Sunday, April 28, 2013

Intel NUC: A good deal for a powerful tiny server


you want to set up a small multimedia server, but you want it to have some power. Sure, it needs to be able to handle 1080P mkv files and play them. But if that's all you need you could get the latest Apple TV, or the Xios Pivos, or go exotic and get an Odroid device. If you just want to play stuff and mount some windows shares. But what if you want to also:

1) Rip video apart and put it back together

2) Connect to servers to download content and store it

3) Export file systems, and function as a file server

4) Do actual video transcoding, and handle multiple remote sessions with multiple accounts

5) Not want to put your foot through your TV every time it stutters on video because it's busy putting Par2's files together.

6) Want to run Linux because you don't want to spend 99 bucks for a windows license you aren't really going to use.

Yeah, you aren't doing all that with a 100 dollar anything. You'll need an actual real tiny little server. Something with some power. You'll need a ton of ram to handle 4 and 5 gig video editing/transcoding. You'll need wicked fast storage. You'll need decent enough video out, and good linux compatibility. So right away your brain says "mini-itx" because you want small. So lets price out some mini-itx.

First, you'll want the most powerful processor you can find with built in video at a reasonable price. That's easy. AMD's APU series is great and has built in Radeon video. You can get the awesome sounding A10-5800k Trinity processor with built in Radeon 7660d for 120 bucks. Now you'll need a tiny Mini-ITX case that doesn't look like ass. No problem. You can get a Rosewill or Apex Mini ITX case for around 50 bucks that should power the 100W 5800K just fine. Then you'll need a motherboard. You've got essentially one choice and that's the ASRock FM2A85X-ITX. It's 100 bucks. Also you'll need thermal paste for 5 bucks, and a good quiet heatsink/fan solution for another 30, and suddenly you are at 305 bucks before adding memory or SSD. And the motherboard isn't rated well...

And you do research and you find out that Linux isn't playing nice with the Radeon 7000 series cards at the moment. You will likely have problems with 1080p video. And you find out that the A10 chips are actually benchmarking SLOWER than the Intel i3. And you have to build it all yourself, and that's a pain in the ass, and you end up getting the Intel NUC for 299. Linux loves the i3. Linux loves the HD 4000 series video. No hassle, less money, better compatibility, more power. So what will you need?

1) The Intel NUC itself
2) Some ram (I opted for the Corsair Value Select 16G pack with 2 8G sticks)
3) A good mSATA SATA III SSD drive (I got a 128G Plextor)
4) A stupid IEC320C5 (little cloverleave shape thinger) power cable since they don't include one. The pricks. I got a Cables To Go 27400 for 5 bucks.  This is the cable you'll see plugged into Dell powerbricks if you've had a Dell laptop.

Here's what comes in the Intel NUC box:

1) The Intel NUC
2) A DIN chassis plate for connecting the NUC to the back of your TV
3) The powerbrick with no included IEC320C5 cable
4) The instructions you'll never use
5) An Intel Core i3 sticker that you won't put on it because it's fucking ugly.

NOTE: The box itself also includes a light sensitive music chip that plays the Intel theme. It goes off the first time you open the box. I've had ridiculous fun hiding this thing in cupboards. It drives +Jennifer Reda insane.

I put the sticker on my phone:

On the front you have a lone USB port:

On the back you have:

Power connector, two more USB, two HDMI out, and 1G Ethernet. It also has a Kensington lock socket.

Now, the next thing you'll want to do is unscrew all four screws on the bottom:

Simple nice design. The screws are inside the feet. So when it's screwed back together and sitting on your TV stand (or mounted behind it) it resembles a bespoke device rather than some computer thinger with exposed screw heads. It's such an attractive little unit I actually recommend showing it off rather than using the DIN mount and putting it on your TV.

Here's what it looks like opened up:

You'll notice two mSATA slots, and two ram slots. The little wires sticking up near the bottom are the antenna wires for an mSATA WiFi. I didn't bother installing one.

Here it is with my Ram and SSD installed:

I just put the WiFi antenna wires under the SSD. There's a standoff with a screw in it to fix the drive in place. Just unscrew it, ease the drive into the socket, and screw it down. I will caution you that the memory slots (top of the pic) are STIFF. You WILL think you are going to break something trying to get the memory in the slots. Also you'll have a moment of confusion when you go to put the cover back on since it's perfectly square. Just look at the cover and you'll notice one side of the four has no flange. Point that towards the rear where the connectors are (the right side in the pic above) and it will go back on fine. Screw it back together and you are done. HELL of a lot better/easier than screwing with the AMD Mini-ITX solution.

And you are essentially done at this point with the "build" lol. You now have something a hell of a lot more powerful than a Raspberry PI. And it friggin better be. It costs about six times more to configure decently. I just noticed I had four tiny devices doing the work that this one box could do. I'm going to make back about 100 bucks after selling all the other things that the Intel NUC replaced.  (drives, external chassis, Odroid-U2, video editing box, etc) and get much better performance.

I went with CentOS because it does what I need, and I don't have to fight with Ubuntu's brain-dead NetworkManager implementation. Lately I've just been over Ubuntu and its children. CentOS seems more mature to me. I will caution you about three things before doing the Linux install:

1) get a hardware USB keyboard and get ready to mash F2 on first boot to change the BiOS settings.
2) disable secure boot if it is enabled
3) enable Legacy USB support for keyboards/mice
4) disable USB boot preference.
5) use F10 to force booting from your install device

If you do not do these things, your install will be hell. Also, it will decide your install drive (I used a USB stick install) is /dev/sda and that your SSD drive is /dev/sdb, and you will go nuts trying to figure out why Linux won't boot after your install.

So how does it work?

Intel NUC Geekbench Link

That's a pretty impressive Geekbench score. You'll notice the outstanding memory bandwidth score. The overall score is not the fastest, but the i3 has great "torque" or stump-pulling power. Amazing for such a tiny device (4"x4"x2"). More so when you consider the total cost (about 500 bucks). Consider a Mac Mini that could do this would cost double.

 Does it look nice? Well you tell me. Here's the main screen:

That's what I see on my TV.

Here's XBMC

And here's my back-door editing screen. I get to it with my Chromebook Pixel (I set up Xrdp):

That's all the tools I need to make sure the first track of any video is in English, or to change an MKV into an AVI for Google Drive, etc. Anything I want to do. And all of it is stupidly fast and powerful and stutter free. I can be downloading a video while assembling another one, while transcoding another one, while XBMC is playing a 1080P video and there's no stutter, no muss, no fuss. Everything just works perfectly. All in one tiny little box that makes no noise.

This is nirvana.

So do I recommend the Intel NUC? Depends. Do you want all the things you'd ever want to do video in one little box with zero compromises? Then yes. I highly recommend it. It would also make a fine cheap Linux/Windows workstation. I wouldn't be surprised if OSX86 runs on it as well (Hackintosh). But if you just need something to stream video, no. I don't recommend it. You'd be better off with a Roku. Especially if you aren't delving too deeply into the dark arts of Internet content.

It's a fantastic little box that's a full server. If that's what you need, you won't find a better price.