Chaco Canyon: A Great New Design, but don’t Expect a Powerhouse

Everybody knows I LOVE getting new NUCs. It’s one of my favorite things. So when I learned a new NUC was on the way to my workbench for testing, I got really excited.

It was code-named Chaco Canyon, and from what I’d heard it was a real departure from what NUCs had been in the past. It I couldn’t wait to try it.

Chaco Canyon is a “commercial” NUC, like Dawson Canyon and Maple Canyon before it. Commercial NUCs aren’t necessarily meant for the consumer market. They’re made more for business applications like digital signage, data collection, vending machines, POS (no, the other POS), and kiosks. There aren’t nearly as many of the commercial models, simply because the consumer models have taken off so much. But I’ve been a fan of these business-minded NUCs.

In Chaco Canyon Intel decided to try something a little (actually a lot) different. For starters it’s a fan-less design. It’s not the first fan-less NUC, as that honor belongs to Thin Canyon. Thin Canyon came out way back in 2014. So it’s been quite a while since Intel has tried giving a NUC the silent treatment. This model also includes RAM and storage (but not an operating system).

The idea was promising, and I was ready to get my hands on one.

And then I read Chaco Canyon’s specs: a 2-core Celeron CPU, 4 gigs of soldered-down DDR3 RAM, and eMMC storage? What the heck was Intel thinking? These specs had to be at least a couple of years old, right?

Needless to say I was underwhelmed with the specs, but I knew I’d give this new NUC a try anyway. By the time it arrived, my expectations had been…adjusted.

So it was with a relative lack of enthusiasm that I unboxed my new NUC. Let’s have a look at how Chaco Canyon fared against my skeptical eye.

Specifications

Here’s a link to Chaco Canyon’s specs on ark.intel.com. Below are some of the basics.

Processor

Chaco Canyon includes an Intel Celeron N3350 Processor (2M Cache, up to 2.4 GHz) It has 2M of cache, and a base frequency of 1.10 GHz, with a turbo frequency up to 2.4 GHz.

I don’t need to tell you this isn’t going to blow the doors off of anything. But, being a fan-less design means you have to compromise on the processor. Heat is your enemy, and the more powerful the CPU, the hotter it burns. So I guess I can’t complain about the relatively anemic CPU too much.

Graphics

Intel HD Graphics 500? How am I EVER playing Call of Duty on this? We’ll have to put this down to cooling again, I suppose. Graphics output consists of dual HDMI ports (one HDMI 2.0, one HDMI 1.4) and a 4-lane Embedded Display Port (eDP 1.4). With two HDMI ports it does support dual displays out of the box.

Memory

4GB of DDR3 RAM. FOUR…DDR3. And it’s soldered down?…why, Intel? Why?

Storage

64GB of on-board eMMC storage. Well, color me surprised. Not exactly shooting for the moon, are we? It does include an m.2 slot, so you can install an SSD. PCI Express 2.0, though.

Ports/Expansion

Port-wise, Chaco Canyon is pretty solid: two USB 3.0 ports (one on the front, one on the back), two USB 2.0 ports (on the back), a single USB 3.0 internal header, and two USB 2.0 internal headers.

The internal headers are important for Chaco Canyon because of its expansion panel, which allows for the addition of ports to the unit, similar to how other NUCs can take advantage of the replaceable lids.

Oh, and it also includes internal headers for a serial port and the eDP

Networking

An on-board gigabit Ethernet port (i211-AT) and a Wireless-AC 3168 card are included. Unlike consumer NUCs, the WiFi/Bluetooth card included isn’t soldered down, but installed in a 22×30 m.2 slot. This allows for upgrading the WiFi card down the road, although I’d guess the current card will be just fine for quite a while.

Audio

You can get audio output from the HDMI ports or via the 1/8″ jack. The specs say “line out”, so it would seem there’s no option for audio input.

Out of the Box

In terms of appearance, functionality, features, options, and what’s in the box, Chaco Canyon nails it for me. Here are a few reasons why.

Size, Shape, and Finish

First, it uses the matte finish I prefer all the way around so it’s much less scratch-able and you can’t leave a fingerprint on it.

The size, while an inch or two wider than the standard NUC, is still small and compact. It’s also very light weight.

Here’s Chaco Canyon compared to a traditional 4X4 NUC:

Mounting Options

As this is intended for business/industrial use, Intel has upped the game by allowing multiple mounting options. All other NUCs have two screw holes on the back that you can insert mounting screws into. This lets you attach them to the NUC mounting bracket. Chaco Canyon has those holes (although the mounting bracket is not included) if you want to mount it that way.

But it also has a couple of holes that let you mount it directly to a surface with a couple of screws. There are also “loop holes” (I don’t know what they’re actually called) that let you mount it with zip ties.

You read that right. If you’re mounting it to an unusual shape or in a weird angle, you can just zip tie it down.

And if none of those options work for you, Intel includes rubber feet that you can put on the bottom and just set Chaco Canyon on a table top.

Power Cable Management

Chaco Canyon includes a plastic management clip for the power cable.

When in use it ensures the power cable can’t be accidentally pulled out.

Nice touch.

Antenna Leads

This new design allows for external WiFi antennas, and the cable leads are included.

Once again, Intel was paying attention. They know there are use cases where you’ll want WiFi but won’t have a lot of control over how close you are to the router. The actual antennae aren’t included, but it’s a great option to have. And if you don’t need them, There’s a rubber plug in place to prevent dust from getting into the unit.

Port Covers

Speaking of dust, Intel provides plastic inserts for all ports on Chaco Canyon so whichever ports you aren’t using can be filled to protect them from dust & debris.

A nice thing to have for a computer meant to be in a closet or cabinet.

The Panel

Like Maple and Dawson Canyon, Chaco Canyon had a removable plate that allows for additional ports. What’s different in this case is the panel is on the front of the unit. GoRite included a couple of accessory panels for the Chaco Canyon, which I’ll be trying out in another post.

Just as with replaceable lids, the only limitations for this panel are what you can fit into the space and what can take advantage of the internal headers. GoRite already offers several to choose from and I can only assume more are on the way.

On the Inside

With the back cover off, you can access the internal USB, eDP, and serial headers.

You also have access to both m.2 slots, one of which is populated with the WiFi card. The CMOS battery is located on this side of the board as well, making it simple to swap out. And that’s about it. Since everything else is embedded, there’s nothing else user accessible.

Operating Systems

Windows 10 is the only officially supported operating system, but I wanted to see how Chaco Canyon did with some of my other OSes. First I tried it with Libreelec. Not that it’s intended for home theater use, but I was curious anyway. It did perfectly well. I had no issues installing, and the performance pretty good. I installed the Youtube add-on and played some move trailers. All looked great and played smoothly in 1080P.

Next I installed Linux Mint. Again, no issues during installation. It did take a bit longer to install, owing to the eMMC storage. But once installed, it ran Mint’s Cinnamon desktop environment perfectly well. It would make a decent desktop system running mint. You wouldn’t be able to run very many applications at once with only 4GB of RAM, but for browsing and basic office tasks it would do just fine.

I still had the USB installer I’d made for my NUCintosh project, so I decided to give that a try. No dice. All I got was a black screen with the apple logo. I never got to the actual installer. Can’t complain, really. It’s not like Intel ever had plans for this as a MAC clone.

Finally, I installed Windows 10. I expected it to work perfectly, and it did. The installation, like Mint, was noticeably slower. But again, once installed Windows ran just fine. Of course it was a bit sluggish compared to running on an SSD, but it was acceptable. Here the 4 GB of RAM would be more of an issue than with Mint, as Windows uses more resources from the start.

Once Windows was installed, I loaded Passmark’s Performance Test to see what the numbers would look like. They were…what’s the word? Disappointing? Underwhelming? Here, you tell me.

Ok, so not the most impressive performance. But here’s the thing; Chaco Canyon was never meant for blow-back-your-hair performance. It’s a fan-less mini PC meant to do specific tasks reliably. Think of it as a beefed up Raspberry Pi.

Conclusions

I shouldn’t love Chaco Canyon. It has a weak CPU, soldered down RAM (DDR3 to boot), and eMMC storage. I should be disappointed by it. But I LOVE the design. I love the look, the features, the extras that Intel packed into it. I love that it’s a new, dare I say innovative NUC from Intel. Up to now most NUCs have tried to cram as much power as possible into a tiny space. Chaco Canyon takes the opposite route. It asks “how much NUC do you really need?”. If you need a small PC to stick in a closet running a custom application, or you want to build a kiosk, or run a couple of digital signage displays, you don’t need a powerhouse of a CPU, or tons of RAM, or even fast storage. And having a slower computer with no moving parts to need replacing makes sense.

Now, would I want a Chaco Canyon as my everyday desktop? No, probably not. I’d want something with a powerful CPU, expandable memory, and fast storage. But Chaco Canyon wasn’t meant to be a desktop replacement. It was meant for other things, and from what I can see, it’ll handle them nicely.

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