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Intel’s new mini PCs have new chips, an updated design, and Thunderbolt 3

New NUCs get their first facelift in a while, along with HDMI 2.0 and more.

Andrew Cunningham
In the last four or five years, Intel's "Next Unit of Computing" (NUC) hardware has evolved from interesting experiments to pace cars for the rest of the mini desktop business. Mini PCs represent one of the few segments of the desktop computing business that actually has growth left in it, and every year the NUC has added new features that make it work for a wider audience.
This year's models, introduced alongside the rest of Intel's new "Kaby Lake" processor lineup at CES, include new processors with new integrated GPUs, but that's probably the least interesting thing about them. Thanks to the demise of Intel's "tick-tock" strategy, the processing updates are minor. Kaby Lake chips include smaller performance and architectural improvements than past generations, and the year-over-year improvements have been mild over the last few years. The big news is in all the ways you can get bytes into and out of these machines.
There are two Core i3 models (NUC7i3BNK and NUC7i3BNH), two Core i5 models (NUC7i5BNK and NUC7i5BNH), and one Core i7 model (NUC7i7BNH)—that last one is intended to replace the older dual-core Broadwell i7 NUC and not the recent quad-core "Skull Canyon" model. The Core i3 and i5 versions come in both "short" and "tall" cases, the latter of which offers space for a 2.5-inch laptop-sized SATA hard drive or SSD. The i7 version only comes in a "tall" version. Like past NUCs, all five models offer two laptop-sized DDR4 RAM slots and an M.2 slot for SATA and PCI Express SSDs (up to four lanes of PCIe 3.0 bandwidth is available). Bluetooth and 802.11ac Wi-Fi is built-in.
All of the new NUCs benefit from a revamped design that uses a darker aluminum finish and moves the power button from the top of the box to the front—the button location will be more convenient most of the time, since you'll be able to put the NUC onto smaller shelves or stack things on top of it without losing access to the on/off switch. Unfortunately, this also means that customizable lids for older NUCS are incompatible with the newer models. The power button also uses a new user-customizable, color-changing LED. You can decide which color to make it, and you can decide its behavior (by default Intel says it functions as a disk activity indicator, though you can presumably make it a regular power indicator if you don't want it blinking all the time).
As for the rest of the NUCs' features, Intel has drawn a line between the Core i3 model and the i5/i7 models. All of the boxes include four USB 3.0 ports (two on the front, two on the back), a headphone jack, an IR receiver, an HDMI 2.0 port, a gigabit Ethernet port, a microSD card slot, a dedicated power jack, and a new USB-C port that can be used for data or DisplayPort output (the dedicated DisplayPort is gone, and this port can't be used to power the NUCs). In the i5 and i7 models, the USB-C port is also a full-fledged Thunderbolt 3 port, the first time any of the smaller dual-core NUCs have included Thunderbolt since the old Ivy Bridge model back in 2012.
Also unique to the i5 and i7 models are "Iris Plus" GPUs with 64MB of embedded eDRAM, an addition that helped give the Skylake NUCs a huge graphics boost last year. The new "Iris Plus" moniker seems designed to highlight the performance improvements over older Haswell- and Broadwell-era Iris GPUs that didn't include eDRAM, but performance should be in the same ballpark as the Skylake Iris GPUs. The "Iris Pro" branding is still reserved for higher-end chips with 128MB of eDRAM.
Finally, the "tall" models of all Kaby Lake NUCs are being referred to as "Intel Optane memory ready," meaning that they'll support using Intel's new 3D XPoint (pronounced "crosspoint") storage, designed to boost the speed of a standard SSD once the technology is released. It's not clear whether this will actually be noticeable compared to a standard SSD, but once it goes mainstream Optane promises to be more robust than the NAND flash used in today's drives.
Kaby Lake's expanded support for 4K video encoding and decoding and the HDMI 2.0 port will make these NUCs more useful as 4K HTPC boxes, since they'll be able to output fully HDCP 2.2-compliant 4K video streams at up to 60Hz for the first time. And the Thunderbolt 3 ports open up all kinds of possibilities for future expansion, including external GPU docks like the Razer Core.
We don't have exact pricing for any of the new NUCs yet, but expect the price for barebones kits with no RAM, SSD, or OS to stay roughly in line with the Skylake models: around $500 for the i7 model, around $400 for the i5 model, and at or a little under $300 for the Core i3 model. The Core i3 NUC will be available later this month, while the higher-end models will launch by the end of the first quarter.
Listing image by Intel
Intel’s new mini PCs have new chips, an updated design, and Thunderbolt 3 Reviewed by Chidinma C Amadi on 6:44 PM Rating: 5

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