The classic desktop computer isn’t what it used to be; gigantic rectangular leviathans that once occupied entire workspaces have been forced to adapt for relevancy and convenience. Mini PCs have since taken the torch as the feasible conciliation between ultraportable laptops and customizable builds, and entries like Intel’s NUC6i5SYC NUC Kit (Next Unit of Computing) are popping up all over the place; all ready and willing to give you everything you need and benchmarks to back up that claim.
It’s a productive solution, but a bit of open-mindedness is needed for the NUC to be seen as a winner — especially with the realization of required assembly after the price sets in.
Editors’ Note: This review is on the standard NUC6i5SYK equipped with a 6th generation Intel Core i5-6260U Skylake processor. Other configurations of the Intel NUC kit include the NUC6i5SYH which adds room for 2.5-inch hard drives, and accompanying Core i3-6100 NUC6i3SYK/NUC6i3SYH models.
Upon opening the box and examining the contents we noticed two things: the NUC is a pretty straightforward looker, and there’s some physical heft behind the design. At 4.53” x 4.37” x 1.26” and a weight of about 1.4lbs the NUC is one of heavier mini-desktops we’ve tested, although one can’t deny the build quality of a vented aluminum chassis is a step above in durability while a replaceable plastic glossy lid sits on top to unintentionally attract fingerprints and scratches. Connectivity is packed with four Super Hi-Speed USB 3.0 ports in the front and back (one is even a sleep-and-charge), Ethernet, full-size HDMI (1.4b), Mini DisplayPort 1.2, SDXC card slot, and AC power.
The internals are equally compact but sports a logical layout with plenty of room to install two sticks of RAM in a stacked arrangement and Type M connector for a M.2 SSD card, all incorporated on the motherboard itself. Other additions include an Intel Wireless-AC 8260 (802.11ac) 1×1 card, Bluetooth 4.1, along with expandability for near-field communication (NFC) and two more Hi-Speed USB 2.0 ports via internal headers for future modifications.
The NUC may be a barebones kit but Intel does start you off with a Core i5-6260U, a dual-core CPU that clocks in at a base 1.8 GHz, and a turbo boost of 2.9 GHz to help get things moving. It’s basically a laptop workhorse soldered in the motherboard to make it speedy enough and power efficient for its size, but that’s really all you get in terms of vital components out of the box.
Everything else is do-it-yourself and there’s no other way to sugarcoat it: you will be plunking down extra greenbacks over the NUC’s $399 MSRP. That’s right, you’ll get no OS, no storage, and you’ll have to get DDR4 memory on top of that; a challenge for the latter considering that availability is relatively scarce. It wasn’t cheap but we definitely tried to keep things reasonable with a 250GB Samsung 850 EVO M.2 Series internal SATA SSD, an 8GB G.SKILL Ripjaws DDR4-2400 SODIMM stick, and Microsoft Windows 10 Home all for $237. Without a doubt, the scale of economics will be the biggest hurdle to overcome when considering an Intel NUC.
Beyond that, our specific build was very capable just after quickly piecing it together and a boot initialization that took 24 minutes overall. If we just focus on the NUC6i5SYK’s CPU then we have an intermediate desktop that’s more than suitable in everyday performance, and had no problem with the basics like a mainstream mid-tower would. Loading is quick for most things we threw at it and found it was excellent for YouTube, Microsoft Office 2016, and Adobe Photoshop CC where mild graphic editing and 2D work was handled with ease. Ideal if you use a PC primarily for work and don’t like the hum of fan noise.
Intel has also proclaimed the latest NUC as a small gaming machine thanks to onboard Iris 540 graphics, which is perfect for Netflix or even a seamless HTPC, but a far from any respectable discrete GPU — It can be done but I’d hardly think of the NUC6i5SYK as a proper heavyweight.
We took a couple games through the wringer and found much of the experience manageable at 1080p. Our first title was Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare which has been my main first-person shooter for benchmarking after Battlefield 4, it’s a modern pick and serves as a good indicator on what we can expect in “high end” performance. Deep down, we got an average of 28 FPS with a deliberate graphical selection on medium/low settings, and 4 FPS (no joking) on ultra, making the visuals overwhelmingly demanding and gameplay essentially unplayable.
As a result, we set the bar low when testing Street Fighter V at low settings and got a fairly consistent 57-60 FPS, despite our neutral/hate relationship of the game this was the second-best title the NUC6i5SYK ran overall. We also had Ultra Street Fighter IV on hand and that was even better at a locked 60 FPS on the default graphic settings.
Another thing to point out is the 4K playback for local media, making good use of the embedded FLAC and MKV formats (H.265/HEVC). We believe this is where the NUC excels and doesn’t break a sweat under those heavy viewing sessions – just as long as you’re willing to incorporate the Mini DisplayPort for an accurate 4K/60Hz video. Oddly enough, HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 compatibility was left out — an anomaly considering the futureproofing dedicated users typically demand.
The Intel NUC6i5SYC NUC Kit is one of the most powerful mini PCs to ever come through the office. The miniature profile and specifications makes it an attractive proposition, and showcases what’s possible without the associated bulk. However, the appeal is somewhat marred by the actual cost of the unit itself, as our Core i5 NUC stands at $399 before calculating the added components needed to make it work, in total you’re looking at a $550-$600 desktop without overclocking features and a dedicated GPU.
The NUC does try and hide its workstation priorities but this refreshed NUC does deliver on excellent home and HTPC potential like it’s predecessors. But ultimately, being a curious PC user or current NUC owner will decide the potential in this Skylake iteration.