mini Display port, Mini HDMI port
- Headphone, microphone jack
- Intel HD Audio, Intel HD Graphics 5000
- Gigabit ethernet
- Four USB 3.0 ports (two on front, two on back), two USB 2.0 ports, one SATA port
- Infrared sensor
- Built-in VESA mount
- 65W power adapter
- 4.6 x 4.4 x 1.4-inches
- MSRP $399
See Intel’s product page for detailed specs of the version supplied for the Intel NUC review.
Intel NUC Review: Conclusion
The Intel NUC is a bit of a marvel if your consider it as a mini PC. It’s tiny, packed with ports and with its VESA bracket can be easily hidden out of sight. It’s no slouch when it comes to performance either — although the components you choose will impact that. Cheap out on RAM, for example, and you could be chugging.
And that’s my biggest beef with this PC. Although Intel does market it as a kit, it’s still a bit of a shock when you realize that it will do literally nothing until you buy and install a bunch of components. Plug in a monitor and keyboard out of the box and it’s dead.
Fortunately opening up the case is easy — all you need is a phillips screwdriver.
If you’re buying the Intel NUC as a Mini PC and don’t mind spending a few hundred dollars more to make it operational, I suspect you’ll be very happy with this computer. However, if the $399 price tag is what drew you in, get ready for sticker shock because just like a car, that’s only the starting point.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.