Yet again the NUC concept suffers from overly noisy cooling.
We have been quite fascinated with Intel’s Next Unit of Computing concept. It takes the advancements in power consumption and thermal performance of Intel’s mobile push and aims to produce a pretty powerful PC in a very small space.
Unfortunately, apart from designs with very specific usage cases, such as Gigabyte’s BRIX projector, which combines a low res DLP projector with a NUC system, we have been constantly let down by the end products. Chiefly, it keeps coming down to thermals, and makes us wish that someone would do some serious engineering work on the cooling designs for NUCs.
Because of limited space, the NUC needs a fairly small fan. The problem with this is that in order for a smaller fan to push enough air it needs to spin much faster than a larger one. What results are systems that are fine when idle but at the first sign of CPU load start to howl. We’ve experienced similar issues with some Ultrabook designs as well, and the noise is most definitely noticeable in a standard office or home environment.
The return of the dreaded howling fan really dampened our initial enthusiasm for the latest BRIX unit from Gigabyte. This is the one we’ve been waiting for since we first heard of it, a design that features Intel’s top end Iris Pro graphics. It is quite disappointing that, despite the hype over this design with its on-package memory, we have seen only a single system to date using it, Venom’s Blackbook Zero laptop.
As we discovered when we previewed that product, the Iris Pro is a pretty respectable GPU, and while it can’t compete with the big boys, it can deliver a perfectly enjoyable gaming experience at low to medium detail. It would be enough for a low-end Steam machine, for example, and great for a media PC that is used for the occasional bout of gaming. But it also shows why the Steam machines (and indeed the next generation consoles, with their relatively low power processors) shown off to date are all relatively large - not only do you need room if you want fully-fledged desktop performance, but you also need space in order to efficiently cool hardware running games at full tilt.
For such a tiny system, the performance is indeed impressive. In our real world benchmarks we saw an overall score of 0.88, showing that the system can hold its own with a lot of the fully-fledged desktops on the market, and in our Crysis benchmarks we saw playable medium detail framerates of 58fps, which dipped to borderline playable at high detail. With a bit of tweaking though you can get games looking decent enough at 1080p resolution, although we wouldn’t try to game at higher resolutions than this.
But again, for every usage case that we can think of for this system, the constant howling of the fan would be a massive downside.
Our other concerns with the system are quite minor – the Gigabyte logo and embossed Intel Iris Pro Graphics on the front work against the general look and feel of the BRIX, and we would have liked more than the four USB ports built into the chassis. Neither of these are dealbreakers, but we feel that the fan noise would be.
Which is a shame, because the unit has so much going for it. Gigabyte has opted for a standard 2.5in hard drive in our review unit, rather than requiring an mSATA drive – it was indicated that the BRIX would be shipping with a hard drive, but at the time of writing we still didn’t have details about the exact form this PC would take when it hit the market – hence our treatment of this as a preview rather than a full review.
If Gigabyte can sort out the cooling design for the BRIX we’d be behind this unit in a big way. As it stands, it goes the way of many other NUC implementations – great concept, largely great execution, but with a critical flaw that holds us back from being rampantly enthusiastic about it. If the cooling can be quietened and the cost kept relatively low, this could be a great option for a secondary PC, capable of some light gaming and everything else you want to throw at it.