Intel NUC: An alternative to the Raspberry Pi?

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More than Enough

Nanocomputers don't just come with ARM processors; they also come with classic x86 CPUs, and the best known of these are the boards from the Intel NUC series. We look at how these computers compare with the Raspberry Pi.

The smallest computer made by Intel answers to the name of Next Unit of Computing, or NUC for short. Intel markets this nanocomputer as the future of desktop computing. In the meantime, tablets have taken over the tasks of desktops in most households but the NUC has kept its name. The outward appearance of the NUC has also not changed much since it first appeared in 2013; however, the internals have changed significantly.

The volume taken up by a NUC is about twice that of a Raspberry Pi together with its housing. Figure 1 shows the larger version of the NUC; a smaller version is about half as high. In any event, the NUC qualifies as a small computer, but closer examination shows several differences that make many comparisons obsolete. In particular, there is no GPIO board on the NUC for connecting expansion modules and sensors, which means the NUC is not able to tackle areas of application requiring this kind of interface.

Figure 1: The size of a barebone NUC system with memory modules and an M.2 SSD compared with that of the Raspberry Pi.

NUC, however, compensates for this shortcoming with other capabilities. Therefore, potential buyers should carefully consider which functionalities they require. Moreover, because the name NUC refers to an entire class of devices, buyers are confronted with many choices.

Purchasing Advice

The Intel website presents an overview of available versions of NUC [1]. Some of these versions can no longer be purchased because they were not well received in the marketplace. Only three of these NUCs are of particular interest.

With a price tag of around $140, the DN2820FYKH [2] is the oldest and the least well equipped of the entry-level NUCs. This computer beats out every Raspberry Pi in terms of performance with its dual-core Atom processor. It is predestined for use as an economical, yet powerful media player because it comes with integrated WiFi and Bluetooth, as well as standard interfaces like HDMI.

At the opposite end of the NUC scale is the current generation with Broadwell chips and USB 3.0 connections. The NUC5i3RYH [3] shown in Figure 1 has been given a meaningful name. NUC5 stands for the fifth generation and i3 for the CPU class, and RYH indicates a tall housing. This dual-core computer with an i3 501OU, 2.1GHz, and hyperthreading costs about $280. The half-sized, more compact version NUC5i3RyK [4] has the same equipment and about the same price tag, but it does not offer any place for an additional 2.5-inch SATA hard drive. The more powerful pair – the NUC5i5RYH [5] and the NUC5i7RYH [6] – have the i5 and i7 CPU, respectively, and are even more expensive.

Several versions exist between the two pricing extremes that may be of interest to users who need a device for some special situation. The D34010WYKH [7] from the previous generation costs about the same as the NUC5i3RYH, even though it doesn't offer WiFi or Bluetooth or an infrared interface. It does have a connection for a classic mSATA SSD. This feature may attract buyers who already happen to have one of the drives. Generally, though, this version of the NUC is less appealing when compared with the current generation.

Ultimately, the buyer must decide if the increased flexibility of an NUC5i3RHY is worth the cost. The Core i5 NUC offers more than a three-fold increase in CPU performance and plays high-resolution 4K videos at 60Hz via an integrated Mini DisplayPort. Power consumption doesn't play a role in deciding between the two models; it is practically the same when the computers are in idle mode.

Equipment

Intel offers all of its NUCs either as kits with housing and power supply included or in pure form with just the main board. Memory and hard drives are never included and must be purchased and installed separately. Figure 1 shows the required memory modules.

All the NUCs need a DDR3L-1333/1600-SODIMMs with a 1.35V power supply. Be careful when looking for suitable memory. Manufacturers often provide inaccurate information or none at all. Intel has a compatibility list that can be helpful during the selection process [8]. Other manufacturers may also provide such a list.

The Broadwell chips found in the current NUCs profit from dual-channel operation. Therefore, you should install either two 2GB memory modules or two 4GB SODIMMs. Two of the 4GB chips CT51264BF160B from Crucial usually have enough memory for most tasks.

If you have a NUC that has a 2.5-inch slot, then a suitable hard drive includes any storage medium with this form factor and a SATA connection. Because the NUC does not separate the drive from the housing, mechanical drives cause vibrations and therefore also unnecessary noise. SSDs, which are silent and energy efficient, are easier on the surrounding environment.

One feature of current NUCs is the support they provide for M.2 SSDs without a housing (Figure 1 at the front in the foreground) [9]. The support comes in two varieties. The first consists of a normal SATA III interface and the second of a PCIe interface. No difference exists in the mechanics between the two. The latter works measurably faster but also costs significantly more and does not offer any added benefits when the NUC is used for typical tasks. The M.2 SATA version is also more expensive than the standard SATA SSD, but the price differential is not as great. The Crucial SSD MX200 M.2 or M.2 2280) [10] with 250GB capacity shown in Figure 1 costs about $100.

Because the NUC with a Mini DisplayPort and Mini HDMI comes with nonstandard ports, you will need either suitable cables or an adapter like that shown in Figure 1. This adapter converts the Mini DisplayPort to VGY, DVI, and HDMI, which in turn lets the NUC connect to most display screens and video projectors. Table 1 provides a list of items to purchase and their cost.

Table 1

Shopping List

Component

Price

NUC5i3RYH

$280

Crucial SSD MX200 M.2 (250GB)

$115

2xCT51264BF160B (each 4GB)

$50

Display screen adapter

$15

Total Costs

 $460

One Intel NUC NUC5i3RYH with an i5 CPU and 8GB RAM costs around $460 without an operating system. By way of comparison, a Raspberry Pi 2 and a cover, a simple WiFi dongle, a 16GB memory card, and a power supply cost about $80 altogether.

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