Since the Intel NUC (that’s Next Unit of Computing, if you’re curious) first came on the scene a few years ago, folks have been asking for a complete system. Sure, buying a NUC “kit” and adding memory and storage (and an operating system) was fun for a lot of people, but there was a whole market of folks looking for a NUC they could just bring home and plug-in. Well, they’ve finally done it; a complete “off-the-shelf” model that comes pre-installed with Windows 10!
Full disclosure: I’m a NUC enthusiast. I used to work for Intel, and I was lucky enough to be around when the NUCs first came out. As a self-confessed technology nut I was thrilled when Intel came out with them, and I’ve been reviewing NUCs for years. But I’m not a fanboy; I’ve given the folks on the NUC team plenty of honest, sometimes harsh, feedback. I found the first generation of them to be a valiant but flawed effort. I loved the form factor, the performance and the “coolness” of them. But there were things I didn’t love (the lack of USB 3 comes to mind). I wasn’t alone in my gripes, and the folks on the NUC team took the criticisms to heart. With every generation they’ve added improvements, some subtle, some more obvious, and the end product has gotten better and better.
Like a lot of folks I wanted to see a complete system, but I had different reasons. As an employee, and thinking strictly in terms of success, I couldn’t understand why Intel didn’t offer an off-the-shelf setup with memory, storage, and an operating system. I was eager to see them on store shelves, and eager to see what Intel could do in the mini PC space. We could sell millions of them, I said. This could be HUGE, I said. But the answer was always the same; nope, can’t do it. We’re in the chip business, not the PC business. I understood some of the reasoning, but still felt Intel was missing a huge growth opportunity. But it seemed a complete, ready-to-go NUC wasn’t in the cards.
Which is why I was so pleasantly surprised to hear about the NUC5PGYH (pronounced “Nook Five Piggy High”…probably).
It’s the first ready-to-go NUC system. It’s designed to be completely plug & play. Take it home, plug it in, and you’re off and running. No need to go shopping for memory, storage, or an OS. Is it worth the ~$300 asking price? Does it live up to expectations? Let’s take a look.
It’s got NUC style
If you’re even slightly interested in mini PCs, or technology, or even just cool stuff, you should check out the NUCs. They are tiny, powerful, and pretty darned sexy. They have a 4″ X 4” footprint and are trimmed out with a nice aluminum finish on the body, and a glossy black lid. Everything about them screams “cool toy.”
The PGYH is no exception. It looks like the rest of the current generation. They all come with a VESA mounting bracket to mount them to the back of a monitor, and that’s a great feature. But as a friend of mine asked me once, “Why would you hide something so cool?”
What’s under the hood?
First things first, the specs. Now, you can review the complete specs to your heart’s content, but here are the basics:
- CPU: Intel N3700 (Braswell, 2.4 GHZ Quad Core)
- Memory: Comes with 2 GB, max is 8GB (DDR3L)
- Graphics: Intel HD Graphics
- Audio: 7.1 surround
- Storage: 32GB eMMC (optional support for 2.5” HDD/SSD)
- OS: Windows 10 Home (64-bit)
- Ports: 4 USB 3.0 (2 front, 2 back), HDMI, VGA, audio out, headphone/mic, 1GB LAN, SDXC slot
- Networking: On-board Wireless-AC 3165, 1GB LAN, Intel Wireless Display support)
Features and Stuff
This little “piggy” looks like the others, but he has a few things that set him apart. For starters, a VGA port on the back. You read that right; along with the now-expected HDMI port, this guy features an old school 15-pin VGA port. Why? Well, think about it; this model is aimed squarely at consumers looking for a small, inexpensive PC alternative. Not all monitors, especially older ones, are going to have an HDMI port. But most monitors DO support VGA. This is another way to hedge your bets. You can buy the piggy NUC (sorry, can’t help it) and connect it to your old school 17-inch CRT (you’d be surprised how many are still out there) now, and when you get that big bonus at work, upgrade to a snazzy 27-inch, double-wide, 4K beauty later.
I know what you’re thinking; did he say 4K? Yes. Yes I did. This little guy supports 4K. Crazy, huh? Oh, and for the record I am thrilled that they went with a full-sized HDMI port. Many NUC models use mini DisplayPort and mini-HDMI ports, which are both fine, but it’s pretty annoying when there’s just one more adapter you have to go get.
Now, this model comes with most of the bells & whistles that have become standard on NUCs: You’ve got the built-in IR, the fast-charging USB port, the on-board wi-fi AND gigabit ethernet, the 7.1 surround sound audio. You’ve also got some other stuff that you wouldn’t expect. For instance, there’s a headphone/mic port on the front, but there’s also a headphone/TOSLINK (optical) port on the back. So if you’re into that whole optical audio thing then you’re all set. It also glows red when the unit is on, which geeks me out just a little.
And then there’s the SD memory slot on the side. Why? Well…Why not? If you’re sticking with the built-in eMMC for your operating system, but want a little extra storage, pop in an SD card. Pretty snazzy. I imagine it would be especially handy for the DSLR crowd. I’m not in that crowd, so I can’t say for sure, but it seems pretty cool.
I could go on, but I’ve probably bored you to tears already. What you’re really here for is to hear about how it performs. So let’s talk about that. This unit retails for about $300. To get the cost of a complete system down that low, there had to be some trade-offs. For starters, the CPU isn’t an “i” anything. It’s a Pentium. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the expectations need to be realistic. Next is the memory; 2 gigabytes ain’t much in the world of Windows. Sure, it’ll cover web browsing and other basic stuff, but that’s about it. And then there’s the eMMC. My opinion of this type of storage is mixed. It’s slower than your average SSD…quite a bit slower. If you’re interested in a great comparison of eMMC vs. SSD vs. HDD, take a look at laptoping.com’s excellent article. But it’s cheap, and helps keep the cost down. I’ve worked with eMMC storage on other NUCs and running Linux on it seems to be fine. Windows, not so much. Plus, 32 gigs isn’t exactly an ocean of storage (more on that later). But, there you are again with those pesky expectations.
So we’re starting with a slower CPU, less memory, and slower (and smaller) storage. We’re in for a rough ride, right? Well, not so much. I have to say, this NUC is surprisingly zippy (zippy piggy?). I didn’t notice any lag getting Windows started, and once it was up it was pretty, well…decent. I ran it on a 1080p HDMI monitor, and the experience was solid. As much as I was looking for it to be jerky and making me wait, it wasn’t. I was cruising along fine. Poking around the OS (Windows 10 Home, 64-bit) was a better experience than I was expecting. I’d have to say if you spend most of your time browsing the web and checking your email, you’ll have nothing to complain about. Just don’t do too much at once…again, 2 gigs of ram isn’t a lot. Let’s face it, you’re using about half of that just booting into Windows. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this:
That’s a clean boot, no additional applications installed, nothing else running. So doing too much could clearly gum up the works pretty quickly.
The folks on the NUC team have thought this part through, though. They give you just enough power to get you started, and have options for beefing things up when you need to. You start with 2 gigs of RAM, but you can go as high as 8 gigs when you want to. You get a measly 32 gigs of less-than-fast storage, but you can add more with an SD card, or even better add faster AND more by switching to a 2.5” SSD. There isn’t anything you can do to upgrade the CPU, but I have a feeling with plenty of memory and some good storage, you wouldn’t really need to.
To Windows or not to Windows
Of course if performance is your main concern, you could always just skip Windows and go with any flavor of Linux. I’m not a Windows hater, but I’m also not a huge fan. There are many things Windows does well, but there are also places where it falls short. Linux is smaller, lighter, and faster. It’s not quite as easier and user-friendly as Windows, but it’s getting closer every day. If you have the chance, give Linux Mint a try. It’s my favorite flavor, and if you’re looking for something very close to Windows it’s a great alternative.
One of the big advantages to Linux over Windows is its small footprint. You’re going to get more out of that tiny 32 gigs of space if your operating system isn’t hogging most of it. I ran into that fact head first when I tried to install the Windows 10 update. The first thing it told me was I needed to free up some space to even install it. Pretty hard to do when the system is brand new and there’s nothing to free up. Fortunately the upgrade lets you point to a USB drive for extra space, but with Linux you’d have plenty to start with.
Plus, if you’re mainly looking for a home theater PC, my personal opinion is that Windows is kind of pointless.
So what is it good for?
Now the question becomes what is this model of NUC best suited for? The short answer is anything that needs a decently powered, nicely expandable, yet relatively cheap system.
- Windows on the cheap: If you’re looking for a small, complete Windows PC solution on a budget, this is a no-brainer solution. It’s cost-effective now, with plenty of ways to expand it later.
- Home Theater: The home theater enthusiast will love it because it’s got all the features you need for a solid HTPC. Install Kodi in Windows and you’re there. It’s that simple. Surround sound audio and up to 4K resolution? You’re ready to go. Better yet, ditch Windows and go with something small, fast, and made for home theater, like Openelec.
- Schools: I remember when I got to play around with the first model of NUC. One of the things that immediately popped into my head was “this would be awesome for schools!” Schools need PCs that are easy to replace and move around. But, with the extra work needed to get a NUC up and running it wasn’t practical. Well now schools have a complete system they can just plop down and turn on!
Sure, you’re not going to be doing much in the way of gaming or heavy-duty computing on this guy. But that’s not really what it’s meant for anyway.
When all is said and done, this is a solid NUC model. It’s got the bells, it’s got the whistles, it’s got enough expansion options to make it a respectable choice for several key uses. The compromises made to keep the cost down are mostly easy to overcome. If I had to change anything, it would be the CPU. It’s the one piece that’s not upgradable. Then again, a faster processor would mean a higher price. As it is, this unit strikes a nice balance between performance and cost.
Having said all that, I wouldn’t personally run the “pigster” as-is. I would upgrade to at least 4, probably 8 gigs of ram, and I’d migrate windows to an SSD. THAT would be a system I’d get some mileage out of. Then again, this model isn’t meant for me. It’s meant for people just getting into the game, or who have a small budget and big ideas.
There are a bunch of NUC models out there. If you’re trying to decide which one is best for you, Intel has a great page to help you decide.