For several years back in the early 2000's, I had an original XBox that was modded so it could run XBMC (XBox Media Center). XBMC on the original XBox was awesome - it had a great user interface and would play every video file format known to man. But the original XBox wasn't high-def, so about 6 years ago I upgraded to a home theater PC built around an AMD Athlon 64 X2 5200 with a Radeon video card placed in an Antec NSK2480 HTPC case. Again, XBMC (on Windows) was my media player software and it has worked mostly great right up to now. I say "mostly" because XBMC has always been a little twitchy on this machine, requiring a restart every time the machine came out of sleep. But a small price to play for the amazing flexibility it offers.
My old Antec NSK2480
Well, six years is a long time for a PC and the Antec case is a little too big for the new equipment stand I recently purchased, so I decided it was time for an upgrade. I set my sights on Intel's NUC (Next Unit of Computing) machines because they have Core i3, i5, and i7 processors and are amazingly diminutive. The most recent iteration of the NUC has a few killer features that make it absolutely ideal as an HTPC:
- The integrated GPU on Haswell Core CPU's can now output reliably at 24 fps (ideal for film material)
- Because the NUC uses laptop-grade parts, it is amazingly power-efficient
- It has a built-in infrared receiver
In addition to its size, the above three features were key to my decision to go with the Intel NUC. I looked briefly at a competing NUC unit from Gigabyte which includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for the same price as the Intel (you have to buy your own PCIe Wi-Fi card for the Intel if you want it), but foregoes an integrated IR port. I didn't need Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and an outboard IR receiver is much less tidy. I'm also an Intel Ethernet bigot and the Gigabyte offering uses a Broadcom part instead, so the Intel NUC won out on several counts.
I ordered the i3 version of the NUC from Newegg.ca, along with 4 GB of RAM and a 120 GB SSD. Note that the RAM is a 1.35 volt SO-DIMM and the SSD is an mSATA drive - be careful when ordering these parts as the NUC doesn't use standard desktop memory and you can't fit a regular 2.5 inch SSD in this case (though Intel now has a slightly larger NUC that will accommodate 2.5 inch drives). I usually order my parts from NCIX, but in a rare instance Newegg was actually cheaper this time around and had all the parts in stock. The NUC shipped from Canada, but the RAM and SSD shipped from the States. In a happy twist of fate, both shipments arrived on the same day (3 days after I ordered, and using ground shipping, too - kudus to Newegg on this one). I should also mention that I had ordered a mini-HDMI to HDMI cable from Amazon.ca a few weeks prior, since the Intel NUC doesn't have a standard HDMI port.
- Intel NUC Kit D34010WYK - $315
- Crucial M500 120GB SATA mSATA Internal Solid State Drive - $95
- G.SKILL 4GB 204-Pin DDR3 SO-DIMM DDR3 1600 - $44
One thing I found amusing about Intel's packaging for the NUC was the Intel jingle that played when I opened the box, much like those greeting cards that play a tune when you unfold them. The NUC was also much smaller than what I expected - only a little over 4 inches square, not much larger than Apple's current Apple TV box. I wasn't so impressed that I had to unscrew the four large Phillips foot-screws in order to install the RAM and SSD, but that was hardly a big deal. Once everything was installed and the NUC was reassembled, I was pleasantly surprised to see a nice GUI-based UEFI BIOS screen. It is very easy to use and I had the latest NUC BIOS upgraded in no time.
I used Microsoft's Windows USB Boot Tool to put Windows 8.1 on a bootable USB flash drive and had it installed on the SSD in less than 15 minutes. Another plus for Intel was the fact that you can download the entire set of Windows drivers in one ZIP file - a nice time-saver. I'll say this for Windows 8.1 on Intel's i3-4010 and the Crucial SSD - the machine boots wicked-fast in less than 15 seconds! This is a welcome change from my old HTPC which took well over a minute to boot.
I soon had XBMC installed and was ready for some testing. First, I wanted to check the power draw of this feisty little NUC. Man, this thing barely uses any juice. While playing a 1080P video file with DTS-HD Master Audio, it barely hits 15 watts. I measured idle power draw at around 9 watts, and it sips a measly 2 watts while in sleep mode. I was absolutely floored by these numbers. I also had some concerns that the integrated graphics in the Core i3 chip wouldn't be able to handle Blu-Ray quality 1080P video and high-def audio (I seriously considered spending an extra $100 for the i5 version of the NUC), but the machine barely breaks a sweat. Well under 20% CPU time while playing such a clip - amazing.
The last thing to mention is the fan noise. This is the one quibble I have with the NUC as the fan is clearly audible even from several feet away. It isn't necessarily loud, but if you had to listen to it that close for an extended period of time I think it could get very annoying. Thankfully I sit about 12 feet away from it which makes it barely audible, and you certainly can't hear it when watching something. Even a whisper is enough to drown it out.
Not directly related to the NUC itself but still pertinent to the HTPC experience as a whole is how I control the unit from way across the living room. I have a Logitech K400 wireless keyboard with an integrated track pad that works smashingly. But I hate to haul it out just to select a movie to play so instead I've programmed my Logitech Harmony Ultimate remote to work with Windows 8 and XBMC. It works really well, especially after making a few tweaks to the remote configuration to add some important functions. I'll write about those in a separate post.
Overall, I am immensely pleased with the Intel Haswell NUC. It's blazingly fast, amazingly energy-efficient, performs magnificently, and is nice and tiny. In fact, this would make a great general-purpose PC for anyone who didn't need an optical drive or required any expansion room. And while Intel's integrated graphics have come a long way and are well-suited for video tasks like this, their performance in today's top-tier games is underwhelming so gamers should look elsewhere. For an HTPC it's a tad pricey, true, but its tiny footprint makes it incredibly flexible. It even comes with a VESA mounting plate to attach it to the back of a monitor for a truly out of sight configuration. All in all, this is a great little device and I expect it will serve my HTPC needs for years to come. Highly recommended.