Intel's NUC: The Little PC That Could?

And it was so small, you could have easily missed it.

Intel calls it the "Next Unit of Computing," or the NUC. It's a mini-PC with a 4 x 4-inch chassis running Intel's third-generation Core i3 processor with a variety of ports (USB, HDMI, Thunderbolt) depending on the model. Despite its small size, the NUC is customizable and can be used as the engine for digital signage, media centers and kiosks.

Intel has been working on the NUC for some time now, but the product has only recently gained notoriety. The chip maker introduced the NUC concept with Core i3 chips last year at its Intel Developer Forum (previous versions of the NUC had been based on lesser processors such as Intel's Celeron), and the design had tech enthusiasts buzzing.

Now there are reports that new versions of the NUC will feature Core i5 and i7 processors. Intel hasn't commented specifically on what's coming with future NUC models, but executives told Intel Solutions Summit attendees they should expect exciting things from the mini-PC.

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Glen Coffield, owner and president of Smart Guys Computers in Lake Mary, Fla., has been one of Intel's toughest critics lately, hammering the chip maker over its decision to phase out its desktop motherboard manufacturing business. But even Coffield is impressed by the NUC.

"There's potential there," Coffield said. "That kind of quasi-all-in-one system is great. They're very good for media stations and digital signage."

Solution providers such as Sherlock Systems in Buffalo Grove, Ill., have already seen the NUC make an impact on their business. Joe Fiorita, director of sales and business development at Sherlock Systems, said his company does nothing but single-application systems such as digital signage because interest in these specialized products is so high.

For example, Sherlock Systems uses the NUC design for its SherPlayer HD media station, which features a 1.8GHz Core i3 processor and supports 1,080p video playback with dual HDMI ports and Intel's HD4000 graphics. The low-power consumption and small footprint of the NUC has made Sherlock's systems popular in a variety of verticals, from restaurants to medical centers.

Fiorita is a fan of the NUC but says the mini-PC has some limits that need to be addressed. "This form factor is a nice start, but it has some issues," he said. "It only accepts mSATA hard drives. The downside is most manufacturers of mSATA do not offer power data loss protection, which is a big problem."

Intel sells NUC units as well as individual motherboards; the boards come with the i3 processor soldered to the board, so the CPU can't be upgraded or replaced. The units are typically priced at around $275, making Intel's mini-PC cheaper than a tablet and an affordable back-end system for a fully functional, Windows 8-based touch-screen display, for example.

The NUC already has some competition, too: Gigabyte, an Intel OEM partner, recently unveiled its own line of mini-PCs called Brix. The Brix systems are similar in size and scale to Intel's NUC, but already offer Core i5 and i7 processor versions.

Intel plans to release its fourth-generation Core chips, dubbed Haswell, later this year, which could find their way into the mini-PCs. The chip maker hasn't released specific figures for NUC sales but appears committed to making the small-form-factor PC a big player, especially in the system builder channel.