Back when Intel first came up with the NUC concept, there weren’t too many options to choose from. You picked your NUC based on the processor (I still can’t talk about Thunderbolt…too painful) and that was pretty much it…unless you REALLY wanted a dragon on the lid. Whichever NUC you chose, you had to provide your own RAM, storage, WiFi, and operating system.
Fast forward to today, and you have a plethora (yep, I went there) of NUC models. You’ve got NUCs meant for commercial applications, models focused on entry-level computing, others that are ideal for home theater, etc. Wifi is built-in to most models, and among your choices are a handful of NUCs that even come as a complete package, with RAM, storage, and Windows pre-installed. So you can do everything from “roll your own” to “off the shelf.”
So how does an “enthusiast” model fit into Intel’s lineup? Well, recently Intel sent me their i7 enthusiast model NUC7i7BNHXG. As the ‘BNH’ suggests, it’s a Baby Canyon NUC, but it’s been loaded up for you. They include Windows 10 Home, so your operating system is covered. They also include a single 8GB stick of RAM. The main difference here, where the system gets its “enthusiast” name, is in the storage. To make a ready-to-go system, you’d expect them to include a small m.2 SSD, possibly 120GB or, if they were feeling generous, even 240GB. But instead, they include a 2TB (!) HDD, and a 32GB (!!!) Intel Optane module. I’m not sure why this makes it for enthusiasts, but let’s just go with it.
For the full list of specs, go here. Some of the highlights are:
- Intel® Core™ i7-7567U Processor
- Supports one m.2 and one 2.5″ drive (both are pre-populated in this model)
- Support for up to 32GB of DDR4-2133 1.2V RAM, comes with 8GB preinstalled (more on that later)
- HDMI 2.0a AND USB-C (DisplayPort 1.2) (supports 3 displays)
- Gen3 PCIe (x4 lanes)
- 4 external USB 30, and 2 internal USB 2.0 ports
- 7.1 digital audio
- Gigabit Ethernet
- Integrated Intel® Wireless-AC 8265 + Bluetooth 4.2
- Integrated dual microphones
- Integrated Consumer IR
- CEC header
- Customizable LED ring
- Micro SDXC memory card slot
- Replaceable lid
It’s a pretty full boat of features, and it’s got you covered for just about anything you’d like to use it for.
On the Outside
The front on the NUC includes two USB 3.0 ports (1 for fast charging), an audio (headphone/mic) jack, and the power button. Also on the front are the pinhole openings for the dual microphones. If you’re into Cortana (I mean, who wouldn’t be…), you’ll have no trouble with Windows hearing your every, single, word. I can verify they work quite nicely. Personally, I don’t use them (I have enough people listening to me all the time, thank you very much), but if you’re into not using your hands to talk to your computer, you’re all set.
The front includes the LED ring, so popular on the newer models. I admit, it’s fun playing around with different color and sequence combinations.
On the back, you get your full-sized HDMI and USB-C ports, as well as two more USB 3.0 ports, and gigabit Ethernet. The power connection is also there. As with most NUCs, Baby Canyon includes a 19v power supply, but can run on anything from 12 to19 volts.
On the left side, you get your micro SD slot, as well as a lock connector:
NUCs have changed their look over the years…different colors, heights, etc. One thing that hasn’t changed is the 4″ x 4″ form factor. Seems like they hit a sweet spot with that, as it’s just the right size. I doubt you could get much smaller and still support a 2.5 drive, and this model looks as great as previous models. The dark gray finish contrasting with the black lid and front panel look really, really nice. The vent slots on the side have gotten longer to improve air flow, and they add to the overall look as well.
About that lid. It’s still the glossy (i.e. easily scratched) finish. Don’t get me started. While I admit it looks great when you first take it out of the box, that glossy plastic is so prone to scratching I’ve gotten into the habit of just leaving the protective plastic on my NUCs. Yes, yes, I know you can just swap it out if it gets bad, but I like my stuff to look like new for as long as possible. I very much prefer the matte finish on the Dawson Canyon, so I’ll likely be swapping this one out for one of those.
And speaking of swapping lids, thanks to GoRite, you now have a large number of options for replacing your NUC lid. Everything from extra USB ports, to a TV tuner, to another Ethernet port. Just keep in mind the headers on this NUC’s board are USB 2.0, so buy your lid accordingly.
In the Box
Included in the box are the usual NUC goodies:
- An Intel NUC (duh)
- Mounting bracket
- Mounting screws
- User manual
- Other papers nobody ever reads
- Fancy i7 sticker
- AC adapter
Also in the box was this flyer:
I didn’t try it out, but it looks like Intel is offering some software goodies for your new NUC!
On the Inside
Taking a look inside, a lot was familiar, but some things weren’t. The first thing I noticed is the drive cage; it’s no longer attached to the back plate:
This means you can remove the back panel by itself, with no need to disconnect the drive. Why this would matter, I don’t know, since you have to remove the drive cage to get to the guts of the NUC anyway. Prior to this, the most recent NUC I’d tested was the Dawson Canyon, and its drive cage is attached to the back plate. Nothing better or worse about it that I can see, just different.
As I said, the enthusiast version of Baby Canyon includes 8GB of RAM. My system came with Adata RAM, but I can’t say whether that’s consistent for all of them. I’ve seen cases from other vendors where the brand of RAM can change, depending on when your unit was manufactured.
It’s not a ton of memory, but enough to easily run Windows and get you started. A nice touch here is that they installed a single, 8GB stick instead of two 4GB sticks. Smaller dual sticks would take advantage of dual channel memory and give you a boost in performance. But I think they recognize many people will be looking to upgrade to 16GB, either immediately or pretty soon after getting the NUC. To that end, they left one slot available so instead of buying 16GB and pulling your original 8GB, you can just buy 8GB. That’s my guess, anyway.
Interestingly, while the specs call for DDR4-2133, the module Intel includes is actually DDR4-2400. The system won’t take advantage of the slightly faster memory, but it’s important to note if/when you’re looking to add more memory. I’m a big fan of matching memory. Maybe I’m paranoid, but things just seem to work better when everything’s the same. So if you’re pairing up to get to a total of 16GB, you’d do well to get DDR4-2400 with the same timings.
As mentioned, this unit includes USB 2.0 headers ONLY, instead of the USB 2.0 AND 3.0 headers you see on Dawson Canyon. Still functional for many lids, but I’d have liked to have seen both.
Hard Disk Drive
Intel includes a 2TB Barracuda drive, pretty snappy for a HDD even without the Optane module:
The m.2 slot is populated with a 32GB Optane module:
If you’re not familiar with Optane, Linus at Linus Tech Tips explains it better than I can (he’s funnier too). In a nutshell, it’s a new type of system memory that provides caching for your old school spinning drive. It speeds up performance by storing your most recently used files. Why is this a big deal? Because for a while now the basic choices for storage have been either an expensive but blazing fast SSD, or a cheaper, but also much slower HDD. With Optane, Intel intends to find a solid middle ground, where consumers can have solid performance without sacrificing capacity.
Does Optane Do it’s Job?
Not having any previous experience, I thought I’d test the difference between the HDD with and without the Optane module installed. So I removed it. That was a bad idea. The hard drive was no longer readable. I was, to say the least, concerned. Did I just crash the drive?
Looking through Intel’s frequently asked questions for Optane, I learned that removing the Optane module essentially disables the HDD. That’s the bad news. The module and the drive, once configured, are integral to one another.
The GOOD news is that there was no damage to the data. Once the module was back in place, everything worked as before. I was relieved that I didn’t need to rebuild the system.
So while I couldn’t really test the hard drive by itself without wiping it and reinstalling, I could still compare it to an SSD. To do that, I needed to clone the operating system to an SSD. Fortunately, I’d recently picked up a couple of NVMe SSDs, one from ADATA (which I reviewed here) and 240GB Western Digital Black that I hadn’t had a chance to install yet.
I decided to test the system with both to see if there was much of a difference. I thought this was also a good time to see how much of a difference an NVMe SSD made over a traditional SSD, so I also tested the system with an older Intel SSDSCKGW 180GB SSD.
Things Get Complicated
First, I needed to get the operating system from the Baby Canyon onto the SSD. Doing this wasn’t as easy as it sounds, since I needed the m.2 slot for the SSD, but couldn’t remove the Optane module from it without disabling the hard drive. This was a new wrinkle. It was no longer as simple as installing the m.2 SSD and cloning the 2.5″ drive to it. Now it was a a juggling act. I didn’t have an external m.2 adapter, so I was kind of stuck.
Without a way of installing the SSD in the Baby Canyon while the Optane module was already installed, I began scratching my head for a way to make this work.
I could image the drive to an external drive, but then I wouldn’t have an OS on the new SSD to boot to in order to restore the image. I could do a three-way swap by cloning the drive to an external USB hard drive, then swap in the SSD, boot from the USB drive, and clone that. Or I could just break down and buy an external m.2 adapter. I had my stackable m.2 device from GoRite, but it didn’t support NVMe.
There were just no good choices here. Ultimately I decided the easiest thing to do was install Windows 10 clean on the SSDs. After all Baby Canyon’s Windows was essentially a vanilla installation, so it should be a good comparison. By the way, all drivers were updated, just to be sure.
Once I had Windows on the m.2 drives, it was time to test. I decided to use Performance Test from Passmark for a basic drive performance test. That would be fine, but I wanted a real world test as well, so I added a virtual machine using Virtualbox and set it to start on boot. This would give me an idea of how long it took to get a virtual machine image from the drive into memory. So what I ended up with was a little “Windows-ception”, where the system boots into Windows, then boots a VM running the same Windows. Kind of weird, but a good way to compare the different drives.
To say the benchmark results surprised me is something of an understatement. I was expecting better than HDD performance from the Optane setup, but what I got was something else. Here are the results, ordered from worst to best.
So here’s how it played out: the slowest performance came from the Intel SSD. Not really shocking, as it’s a much older SSD, ancient by today’s standards, but still faster than a traditional HDD. The best performance came from the ADATA NVMe SSD. Again, not a shock. What was surprising, though, was that the Barracuda/Optane combo actually edged out the Western Digital NVMe drive to sneak into second place. I was expecting good performance, but I wasn’t expecting it to beat an NVMe SSD.
I recorded the system booting to Windows (and VM Windows) using each of the four configurations. I found the difference in performance between all four was negligible. While there IS a difference, I can’t see it being noticeable to the average user. Watch the clip below, where I have them all on the screen together. The Optane setup is in the top left, the Intel SSD is top right, the ADATA SSD is lower left, and the Western Digital SSD is lower right.
The total time to boot to the desktop, and then boot to the virtual desktop, varies by just a few seconds. I used the system as provided for quite a while, and never noticed any lag or slowness. Performance was snappy and quick. I couldn’t say there was any difference between the HDD/Optane configuration and the SSD setups.
This is my first opportunity to try out Optane, and I’m sold. It brings a spinning disk up to solid state speeds. It won’t outrun the fastest SSDs, but it’ll give the mid-range ones a run for their money. What makes it so appealing is the the capacity you get along with that performance. Yes, you’ll get a performance edge by going with a good NVMe SSD, but you’ll be giving up all that sweet, sweet capacity, and you may not end up noticing the difference. If you’re like me and you have tons of data lying around, this combination of size and speed will be a dream come true.
I appreciate Intel using a single stick of RAM, because I can see myself needing more than 8GB very quickly, and adding an extra 8GB stick is easier and cheaper than replacing two 4GB sticks.
Of course there ARE trade-offs to using this configuration. For starters, you’re using a spinning hard drive, so there’s the inherent fragility of the drive to consider. An SSD might survive the NUC being bumped off the table, but an actively spinning HDD will likely have issues after a drop.
Another thing to consider is that the Optane module and the HDD are basically now one complete drive. Removing the module will disable your data. If you decide to move to an m.2 SSD down the road, it won’t be as simple as installing it and cloning your drive.
One thing to mention is the fan; it’s a bit louder than an i5 NUC. Not surprising, but still something to be aware of. And when the HDD was running, it added to the sound as well. It wasn’t “too loud” by any means, but when I put the system under load, it did spin up noticeably. The NUC was quieter overall when running the SSDs. Either way, it was still quieter than my Rock Canyon i7.
Optane is a winner…no question. You get HDD capacity with SSD performance, and that’s an enticing combination. Baby Canyon itself is a solid NUC with a fast CPU and loads of features. The enthusiast model adds 8GB of RAM and pairs a 2TB Seagate Barracuda drive with a 32GB Intel Optane module, and Windows 10 Home is thrown in for good measure. The lack of an internal USB 3.0 header is a little disappointing, but overall, they’ve packed just about everything you could think of into just four inches.
I can whole-heartedly recommend this one!