Mini-PC projects

Josh Collins ex­plains how you can do more in a smaller foot­print with these fun and in­ter­est­ing projects for NUCs and stick PCs.

APC Australia - - » Mini-pc Projects -

Fol­low­ing on from our NUC and NUC-like mini-PC re­views story, we thought it’d be neat to look more broadly at the dif­fer­ent us­age mod­els and the user ex­pe­ri­ence of these lit­tle ma­chines, via a hand­ful of prac­ti­cal projects. In some cases, we’ve rec­om­mended spe­cific hard­ware for cer­tain ap­pli­ca­tions, as in many of these projects spe­cific fea­tures and at­tributes can ben­e­fit the user ex­pe­ri­ence.

If you haven’t yet read the re­view roundup, this shouldn’t have too much of an im­pact on com­pre­hend­ing what’s be­ing dis­cussed in this mini-PC projects fea­ture. But of course, if you know the low­down on which mod­els are hot, what’s not and, most im­por­tantly, why, then you’re go­ing to get much more out of read­ing this piece. Also worth not­ing is that these projects aren’t com­plete step-by-step guides — they’re in­tended to give you the abil­ity to con­sider (with or with­out our guid­ance) what is a suit­able mini-PC for a suit­able us­age sce­nario.

Lucky for you, these printed words aren’t go­ing any­where, so if you wish to back­track a few pages and check­out the roundup — go for it, we won’t ever know. If you’re keen to jump in the deep end and learn about dif­fer­ent us­age sce­nar­ios for these diminu­tive com­put­ers, this is the piece for you. Well, then, let’s get to it.

Start­ing with the ob­vi­ous, let’s quickly re­cap some de­tails about the form fac­tor. If you’d like a lit­tle more back­ground, check out the in­tro­duc­tion to the afore­men­tioned group re­view roundup (on page 38).

The In­tel Next Unit of Com­put­ing, aka NUC, is a moniker termed by In­tel and de­scribes a PC that con­forms to the Ul­tra Com­pact Form Fac­tor (UCFF). This at­tribute is pre­dom­i­nantly due to the fact the NUC is based on a 10cm x 10cm motherboard. That tiny size means that most func­tional com­po­nents will ac­tu­ally be clipped into or sol­dered onto the motherboard, with the gen­eral ex­cep­tion of 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch stor­age op­tions typ­i­cally se­cured within the unit’s chas­sis and teth­ered by power and data ca­bles. Be­yond that, the sys­tem’s RAM, CPU and other core com­po­nents like M.2 SSDs (both SATA and NVMe pro­to­cols), eMMC stor­age op­tions, wire­less NICs in M.2 or mSATA slots, and so on, all po­ten­tially con­nect di­rectly to the minia­ture motherboard through a range of in­ter­faces.

NUCs are about ap­plied us­age and, while we’ve men­tioned nu­mer­ous types of core com­po­nents that can po­ten­tially be in­te­grated into a NUC so­lu­tion, the fact is these mini-PCs are typ­i­cally de­signed with fo­cused in­ten­tion, rather than the broad shot, “this PC can do any­thing” type of ap­proach as­so­ci­ated with tra­di­tional, much larger form fac­tor en­thu­si­ast DIY PCs.

Be­fore we look at spe­cific sce­nar­ios, it is im­por­tant to con­sider the task at hand, the com­put­ing re­quire­ments for this task and an ap­pro­pri­ate so­lu­tion. The range of po­ten­tial hard­ware con­fig­u­ra­tions, sizes, shapes and even aes­thetic ap­peal vary widely now due to a healthy num­ber of years de­liv­er­ing pos­i­tive growth in user up­take as well as evolv­ing tech­nol­ogy al­low­ing for more niche ap­pli­ca­tions and unique im­ple­men­ta­tions.

Key at­tributes of these mini-PCs are typ­i­cally as­so­ci­ated with size, stor­age so­lu­tions, pro­cess­ing ca­pa­bil­ity and qual­i­fi­ca­tions for a given sce­nario.

To put this into per­spec­tive, let’s quick fire some con­cepts. For ex­am­ple, if you’re af­ter a mini-PC for a net­worked thin client for a pub­licly used ter­mi­nal, you won’t be se­lect­ing a unit with the fastest Core i7 pro­ces­sor paired with NVMe PCIe x4 SSD stor­age, as these re­sources would be wasted and would com­bine to present ex­ces­sive and waste­ful costs for the

im­ple­men­ta­tion. Con­versely, a mini-PC home server will re­quire in­creased at­tributes in ar­eas such as stor­age den­sity and net­work con­nec­tiv­ity, yet graph­ics pro­cess­ing power will be in­signif­i­cant in its ap­plied us­age. Es­sen­tially, it’s about en­sur­ing you’re not try­ing to plug a large square peg in a small round hole.

Many of these mini-PC op­tions can ap­pear very sim­i­lar on the sur­face and yet have unique at­tributes not read­ily ap­par­ent from a ca­sual view. For ex­am­ple, look at the NUC5PGYH and NUC5PPYH in the afore­men­tioned roundup. These units look iden­ti­cal based on ex­ter­nal phys­i­cal­ity, have ex­tremely sim­i­lar model num­bers, yet even with the same core spec of I/O, CPU and iGPU, just the in­clu­sion of an in­te­grated 32GB eMMC op­tion in the NUC5PGYH opens it to some us­age sce­nar­ios that per­haps the NUC5PPYH would ei­ther not be suit­able for or re­sult in in­cur­ring too high a cost for roll­out. There­fore un­der­stand­ing what fea­tures are packed into what units is im­por­tant, just as is prop­erly as­sess­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion of these fea­tures to a given us­age. Or, you may even choose the path of a DIY NUC — yes, that’s a thing too.

In the com­ing pages, we will ex­plore the com­put­ing fun that can be had by PC en­thu­si­ast week­end war­riors as well as cover some as­pects that could be of in­ter­est to ITC pro­fes­sion­als. The aim of this piece is to pro­vide a broad over­view and where rel­e­vant pro­vide ex­am­ples of the ver­sa­til­ity of the Next Unit of Com­put­ing.

The care­fully ar­ranged com­po­nent lay­out of a NUC’s in­ter­nals can de­liver a nerdgasm.

A VESA-mounted NUC ready to play hide and go NUC with its owner.

The sub­tlety of a NUC’s pres­ence en­sures a non-in­tru­sive user desk­top ex­pe­ri­ence.

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