Once upon a time, there were just “NUCs”; tiny, powerful mini computers. Whether you were buying one for fun, as a PC replacement, or for use in a business, you had the same few models to pick from.
Then Intel decided to split the NUCs into two lines: the consumer line would continue the innovation and new features NUCs had become known for. It would go on to include fun features like CEC, built-in microphones, infrared receivers, and programmable LED rings. The commercial line would still innovate and add features, but it would emphasize functionality above all else. It would focus on the more utilitarian features.
Fast forward to today, and you see both lines have improved and added features geared toward their respective markets. So just how different are they now? Which one is the best choice for your situation? Just for fun, I decided to do a side-by-side comparison of the current commercial model NUC7i7DNHE (aka “Dawson Canyon”) and its closest consumer counterpart, the NUC7i7BNH (aka “Baby Canyon”). To see a side-by-side feature list for the two, take a look at them on Intel’s Ark site.
The packaging for the two NUCs couldn’t be more different. The consumer NUC comes in a beautiful, cube-shaped box with sexy graphics and details about the features inside. In contrast, the commercial NUC comes in a plain, brown box (still cube-shaped) with just a sticker with the model number on it. This is the first indication of their intended audience. It’s about as business-like and un-fun as you get. If you’re installing a series of NUCs in a factory or business, you couldn’t care less about what the box looks like. But if you’re giving a mini-PC enthusiast a NUC as a gift, you’d much rather have the wow factor of that cool box. The consumer box was designed to get attention, and it does a good job.
Be honest…which one would you be more excited to open Christmas morning? And if you were installing a bunch of these in an office, which one would you rather have stacked up in your stock room?
What’s in the box?
Both NUCs include a similar set of accessories:
- Power Adapter
- Mounting bracket
- Mounting screws
- Getting started pamphlet
- Cool holographic processor sticker
As far as I can tell, the accessories are identical. Intel has done a great job with their mounting solution, keeping it compatible across models and generations.
Depending on which Baby Canyon system you buy, you may also get an insert telling you to grab some free software for the NUC. I’ve never used mine, so I can’t say what the software is.
Out of the Box
At first glance, these two look more or less the same. The design, coloring, and shape are similar. It doesn’t take long, though, to see some of the things that separate them. These cousins would have plenty to catch up on at the next family reunion.
Putting the units side-by-side, some of the differences come into focus. Both have two USB 3.0 ports, but on the consumer model, one of them is a fast-charging port. The commercial model has nothing else on the front other than a power button with the power LED indicator built-in. By contrast, the consumer model has that fancy programmable LED rind, pinholes for the dual microphones, and a headphone/mic port. Strangely, the colors of the NUCs are slightly different too. Not a big enough difference to matter, really, but the commercial unit is just a shade darker.
The ports on the back, too, are somewhat different. The consumer model includes one full-sized HDMI port, one gigabit Ethernet port, two USB 3.0 ports, and one USB-C 3.1 port with full Thunderbolt/DisplayPort support. For situations where you want a third display, this port can come in handy, especially with a USB-C hub like this.
The commercial NUC is quite a bit different: It has DUAL full-sized HDMI ports, two USB 3.0 ports, and a gigabit Ethernet port. It DOESN’T have the USB-C port, but it DOES have the large blank panel that allows for internal add-ons (something we’ll talk about when we look inside):
That blank means you can add different ports, extra ports, or a combination. I’ve already reviewed GoRite’s USB insert, which I love and am still using to this day. This panel can prove pretty handy in a business or industrial setting.
The sides, too, have their share of differences. The consumer NUC includes a memory card slot for the on-board card reader…
…while the commercial unit doesn’t. Baby Canyon also sports two rows of slots for ventilation, while Dawson Canyon has only the single, smaller row. The extra vents are needed to improve the cooling, as Baby Canyon’s CPU has a higher TDP. To understand what TDP is and why it matters, check out this Techquickie video. Put simply, the higher the TDP, the more heat you can expect the CPU to generate.
Here’s a subject near and dear: the lids on these two are quite different. Baby Canyon sports the traditional NUC lid…high gloss black plastic. Beautiful to look at, easy to scratch. Dawson Canyon, by contrast, has the rugged, matte finish lid…not quite as sexy, but durable as all get out. Both are removable, so if you prefer the lid that doesn’t come with your model, it’s easy to grab a replacement from GoRite and snap it on.
The photos above were taken within minutes of removing the protective plastic from each. Which one do you think will stay looking like new the longest?
Under the Hood
The Drive Chassis
There are taller models of both Baby and Dawson Canyon that support a 2.5″ SATA drive. To access the inside of the NUC, you must first remove the back plate, and the process for either model is identical. Interestingly, as I mentioned in my review of the Baby Canyon Enthusiast model, the drive cage in the Baby Canyon isn’t attached to the back plate like it is in the Dawson Canyon. With Dawson, you remove the plate and attached cage as one, disconnecting the SATA and power cables. With Baby, you remove the plate, then remove the cage, again disconnecting the cables. After playing around with both designs, I find no real functional difference, but I think I prefer the cage to be attached. Yes, it’s easier to remove the back plate on the Baby Canyon because the drive cage isn’t attached, but in order to actually do anything inside the NUC, you have to remove the drive cage anyway, so I can’t say it really helps to have them separate.
With the back plate and cages removed, you can now access the main boards of both. One of the most important differences here is that while both systems include two USB 2.0 headers, a CEC header, and a front panel header, Dawson Canyon also includes headers for a USB 3.0 port and eDP. I’ve never worked with eDP, so I can say much about that header, but I HAVE worked with the USB 3.0 header:
- GoRite’s USB 3.0/gigabit Ethernet Lid
- GoRite’s USB 3.0/2.0 add-on bracket for Dawson Canyon
- GoRite’s Dual HDMI Lid
In every case, the difference when going from USB 2.0 to 3.0 is significant. Huge, in fact. For the DUAL HDMI lid, I found it sluggish on USB 2.0 and only recommended it for limited uses. On USB 3.0, however, the performance was enough that I could recommend it to anything but gaming.
Both systems include built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, but how it’s included is different:
While Baby Canyon has the WiFi/Bluetooth chip (an 8265ac) on-board, Dawson Canyon has a separate card (still an 8265ac) installed in an m.2 slot. The Dawson Canyon board also includes vPro on the i5 and i7 models.
This means that while you get fast WiFi on both, only Dawson Canyon allows you to swap that card out if you need to.
Both systems support up to 32GB of dual channel memory, with Baby Canyon supporting DDR4-2133 1.2v SO-DIMMs, and Dawson Canyon supporting DDR4-2400 1.2v SO-DIMMs.
The performance difference between 2133 and 2400 memory isn’t huge, but it’s there.
Both NUCs support HDMI 2.0a. Baby Canyon allows for up to 3 displays by way of its one HDMI port and it’s USB-C port, which supports Tunderbolt/DisplayPort 1.2.
Dawson Canyon only gives you two displays, but with dual HDMI ports, getting those two is easy. Dawson also supports eDP, so you can go direct via the internal header.
Looking at the power input, Baby Canyon can take anything between 12 and 19 volts, while Dawson Canyon allows for up to 24 volts. In a business/industrial setting, that gives you some additional options.
As mentioned, Baby Canyon has a higher TDP of 28 watts, as compared to Dawson’s 15 watts. I didn’t notice a difference in fan spin between the two, but when under load the Baby Canyon might get louder to keep the CPU cool.
I compared the i7 versions of both lines, and I can’t say I noticed any performance difference between them. Using the same SSD and memory, they appeared identical to me while browsing the internet and using a few different programs. But as Joey would say” “That’s moo. You know, like a cows opinion.” So some legitimate testing was in order.
I installed 32 GB of Crucial memory and my 256GB Western Digital Black SSD. I used these in both systems for the test so the only difference would be the NUC itself.
First Passmark’s Performance Test:
The results show Dawson as the clear winner, primarily due to the CPU. The Faster CPU led to higher performance in all areas, even disk I/O. What’s interesting is that the closest rating between the two was actually the memory. So maybe the slightly faster memory didn’t make much of a difference after all.
With PCMark, the results are more in line with what I saw first hand: While the Dawson Canyon has a slightly higher score, the end result is two systems very close in performance for day to day work applications.
Still, the newer, slightly faster CPU does give Dawson Canyon the overall edge.
Both lines offer versions of the NUC in i3, i5, and i7. Dawson Canyon offers you three ways to get your NUC: Short kit (no support for 2.5″ drives), tall kit (supports 2.5″ drives), and the board by itself.
As the consumer model, Baby Canyon offers several more options:
- With 16GB Optane module
- With 16GB Optane module, 16GB RAM, 1TB HDD, and Windows 10 x64
- With 32GB Optane module, 8GB RAM, 2TB HDD, and Windows 10 x64
Dawson Canyon doesn’t offer a complete system. Here again Intel is targeting a specific audience. A consumer is much more likely to want a complete Windows system, or the larger storage of an Optane/HDD combination. A business user would be more inclined to want a bare system (or board) they can add their own OS and components to.
So…many…choices. Whatever your need, Intel has a NUC for you. That’s a great thing, but it can also make picking the right system confusing. By having clear consumer- and commercial-specific models, Intel makes that choice just a little easier, but it still requires some thought. For example, I’ve found over the years that I prefer the commercial NUCs as PC replacements. I have NUCs doing a number of jobs around my house; from home theater, to server, to everyday PC. Something I realized quickly was if you have a home theater NUC in the same room with a Windows workstation NUC, you’d better be sure to disable the infrared on the workstation. I made the mistake of leaving it in enabled once, and it was fun to see the workstation trying to interpret signals from the remote.
The point is, know what you want to do with your NUC, then buy accordingly. You’ll be glad to have all the features you want, and none of the ones you don’t.