Ultra-Minis Conquer Constraints of Raspberry Pi

With Windows on board, Intel’s NUC ultra-mini PCs could enable system builders to tap into new niche markets. By James E. Gaskin

Raspberry Pi, the $35 credit card-size computer, exemplifies the “smaller is better” school of computing. An ARM11 processor (Broadcom's BCM2835), GPU, 256MB of RAM, and an SD card reader for storage are on board, as are video, USB, and LAN ports. Hobbyists, do-it-yourselfers, and customizers love Raspberry Pi.

But resellers see a major problem: no Windows. Raspberry Pi runs various Linux distributions and has been adopted as a low-cost computing option in the education market. But general computing, meaning Windows to the vast majority of customers, remains impossible.

Enter the NUC, or Next Unit of Computing. Intel's answer to Raspberry Pi, the NUC is much larger, with a 4- x 4-inch motherboard, and includes a third-generation Intel Core i3 processor and two SO-DIMM slots for up to 16GB of 1,066/1,333MHz memory support. Two models are available now, and a third is expected to ship in the first quarter of 2013.

Both units have a 4- x 4- x 2-inch chassis, an Intel Core i3-3217U processor, Intel QS77 Express Chipset, two DDR3 SO-DIMM memory slots, three USB 2.0 ports, and two mini PCIe connectors - one with mSATA support for external storage (no storage is included). According to Junko Matthews, marketing communications manager, Intel desktop boards, the initial response from Intel resellers has been, “When and where can I buy them?”

Model DC3217BY has a dark red top on a black chassis and includes one HDMI port and a Thunderbolt port that can be used to daisy-chain units (but there is no Ethernet support). Model DC3217IYE, with an all-black chassis, includes Intel high-definition audio, Gigabit Ethernet, and two HDMI ports rather than a Thunderbolt port, each driving an independent display. Both models are powered by an external, 19-volt/65-watt DC power supply, or brick.

NUC USE CASES
Matthews says the likeliest initial use for the NUC duo is digital signage. Beyond that, the units' small size makes them “applicable to OEMs that need small form factors for embedded applications and home users for home theater PCs or all-in-ones [when used with a flat screen],” she notes.

Jay Adkins, Intel business development manager at Harrisburg, Pa.-based D&H Distributing Co., agrees. “In the digital signage market,” he says, “end users need robust, integrated solutions with a tiny footprint that still are able to deliver the horsepower necessary for HD video signage. It would also work well for a home enthusiast looking to create a low-cost, yet powerful PC to stream media, or perhaps to control their lighting and security.”

In addition to digital signage and home theater applications, Adkins sees opportunities opening up in other vertical markets such as K-12 education, surveillance, and point of sale (POS). D&H featured the NUC at its Fall Mid-Atlantic Technology showcase, and Adkins says interest was high: “You could see many resellers experience a 'light bulb above the head' moment when formulating ideas about the different vertical markets it might fit into.”

With regard to the custom builder community, Adkins says, “We believe that the NUC will reinvigorate system builders, motivating them to envision niche markets for this product.”

THE WHOLE KIT AND KABOODLE
Changing its normal “desktop board” rule, Intel is selling the NUC as a kit that includes the chassis, a VESA mounting bracket for attaching the unit to monitors and digital displays, and the power brick. Also included? A Wi-Fi antenna integrated into the chassis to support the optional Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 wireless module.

Intel will not convert Raspberry Pi fans focused on low-cost computing, especially since some online retailers are selling the NUC for just over $300. Add in memory, storage, monitor, keyboard, and Windows, and the price will be higher than a comparable small form factor system. But the NUC will always be smaller.