Intel’s NUC line of mini computers have been around for years, offering a combination of compact design and decent performance for situations where you might want the power of a full-fledged PC, but you’d prefer if it didn’t take up a lot of space.
For the most part, Intel NUC computers feature laptop-class hardware. But laptop-class hardware has gotten pretty powerful in recent years, and the company’s new “Bean Canyon” NUC lineup are the first to feature 28 watt, 8th-gen Intel Core processors featuring Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655.
In other words these little computers have enough horsepower to handle some basic gaming, video editing, or other tasks that might be difficult on a system with less powerful Intel graphics.
When I ran a set of graphics benchmarks last month I found that the Lenovo ThinkPad P1 with an NVIDIA Quadro P1000 GPU easily outclassed the Intel Bean Canyon demo unit I’ve been testing… but the Bean Canyon NUC came out ahead of the Huawei MateBook X Pro with NVIDIA GeForce MX150 graphics in most tests.
Intel loaned me an NUC8i7BEH kit featuring an Intel Core i7-8559U processor for the purposes of this review, and I’ve been using it on and off for a few weeks, and for the most part the experience has been pretty great.
This configuration sells for around $460 and up (not including memory, storage, or an operating system), although there are also lower-priced models with Core i5 and Core i3 chips.
The version I’ve been testing is one of the fastest computers I’ve ever used — but you should keep in mind that I typically stick to low-power PCs rather than high-performance, power-hungry desktops.
Still, if you’re looking for a small, quiet desktop computer, you could certainly do a lot worse.
There are a few things to keep in mind though — the compact size comes with some compromises. You can easily upgrade the memory, storage, and wireless card, but not the CPU or GPU (although you could plug in an external graphics dock thanks to the computer’s Thunderbolt 3 port).
Intel also offers a more powerful line of NUC “Skull Canyon” and “Hades Canyon” mini PCs aimed at gamers… but they’re larger, noisier, and more expensive. Finally, it’s worth noting that Intel has announced that next year’s Integrated graphics will be even better… so while the Bean Canyon NUC is already a pretty nice little machine, if you can wait a year something significantly better may come along (although that’s kind of always true, isn’t it?)
OK, on with the review.
The Intel NUC8i7BEH is a compact computer that measures about 4.6″ x 4.4″ x 2″ and which has a simple black and grey design.
On the back of the computer you’ll find a power plug, an HDMI 2.0a port, a Gigabit Ethernet jack, two USB 3.1 ports, and a Thunderbolt 3/USB 3.1 Type-C Gen 3 port.
Although there’s only the one dedicated HDMI port, you could hook up two more displays by using an adapter with the Thunderbolt 3 port.
There are two USB 3.1 ports on the front of the system, along with a 3.5mm headset jack and a power button that glows when the computer is powered on.
This model also features an infrared sensor on the front and dual-array microphones for talking to Cortana or other voice software.
On the left side there’s a microSD card reader and a Kinsington lock support. A full-sized SD card reader would have been nice, but I suppose if you pick up a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 dongle or dock to add an extra display you can look for one that has a card reader built-in (like the one I recently purchased).
The lid of the computer can be removed and replaced with third-party lids if you want to customize the look or functionality of the computer. Some third-party lids add wireless charging, additional USB ports, or VGA or DVI adapters, for example.
Intel has recently started selling some NUC models as complete computers, no assembly required. But the NUC8i7BEH is offered as a kit, which means that it has most of the hardware you need to get started… but you’ll need to supply your own memory, storage, and operating system.
The model featured in this review has an Intel AC 9560 wireless card with 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth 5 support, two SODIMM slots for memory, with support for up to 32GB of DDR4-2400 RAM.
It also has an M.2 slot for a solid state drive as well as room for a 2.5 inch hard drive or SSD. Intel points out that the system also supports Intel Optane memory, so you could also use a combination of an Optane memory stick and a hard drive or SSD to get a small amount of super-speedy storage and a larger, cheaper drive for storing files.
If you’re looking for something a little more compact, Intel does offer models without the hard drive bay. Those shorter versions measure 4.6″ x 4.4″ x 1.5″ and only have a single storage slot for an M.2 SSD. You’ll also have to be willing to live with an Intel Core i5-8259U or Core i3-8109U processor, since Intel doesn’t offer a Core i7 model in that smaller form factor.
Adding or replacing memory and storage is pretty easy. Just unscrew the four feet on the bottom of the NUC and you’ll be able to lift the bottom cover to access the memory and M.2 storage. The 2.5 inch drive bay is built into the bottom cover itself, and you can just slide a drive into the slot and then screw it in place.
Once your components are installed, you’ll need to supply an operating system. I’ve tested both Windows 10 and Ubuntu 18.04 an haven’t encountered any major problems with either.
In fact, I’m using the same 16GB of Patriot Viper 4 DDR4 memory and 240GB Patriot Burst SATA III SSD that Patriot sent me when reviewing the Zotac ZBOX CI660 nano. I didn’t even bother re-installing Windows or Ubuntu — both operating systems detected the different hardware, downloaded a few updates, and allowed me to continue working as if nothing had changed (except that the processor and graphics were speedier).
I did end up installing Intel’s Driver & Support Assistant though, which prompts me to download BIOS and driver updates from time to time.
One important distinction between the NUC8i7BEH and Zotac’s compact computer is that the Intel NUC is not fanless. There’s a small fan on the flip side of the mainboard and vents on the sides and back for air to pass through.
This allows the NUC to be much smaller than the CI660, while still packing a more powerful processor. The Zotac computer measures 8.1″ x 5.1″ x 2.7″, making it more than twice as large in volume.
Zotac’s computer is quieter — while it generates a small amount of electrical noise, there are no moving parts to make noise. But the NUC8i7BEH is surprisingly quiet for a computer with a fan. The fan does spin faster (and make more noise) under heavy load, but even then it’s still quieter than many laptops I’ve used and the fan noise isn’t something that bothers me when I’m working with the computer a few feet from my ears. Put on some music while you work and you probably won’t notice the fan sound at all.
Intel makes a line of gaming NUCs. They’re bigger, louder, and more power hungry than the mini computer featured in this review.
The NUC8i7BEH isn’t really designed for gaming, but it’s got one of Intel’s most powerful integrated GPUs to date and a reasonably fast processor. Those features make it a pretty good general-purpose computer, and could even let you use the tiny PC for some more resource-intensive tasks such as video editing or some gaming.
When I ran my usual audio compression, video compression, and folder zip tests the Bean Canyon NUC didn’t really perform very differently from the Zotac CI660 nano (which features a 15 watt Kaby Lake Refresh processor), but both systems outperformed most Kaby Lake-R laptops. But these tests are pretty old at this point and I’m thinking of retiring them.
The computer was one of the fastest I’ve tested when it comes to compressing video using Handbrake. And it got the second-highest score I’ve seen in PCMark, a general-purpose computing benchmark.
The only system I’ve used that scored higher was the Lenovo ThinkPad P1, which has a 45 watt Intel Core i7-8750H processor and NVIDIA GeForce P1000 graphics.
Likewise, the ThinkPad P1 outperformed the NUC in graphics rendering test Cinebench, but the Bean Canyon NUC did pretty well for a system with integrated graphics and a much lower TDP.
Unfortunately I’ve only recently started testing computers with Cinebench, so the only other system I threw in the chart was the One Mix 2S mini laptop with a 5 watt, dual-core Intel Core m3-8100Y processor. Not surprisingly the NUC and ThinkPad P1 both ran circles around it.
I was a little surprised to see that the NUC actually scored higher in GeekBench than the ThinkPad P1. But I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s because GeekBench is a quick test that typically takes just a few minutes to complete. There’s not a lot of time for the computer to get hot and for CPU throttling to kick in to cool things off.
So I tend to think of GeekBench as a test that measures peak performance in brief spurts. PCMark, which includes a suite of tests that take a while to complete, gives a better indication of sustained performance.
It really becomes clear that this is not a gaming PC when you run 3DMark or other tools meant to look at 3D gaming performance.
This computer, with its Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655 score higher in most tests than systems with the Intel UHD 620 found in most recent Intel laptop chips. But the Huawei MateBook X Pro with a 15 watt Core i7-8550U processor and NVIDIA’s entry-level MX150 graphics comes out ahead in 3DMark’s Time Spy and Fire Strike benchmarks, and is almost neck-and-neck with the Bean Canyon NUC in the 3DMark Sky Diver and Cloud Gate tests.
The ThinkPad P1 with NVIDIA Quadro P1000, meanwhile, scores more than twice as high in some tests. And that’s a graphics card that’s not really even meant for gaming (it’s designed for mobile workstation computers that are used for photo and video editing and other graphics tasks).
For the past few years I’ve been using a laptop as my primary computer — but when I’m working in my home office I use it as if it were a desktop. I connect an external display, speakers, and a wireless mouse and keyboard.
The advantage is that all of my important data and applications are on one PC — I don’t have to switch computers when I want to fire up an application that I only have a single license for (such as QuickBooks or some paid plugins that I use with Reaper for editing podcasts). I also get to treat my laptop like a second display.
But there’s also something kind of nice about having a clean desk — and a tiny PC like an Intel NUC makes that possible. The computer’s small enough that you could mount it to the back of a display to create a pseudo all-in-one PC if you wanted to. Or you can just put it anywhere on your desk and nearly forget that it’s there.
It takes up less space than a laptop and way less space than a desktop tower. The relatively quiet fan means it’s also not particularly distracting if you’re using it in a quiet space. And best of all, it offers better performance than you’ll get from most recent thin-and-light laptops.
I’ve had no problem using it to view and edit documents with LibreOffice and Google Docs, research and write articles for Liliputing (including this review), edit photos in GIMP and Irfanview, and do some audio editing in Reaper.
The computer had no trouble keeping up with any of those tasks. I regularly found myself opening 20+ Google Chrome browser tabs while streaming music from Spotify at the same time during my work day. Your results may vary depending on your web browser of choice and how much RAM you equip the system with.
Despite the computer’s small size, it has enough ports to plug in most common accessories. I was able to plug in a monitor, speakers, a wireless keyboard & mouse dongle, and I still had a few ports left over.
Want a single-plug solution? Pick up a USB dock or hub. I recently purchased a hub with HDMI, audio, USB, and Ethernet jacks plus a few USB ports. I plugged all of my accessories into the hub and now I can connect everything to the NUC with a single cable — leaving the front of the computer looking clean (it does look a little messy with an audio cable running from the headphone jack).
I haven’t noticed any significant difference in display performance between the USB-C port and HDMI port. And I get the same data transfer speeds whether I’ve plugged an Ethernet cable into the computer’s RJ45 jack or the one on my USB hub.
I’ve primarily used Windows 10 on the NUC, but it’s pretty easy to load an alternate operating system. You can load Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, or another GNU/Linux distribution onto a USB flash drive, plug it in, and then hit the F7 key during start to open Intel’s Visual BIOS menu which lets you select the boot device priority, among other things.
The Visual BIOS is pretty advanced compared to the text-only settings available on most PCs. You can navigate with a mouse, view detailed information about CPU temperature and fan speed, set cooling policy details, disable hardware, and make many other changes.
While I’ve primarily tested the NUC8i7BEH in my office, it’s also capable of driving up to three displays and it can handle resolutions up to 4096 x 2304 at 60 Hz. It would make a pretty nice media center PC or digital signage or kiosk computer.
The integrated graphics should be powerful enough for most day-to-day tasks such as web browsing, document editing, multimedia consumption, and even some content creation and light gaming.
The inclusion of a Thunderbolt 3 port means that you could connect a graphics dock and use a discrete, desktop GPU with the tiny computer — although you’d probably end up spending almost as much on the dock + graphics card as you did on the NUC itself. The GPU dock would also probably be much, much larger than this tiny computer.
Overall I’ve been pretty happy using this little computer as an office PC, but it’s clearly not the best choice for everyone. It’s small and quiet, but some folks might prefer a larger system that offers more under-the-hood configuration options.
Plus, if you opt for a tower PC you can probably find a more powerful PC for a lower price tag.
Sure, the $460 starting price doesn’t seem bad for a system with this kind of performance, you have to remember to factor in the cost of memory, storage, and maybe an operating system. Those additional costs can easily add $300 or more to the base price, although Linux users can probably spend a bit less since they won’t need to spend $100 on a Windows license.
But a huge part of the appeal of an NUC is that it isn’t a desktop tower. It’s a low-profile machine that doesn’t take up much space. You could use it to create a minimalist office environment. You could stick it by your TV to play games, stream videos, or act as a DVR in the living room. Or you could use it in an office, as a point-of-sales computer, or to drive a digital signage system for your store, just to name a few likely use cases.
But Intel is the first company to make models with 28 watt, Intel Coffee Lake processors and Iris Plus graphics. And that might be enough reason to consider buying one of these little computers.
If $460 is too much to spend on a barebones computer with a Core i7-8559U processor, there are a few cheaper options.
Both of those systems also feature Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655, although it’s worth noting that the GPUs are a little slower on the lower-priced models, and the Core i3 version has a dual-core chip (the Core i5 and Core i7 models have quad-core processors).