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