Friday, January 3, 2014

Intel NUC - What the NUC is that?

Intel's NUC (Next Unit of Computing, eh?) is a line of motherboards or barebone PC kits that are extremely tiny. The size of the board and the enclosure is approximately 10 cm by 10 cm or 4x4 inches - not a lot larger than your cell phone! Despite their size they offer very reasonable performance for several tasks. Intel describes many uses for the ultra compact PC from digital signage to thin clients, but it's the capabilities as a HTPC that got me interested.

Intel NUC DC3217IYE next to a USB stick. The thing is tiny!

The different NUCs have several good qualities that are essential for a HTPC:
  • It has enough processing power to run your media center (yes, even the slowest Celeron-based models pack enough punch)
  • It has an integrated graphics adapter that will decode those videos
  • It is small and stylish (so your wife will accept it in the living room)
  • It's got HDMI connectors to hook it up with your TV
  • The later models do include an IR receiver integrated in the box
  • It's quiet (even if it has a fan, fanless cases are available though)
So I was convinced pretty easily that this was the thing I needed in my living room and ordered one.

My setup will be following:
  • The Core i3 model with Haswell CPU, D34010WYK
  • 4 Gb of RAM (2 x 2Gb SODIMM)
  • 24 gigabyte cheap Sandisk SDSA5DK SSD drive found from eBay
  • OpenELEC operating system
Why did I choose those components?

I believe the Haswell Core i3 represents best value at this point. The processor is fast enough for any HTPC needs that I might have, even for running the more fancy skins in XBMC. The display adapter in the Haswell NUCs is also supposed to handle 23.976 near perfectly. I also like the fact that the IR receiver is already integrated so I don't need to use an USB port for that. Unlike the previous models, the Haswell NUCs are also supposed to wake up from S5 idle state using the remote control.

The OpenELEC requires only about 1 gigabyte of memory, but it's difficult to find smaller than 2 gigabyte memory modules that are low-voltage DDR3L modules. The Haswell NUCs only accept 1.35V SODIMM modules, so pay attention when you're shopping! I bought two SODIMMs (Hynix HMT325S6CFR8A-PB) since that enables dual channel mode, which is supposed to be slightly faster (not sure if that's noticeable at all in HTPC use though).

Finally the operating system takes only a small amount of space (less than 1 gig should be enough), but will store some cache files on the storage media, so I bought myself a modest 24 gigabyte mSATA SSD drive. All my media is stored on a Synology NAS drive that I got myself a couple of years ago. That's connected to the NUC using gigabit Ethernet network to keep the content flowing nicely. Note that my setup does not include a WiFi interface, since I plan to connect only with a wired Ethernet connection. I find the wired internet more responsive and more reliable than the wireless, and I don't want to see my movie stuttering because someone else started a major download on a laptop in another room...

I will be running the OpenELEC operating system, which is tailor made to run the XBMC media center. OpenELEC makes the HTPC as close to an appliance as it can get. Updates are automatic and you really do not need to know anything about the internals of the system, so the rest of the family is able to use it as well. Of course there is Linux running under the hood, so you have the possibility go down on the command line should you wish and I definitely will be spending some serious time there.

That's it, next time I'll write you how to install the components in the chassis.

2 comments:

  1. Hi, Nice to see your posting. I am planning to make similar build to run HTPC with Openelec. Awaiting for the H model which can accomodate 2.5" drive. Which remote you are using with this? Are you using inbuilt IR receiver?

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  2. I've got a HP MCE remote that works well with the inbuilt IR receiver (I can even power on/off the device using the remote). In addition to that, I've teached my learning Sony RM VLZ620 remote.

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