Want the most powerful palm-sized PC on the market today? Then you want Intel's newest Next Unit of Computing (NUC, pronounced "nuck"). Intel created the NUC line of ultra-compact form factor (UCFF) kits to allow enthusiasts to build desktop PCs that would have seemed other-worldly just a few years ago... and every other NUC was just a warm-up to this one! The basics have stayed the same for a while: the NUC harnesses a high-performance laptop CPU and a custom 10cm x 10cm motherboard to give you the smallest high-end desktop on the market. Just add a pair of laptop-style RAM sticks, an M.2-based solid-state drive, and an operating system, and you've got yourself a tremendously-powerful PC that you can slip into your pocket!
For the May 2017 edition of this guide, we're happy to report that you can finally get your hands on the Core i5-equipped 7th-generation NUC, the very first NUC to feature a Thunderbolt 3-equipped USB 3.1 Type-C port. That provides amazing "future-proof" functionality. And of course, the Kaby Lake-based Core i5-7260 CPU in this NUC is incredibly fast, with Turbo speeds up to 3.4GHz and onboard Intel HD 640 graphics that can output 4K/60Hz video via the NUC's HDMI 2.0 port. What does all this add up to? The ultimate video streaming box, of course! This model was supposed to arrive by late February, so enthusiasts have been clamoring to get their hands on it, meaning it's going to be selling out fast!
You can also go with the taller "H" version, shown here, which allows you to add a 2.5" SSD or hard drive for additional storage capacity. As of our latest update, it's widely available with a Core i3-7100U processor, but you can also get it with a Core i5 or Core i7 dual-core CPU!
Now, what if you need truly serious power from your palm-sized PC? Then you'll want to spring for the "Skull Canyon" NUC, shown here. It's about twice the size of the standard NUC, due to the cooling requirements of its powerful quad-core processor (the only quad in any Intel NUC!) and upgraded Iris graphics. Equipped with 16GB of high-performance DDR4-2666 RAM and a PCIe-based solid-state drive, it will be the match for just about any desktop PC. It will even make for an excellent 1080p gaming device! Intel thoughtfully includes a spare top plate that drops the outlandish skull motif, making it a perfect fit for use in an office setting! While this model isn't being upgraded to 7th-gen status yet, Intel unofficially confirmed to us at CES 2017 that it will get that treatment sooner rather than later!
Need help building your NUC? See our hands-on PC Builder's Guide, which will show you not only how to put together your NUC, but also how to attach it to a touchscreen monitor for the ultimate NUC PC experience! To discuss this build, feel free to stop by our Reader Forum. And if you decide you don't need something quite this small, check out the other options in our Small Form Factor Build Guides, which leverage the power of midrange and high-end desktop-class processors.
One thing to keep in mind - there are a few pre-built systems on the market that are nearly as compact as the NUC, which you can see in our Desktop Buyer's Guide. They may be the preferred option if you're more interested in the form factor than the actual process of building a UCFF PC, but due to their lack of SSDs, they won't feel as fast. If you do decide to build the NUC, let us know and we'll add your system to the User Gallery!
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The $700 Intel NUC Ultra-Compact PC - May 2017
At 4.5" x 4.4" x 1.3", the NUC can practically fit in your pocket! It comes with a 65W power supply, a pre-installed motherboard, and the ultra-efficient Core i5-7260U 2.2GHz dual-core CPU with Turbo to 3.4GHz, which makes it far faster than the previous-gen Core i5 model. Also on board is Intel's new HD 640 graphics chip, among the first embedded chips from Intel that do proper 4K/60Hz output. Combined with the NUC's built-in HDMI 2.0 port, this provides the best HTPC experience available on any PC today! And with this Core i5-based model, you even get a Thunderbolt-equipped USB 3.1 Type-C port, for the ultimate in functionality and speed.
The Guru's Tip:
Need 2.5" SSD or hard drive support? The standard "K" series NUC can only accept M.2 stick-based drives, but the taller NUC "H" model, shown here, will accept both M.2 and 2.5" drives, including the ultra-high-capacity Seagate 2TB 2.5" hard drive! Note that as of our most recent update, you can even get the "H"-style NUC with a Core i7 dual-core processor, which features a Core i7-7567U 3.5GHz processor with 4GHz Turbo, plus the blisteringly-fast Intel Iris Plus Graphics 650. It comes only in an "H" variant due to its greater cooling needs. Alternatively, you can save some money going with the Core i3 NUC "H".
Want way, way more power in your pocket-sized PC? Then go for Intel's Skull Canyon NUC, a seriously-fast PC wrapped up in a very streamlined body. Packing in a quad-core processor typically seen only in ultra-high-end laptops, along with Intel's best Iris graphics, this NUC offers an incredibly-compelling technology showcase for today's PC market. It even has USB 3.1 Type-C with Thunderbolt 3 support, the most cutting-edge connectivity available! This system doesn't have space for a 2.5" drive, but it makes up for that by offering two slots for M.2-based SSDs!
The Guru's Tip:
Note that Intel unofficially confirmed to us at CES 2017 that the Skull Canyon NUC will eventually be updated with 7th-generation processors, but for now, its 6th-gen Core i7-6770HQ processor still makes it the fastest NUC ever released.
The NUC format has always required the use of laptop-style memory modules, and the Kaby Lake-based NUC requires DDR4 laptop memory (DDR3 will not work!). Crucial is among the few manufacturers marketing laptop-style DDR4 memory, and this kit is among the best-priced kits available. We think 8GB is the sweet spot for this build, but if you think you need more, Crucial's 2x8GB kit is always an option!
The Guru's Tip:
The standard NUC will not support DDR4 speeds higher than 2133MHz, but the Skull Canyon NUC will. If that's the NUC you're going with, pick up Corsair's Vengeance 2x8GB DDR4-2666 kit!
To make the most of this tiny system, you want to run it off of a speedy PCIe-based SSD. So we trade off a bit of capacity here to get a really fast drive in your system. The MyDigitalSSD BPX features a fast Phison controller and high-quality MLC NAND for consistent long-term performance.
The Guru's Tip:
If you go with the Skull Canyon NUC, you obviously have a need for speed, so go straight for the new Samsung 960 Pro 512GB, the fastest SSD on the market! Note that the Skull Canyon NUC actually has dual M.2 slots (and no 2.5" bay), so running two M.2 drives is an option if you need additional capacity.
Windows 10 is the best Windows yet, and Microsoft now ships it on a USB 3.0 flash drive, making OS installation easier and faster than ever!
The Guru's Tip:
Note that the Flash Drive version of Windows is a full retail copy, meaning you can move it to another system later on.