Friday, September 14, 2012

The "Next Unit of Computing" - A Small Form Factor for Mainstream Users?

Courtesy of PC World
Pictured above is an all in one kit which contains a new Intel sponsored form factor called the NUC or "Next Unit of Computing" which if rumors are to be believed will go on sale this fall.  This little box features an Ivy Bridge Core i3 Processor, including HD 4000 graphics.

At 4" x 4" (102 x 102mm), the motherboard contained within is even slightly smaller than the smaller side of ECX boards (105 x 146mm - yes the 3.5" board is not actually 3.5", but it is the same size as 3.5" drives, which are not 3.5" but have 3.5" platters inside them).  These boards are smaller than the semi-mainstream nano itx boards (120 x 120mm) and even give the ultra-tiny PicoITX (100 x 72mm) a run for its money.

The only information I know comes from these articles:

Engadget's Story on the NUC

PC World's Story on the NUC

The Top of the NUC
(Courtesy of PC World)
But, if this is to believed, this would be a huge boon for hobbyists, modders, and small form factor enthusiasts.  To summarize, Intel undertook a project to determine the smallest possible form factor that would be needed to support a full Ivy Bridge CPU + Expansion and came up with NUC.  I had actually  read about this in an article several months back, but moved on when I read that intel sees this being used in digital signage and kiosks.  I thought that this was just a slightly different form factor for industrial/embedded applications that I've talked about many times on this blog (ECX, EPIC, etc).  I do not know if this was intel's goal from the beginning or if the popularity of other small form factors such as the Raspberry Pi, VIA's pico itx boards or Zotac's Zbox caused a change of heart, but it appears this product is headed for the mainstream.

The Bottom of the NUC
(Courtesy of PC World)

What makes the NUC board so special?

Now functionally, as of right now, there is likely little difference between the end result of using one of the industrial boards I have previously mentioned or VIA's/Zotac's offerings, and this board, but there are some key differences that make this board 'special'?


What mainstream means is availability to consumers via retail outlets.  This may not seem like a huge concern, but take from someone who has desperately tried to get the latest small form factor boards from industrial/embedded companies.  The first question they ask me is how many employee's my company has followed by asking if the number of board I'll need is in the 10 - 100 board range or the over 100 range.  Being able to obtain 1 board with retail support is a huge bonus.  While this is overpriced at $400, at least that includes the entire kit including the case.  I would also expect this price tag to fall in future iterations.


While the Raspberry Pi is great for Arduino Fans and other ARM processors are Android ready, Intel and the x86 architecture remains the most versatile chip available.  Capable of running almost any operating system and it seems to be in intel's best interest to keep its hardware as operating system agnostic as possible.

This board is designed to have the most powerful architecture on it.  Although available in more powerful varieties, most small form factor boards are power-sipping, ATOM or FUSION based.  Not so here.  Yes, it is only i3 to start, but i5/i7 variants are supposedly in the works. 


At first glance the few USB ports and HDMI may seem paltry, but the one word that makes all the difference is THUNDERBOLT.  The next generation interface will allow for devices to be daisy chained as if they were part of the board itself.  Think of this as attaching daughter boards, if you want more usb ports, more display interfaces, more storage, no problem.  But, its even more, the PCI express speeds allow for connection to graphics cards is the need arises.  This allows you to build a board in any orientation and with whatever components you choose around a 4" square core.


Despite the fact that it works, ECX/EPIC Boards are not intended for consumer computing and contain features that are somewhat wasted.  From security features to direct LVDS connections to dual gigabit ethernet to the ability to support a SIM card.  These proprietary features are usually left unused and in some cases even have to be disabled to make the boards more compatible.

All in all, I hope this board is a sign of things to come.  This is obviously a niche product, but most OEM computer products are niche at this point, from LED enshrined gaming cases to water cooling components.  The point is I believe that there is a market for people who want to incorporate powerful systems into small products and locations.  The smaller it is, the more extensive the options are.  But, I have to admit, I think the NUC would look fantastic in the base of an iMac G4.