A powerful PC doesn’t have to take up your entire desk. Intel’s NUCs (New Units of Computing) are tiny 4 x 4 inch PCs loaded with some of its latest CPUs. The catch? They come as kits you need to assemble—but don’t worry, it’s a breeze for even a novice.
Don’t let the prospect of building your own NUC scare you off. It’s easy. Compared to assembling the entire computer including securing the motherboard to the case, hooking up the PSU correctly, and so on, setting up a NUC is more akin to snapping some LEGO bricks together.
Good Things Come in Small Packages
The “Bean Canyon” NUC8i7BEH i7 NUC that Intel provided us with lacks only three things to be a hard-working tiny desktop—RAM, a storage drive, and the Windows operating system. Everything else is contained in (and already attached to) the case right out of the gate.
As far as memory and storage go, they’re easy to find and easy to install. We used two Kingston 16GB SO-DIMM RAM modules as well as a 960GB SSD hard drive. And just because we had it in our review pile, we also added a Western Digital Blue SN500 M.2 SATA drive, as the NUC we used can support both a 2.5-inch drive and a PCI M.2 SATA drive.
Other models in the NUC lineup are slimmer in height and support only an M.2 form factor SSD and not the 2.5-inch model we included in our build. Having both gives the PC a second speedy drive which can be used to store files or applications that are used frequently. Finally, we had a copy of Windows 10 Home Editon. You could install the Professional Edition, but that will cost you an additional $40-$50.
Not a Bargain Basement PC
Just because the NUC is tiny, doesn’t mean it’s less expensive than an equivalently configured desktop that you purchase already assembled, though it may very well be. As configured, our build topped out at $870, just a bit more than buying an equivalent regular-sized desktop from HP, Dell, or Lenovo. Here’s the way it breaks down:
- i7 NUC (NUC8i7BEH): $470
- 32GB Kingston RAM: $150
- 960GB Kingston SSD: $100
- 250GB Western Digital Blue SN500: $50
- Windows 10 Home Edition: $100
- Total Build Cost: $870
That’s not cheap, but that’s the cost fully loaded. If you halve the RAM, use a smaller SSD, and knock out the second SSD M.2 drive, you can bring the build home for considerably less. And you still wind up with a tiny PC with plenty of muscle. If you can live with an i5 CPU—or even an i3—you can bring the cost down even more. And a bare-bones Celeron-based NUC can run as little as $125. Add 8GB RAM and 480GB hard drive, and you can have a NUC capable of web browsing and even running Microsoft Office for about $350 or less.
The bare-bones NUC kit contains the PC, a 19-volt power supply, and an adapter plate. This plate is a VESA adapter and allows you to mount the completed NUC on the rear of most current monitors and even some TV sets, further freeing up desk space. The VESA plate is screwed onto the back of a compatible monitor, and two screws are added to the bottom of the NUC. You can then hang the NUC on the adapter plate by lining up the new screws on the bottom of the PC with the holes on the adapter.
Finally, hang the NUC placing the two long screws into the respective slots on the VESA adapter plate that you mounted on the back of the monitor.
What You’ll Need
While our cost breakdown above covers what you’ll need for the build, let’s take a closer look at what that entails (and what extras you may want).
The particular NUC that Intel provided us with is on the lower end of the i7 CPU line. You can get NUCs with your choice of CPUs ranging from Celerons, Pentiums, i3, and i5 processors as well as several more powerful i7 models. If all you need the PC for is everyday office tasks such as web browsing and office apps, you could probably get away with a Celeron model, which will run you about $130 rather than the $470 ours cost. Of course, you get what you pay for.
The particular CPU in the model we assembled runs at 2.6GHz, but other models offer CPUs with processor speeds up to 3.5GHz if you feel you want higher performance. The NUC8i7BEH we built also has Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655, as do all the models in this series. This will give modest game-playing capability, but it’s not going to provide the same high-end graphics capability as PCs explicitly targeted for gaming.
But before you start, there are a few things you have to do to prepare for the software side of the build. Obviously, you’ll need a copy of Windows 10. You can go for the Home Edition, which should be fine for most users, or the Professional Edition for about $50 more.
Two items are ancillary to the build. One is a USB DVD drive so you can install Windows from a disc (if you’d prefer to skip this and install via USB, check out this tutorial here). It’ll cost about $25, but it’s a handy thing to have in any case, as the NUC, and many of today’s PCs and laptops, do not have optical drives.
The other thing you may need is a USB flash drive with Intel’s NUC driver set. You’ll have to download it from Intel’s support site using a different PC or laptop, but it’s necessary because Intel doesn’t include drivers for the Ethernet, video, or sound along with the NUC, and Windows doesn’t install them either—if you’re using the exact NUC we are, you can grab the whole bundle here. Without the drivers for Wi-Fi and Ethernet, it’s going to be impossible to complete the software installation.
You might also consider buying a USB hub. The NUC comes with five USB ports. Three of these are standard USB 3.0 ports. There’s also a USB 3.1 port, and a USB 3-Type C port, which also serves as a Thunderbolt 3 and DisplayPort to which you can hook up a second monitor. The NUC can actually support up to three displays if you purchase an optional USB-C/ThunderBolt3 to two HDMI ports adapter. An inexpensive USB hub gives you a lot more flexibility on what you can hook up the NUC to.
Putting it Together
Gathering all of the components is the most time-consuming part of the process, but assembling your mighty little PC shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.
This assembly requires that you insert the RAM, SSD, and if purchased, the M.2 format drive into the bare-bones PC that’s supplied in the box. But before you can do so, you first have to open the case. If you flip the case over, you’ll see four screws embedded in the rubber feet. These require a small Phillips-head screwdriver. Unscrew these, and you’re ready to remove the cover. Use caution while removing the cover. Depending on the specific NUC kit you buy, this cover may contain the socket for a 2.5-inch SSD. Some NUC kits support only the RAM-like M.2 drives, and these cases are lower in height than the kit we received from Intel.
Once you’ve loosened the four screws, carefully lift the cover. Don’t pull out the cable connecting the two halves of the case. If you do (and I have on occasion), you can look at the motherboard to see where it gets plugged back in.
Now you’re ready to install the RAM and SSD(s). A word of warning here. These components are sensitive to static electricity. A grounding wrist strap is a good idea. The wrist strap has a band that goes around your wrist, a 6-foot cord, and an alligator clip on the end to attach to something in your house that’s grounded, like the screw that attaches an outlet plate. In a pinch, you can work on the kitchen counter, and attach the alligator clip to one of the water shut-off valves under the sink. It’s not as sexy as a workbench, but you’ll only be attached to the sink pipes for a few minutes, and it’s worth it not to ruin static-sensitive components.
The 2.5-inch SSD goes in the cage on the bottom of the case. Insert it with the top side of the SSD visible through the cage cutouts, and push it in all the way. You won’t hurt anything if you put it in the wrong way–it just won’t seat, and the PC won’t recognize the drive.
Once the 2.5-inch SSD is installed, it’s time to insert the M.2 drive if you’ve purchased one. The socket for this drive is a bit hard to find, so you may have to twist the case around. There’s a screw that has to be removed to insert the drive. You’ll reinstall this screw after you’ve inserted the module into its socket.
Finally, the last bit of business is to install the two SO-DIMM RAM modules. SO-DIMMs are the type of memory used in laptops and are shorter than standard RAM modules used in desktop PCs. These have a slot in the base, so they can only be seated in the socket the right way. Insert the first RAM module into the socket, then push the top of the module down, so it clicks into place with the side prongs. Then install the second SO-DIMM the same way. If you decide to install only a single SO-DIMM, it goes into the socket closest to the motherboard.
You’re finished with the hardware side. You’ve just built your own PC!
The last thing that needs to be done is to install Windows and the Intel driver pack. We have you covered over at How-to Geek for that.
Putting the Pedal to the Metal
Once we had a working PC, we wanted to see how our i7 NUC stacked up against desktop configurations from various vendors. The easiest way to do this was to run a standard benchmark suite. There are a number of these including SysMark 2018, PCMark 10 and the one we used, GeekBench 4. The non-professional versions of these are generally free for personal use, though the Professional version, which we use, gives somewhat more granular information.
GeekBench 4 runs two series of tests, Compute and CPU, and gives results for these as well as many of the sub-tests. You can then go to the vendor’s web site and compare your results with those from other users who have uploaded their test results. The GeekBench site has many results from systems running all kinds of CPUs and operating systems including Linux and Macs.
The results of the benchmarks are:
- CPU Benchmark Single Core: 5511
- CPU Benchmark Multiple Core: 18418
- Compute Benchmark: 64600
Of course, these are just numbers until you compare them with the results posted on GeekBench’s site. As it turns out, our results are pretty good for the i7-based systems listed on the site, much less for a PC in a tiny 4 x 4 x 2-inch package.
Still, benchmark numbers are just that—numbers. They are useful for comparing systems of similar configuration but provide little indication of how a system will handle real-world tasks (though many synthetic benchmarks do try and emulate standard functions like web browsing, office operations, and gaming.) And the GeekBench results on their site doesn’t give you a lot of configuration information on what’s behind the listed results.
To get a better real-world estimation of how our NUC operates, we installed Microsoft Office 2016, both Chrome and Firefox browsers, and Photoshop Elements 2019. With numerous tabs open in both browsers, we created and edited a complex PowerPoint presentation, and leaving both the browser and PowerPoint open, edited several photos using Photoshop. Our NUC experienced no noticeable slowdown in any of the open applications, mainly as a result of a powerful CPU coupled with lots of RAM.
The NUC isn’t intended for gaming and, full disclosure, I’m not much of an avid gamer these days—but I do like a lot of the classic FPS games like Doom and Unreal, and they ran great on our build. Newer games with high GPU demands may experience noticeable slowdowns, though many popular modern, but less demanding, titles should do fine. The NUC line is more about productivity and media playback and less about gaming. But the i7 NUC handled office productivity tasks with ease and had no trouble streaming video content or playing it back from an attached drive.
Build or Buy?
Many popular PC vendors, including Dell, Lenovo, and HP, offer small-format PCs. In most cases, these tend to be more expensive for the same degree of processor and performance as a more traditional mid-tower desktop.
Just as an example, Lenovo’s 7 x 7.2 inch ThinkCentre M920 Tiny, configured similarly to the NUC build, prices out at about $1,700. The processor in the M920 Tiny is also an 8th Generation i7 but is a bit more powerful than the one in the NUC. The HP EliteDesk 800 35W G4 Desktop Mini PC measures just under 7 inches square, has 16GB of RAM, and costs $1,144. Both of these are excellent PCs, and if you don’t want to roll-your-own, are worth taking a look at. And both come with factory warranties and service if something goes wrong.
Building a PC can be a daunting prospect. You can get a good basic idea from here. There are numerous components, the need to carefully mount the CPU and apply the thermal paste and a cooling solution. Then there are sometimes difficult to mount and connect disk drives, with one or more SATA and power cables. Building a NUC is much easier. Just select the model that has the CPU you want, and throw in a few easily-mounted drives and RAM modules.
While a typical desktop can take hours to build before you’re ready to install Windows, the typical NUC can be built inside of 15 minutes and by a complete novice. The CPU and cooling solution are mounted, and the power supply is a standard laptop or wall wart model (depending on the NUC you purchase). NUCs are constrained in two areas compared to many desktops. One is memory capacity. Our NUC has a maximum capacity of 32GB with 16GB SO-DIMMs in the two available RAM sockets. The other constraint is graphics. All NUCs other than the very top-of-the-line (which is designed as a gaming machine and costs over $1,000 before adding components or OS) use the same embedded Intel graphics. You’re not going to get eye-popping frame rates with a NUC.
But our little DIY i7 NUC has similar horsepower to many small form-factor desktops, lots of RAM and disk storage, and is priced at or below similar desktop models. It’s not a challenging build, and you wind up with a desktop that fits in anywhere, and can even hide on the back panel of your monitor.
We think it’s worth the money and effort. And you get the satisfaction of telling everyone that you built it yourself.
Here’s What We Like
- Tiny form-factor
- Powerful PC for its size
- Low power consumption
- VESA mount lets you mount NUC on rear of monitor
- Can support up to three monitors
And What We Don't
- Somewhat pricey
- Needs to be assembled
- Could use more USB ports