Saturday, January 4, 2014

Building up a NUC on a budget

While I bought myself the Intel Core i3 NUC for about €350 ($400) with all the accessories, maybe you have much less resource demanding needs for your PC or just want to try out a NUC system without investing too much. I wanted to see how much you'd actually need to invest in order to build a minimum cost machine out of a NUC.

Obviously the choice of the NUC is the first thing you need to make. The Celeron based models are obviously the cheapest ones, but currently you can find an Ivy Bridge i3 model with a very low cost as well since they're being replaced by the Haswell models. It might pay to look around a bit before deciding. Keep in mind that the processor and the graphics adapter in the i3 model are clearly more powerful. Have a look at the Intel NUC Line-up page I've made to make it easier to see the differences of each model.

Basically the minimum things needed for a NUC is memory modules and a storage media (maybe you could boot over network without a storage media even but I haven't tried out). Depending on your needs you might need to add network adapters, IR receivers, TV tuners or other peripherals.

The NUC



The i3-based DC3217BYThe Celeron-based DCCP847DYE

I chose to include two options here, the previous generation Core i3 model DC3217BY and the current Celeron model DCCP847DYE since they're so close to each other in price. Both fit in the $150-175 / 135-150€ price range (see DC3217BY and DCCP847DYE on Amazon). Their capabilities are quite different though.

First of all, it's important to notice that the i3 model does not have a wired Ethernet port. If you need fixed connectivity you need either an USB Ethernet adapter or a Thunderbolt-to-Ethernet adapter. Another important point of course is the CPU - the i3 is definitely faster than the Celeron. The integrated graphics adapter in the i3 model is also faster.

Do note that the upcoming DN2820FYKH model might change things a bit. I'll keep you posted when the model is available (according to Intel January 2014).

Memory


So we need some memory for our device. With prices falling and both NUCs taking the common DDR3 SODIMM modules, I'd say buy as much as you can, but in order to keep the price as low as possible let's go with a single 2-gigabyte SODIMM module. The DC3217BY takes the faster PC3-12800 (1600) memory, whereas the Celeron is fine with PC3-10600 (1333) memory. There's almost no price difference, so just get yourself one. A quick look at eBay reveals that you can get one for approximately $15 / 10€.

Keep in mind that installing 2 identical memory modules in the system will enable the dual channel mode which will make the memory work a bit faster, so it might be worth buying two modules.

The Storage Media


While an mSATA SSD drive would definitely be the preferred option we need to look to lower cost options if ultimate low-budget NUC is the goal. It is entirely possible to use a USB flash memory as the main storage of a computer these days. Since neither of the NUCs have a USB 3.0 port, a simple USB 2.0 stick will do. A good quality stick such as one from Kingston or Sandisk is recommended as the lifetime of a low quality USB stick may be rather short.

Using an SSD drive instead of a USB stick can bring enormous speed increase though. Especially booting up the operating system from an SSD is such a joy that I haven't looked back at hard disks since I got my first SSD. Thus I'd recommend giving it a serious thought. If you decide on an SSD, do make sure it supports TRIM. A-Data SP310 or Transcend MSA740 drives in 32 gig size are available around $40 / 40€, both support TRIM and are fast enough. There are several other good options as well.

Additional Peripherals


Now depending on what you want to do with your NUC, you might need some additional devices attached to your system.

Wireless Connectivity


If you do need wireless connectivity, you have two options. Either you populate the internal half-size PCIe mini slot with a wireless card or you buy an external USB adapter. Even if the USB adapters have come a long way, I'd still recommend a proper PCIe mini card. All Intel NUCs have the antennas built in, so it's easy to add an adapter. Just remember to get an adapter that's half-sized.

If you don't need BlueTooth get an Atheros AR5B95 or Intel WifiLink 5100 adapter. Those can be bought cheap as chips these days in eBay. Linux support exists for both.

If you want BlueTooth connectivity as well, Intel 6235AN can be had for about $20 / 15€ and includes BlueTooth 4.0 support.

Wired Ethernet Connectivity


In case you chose DC3217BY and need wired Ethernet port, you'll need to install an USB adapter or a Thunderbolt to Ethernet adapter. The former is a bit cheaper and the latter is a bit faster.

Remote Control


If you intend to use your NUC as a HTPC you'll definitely need a remote control. Now modern smartphones or tablets can be used as a remote via your local network, but if you're looking for something more conventional then an USB IR receiver and a Microsoft MCE compatible remote controller is the way to go.

HP IR Receiver model OVU400103/00 seems to work well, does support discrete power on and power off commands (not all of the receivers do) and can be had cheaply online. There are tens of other options for an MCE compatible remote and I'm sure most of them are fine as well.

Summary


I've collected here a few example systems to show the total price of full built economy NUC. Note that these do not include operating system, so I'm assuming you are going to use Linux or have an existing Windows license you can use with your NUC. All the configurations below are fully functional but very bare bones - even the performance builds are equipped with a pretty modest SSD drive, so if you need more from your NUC change the components as necessary. While the links below take you to Amazon for convenience, keep in mind that by searching eBay you'll find some of the components with even lower prices. For example there are a host of WiFi cards with rock bottom prices and you can also find good deals on used memory chips.


The NUCDC3217BY (Core i3)DCCP847DYE (Celeron)
Memory (low-cost option)2Gb DDR3-1600 SODIMM2Gb DDR3-1333 SODIMM
Memory (performance option)2x2Gb DDR3-1600 SODIMM2x2Gb DDR3-1333 SODIMM
Storage media (low-cost option)16Gb USB Flash memory
Storage media (performance option)32Gb mSATA SSD drive
WiFi card (optional)Atheros AR5B95 or Intel WifiLink 5100 (eBay for less than $10 delivered)
WiFi card with BlueTooth (optional)Intel 6235AN PCIe mini card
Wired EthernetUSB Ethernet ControllerNot needed
Remote ControlMicrosoft MCE compatible remote and IR receiver
Total (absolute low-cost) Approx $230/£165/€210 (with WiFi, no wired Ethernet)
Check the current price at:
Approx $190/£145/€170 (with wired Ethernet)
Check the current price at:
Total (SSD drive/Dual-channel memory/WiFi/BlueTooth) Approx $295/£225/€260
Check the current price at:
Approx $270/£210/€245
Check the current price at:

6 comments:

  1. The DN2820FYKH is due out today at my local supplier (in Australia), and is nearly half the price of the core i3 model (D34010WYK). Do you expect any problem with the new Celeron driving HD using Openelec?

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  2. Since the previous Celeron model was able to handle 1080p I fully expect this one to handle it too. No reviews of the thing still, so hard to say 100% sure. If you end up buying one, let us know!

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  3. OK, putting in more order now. Will let you know.

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  4. So my DN2820FYKH arrived. I slid a 9.5mm SSD into the internal carrier, 4GB of RAM and that was it to finish the hardware _kit_. Only 1 medium phillips screwdriver required.
    I found mythbuntu (12.04 based) didn't cope with the Intel Graphics. After some research I saw Intel have deprecated support for 12.04, and have current packages for ubuntu 13.10.
    So, I copied Ubuntu 13.10 onto a USB key (using dd), booted from it (BIOS in default EFI mode), and was able to install no problem. SSD, video, ethernet all working fine.
    WiFi was not supported out of the box. Installed latest firmware package (apt-get install linux-firmware) - wifi now works a charm.
    Next I've goto to config mythtv and my hdhomerun tuner. But so far everything is working well and snappy.

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    Replies
    1. Brilliant, let me know how it copes with HD video. That's the question everyone's asking. Noticed that the thread on XBMC forums is growing quickly: http://forum.xbmc.org/showthread.php?tid=181804

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