Tiny build for a full Windows 10 PC. Low price. Plenty of connectivity options, including 4K HDMI support. Expandable storage and memory. Includes Bluetooth and Wi-Fi wireless connectivity. Three-year warranty.
Only 2GB of memory and 32GB of flash storage included.
- Bottom Line
The NUC6CAYS model of the Intel NUC Kit is a small, versatile, upgradable, and highly affordable desktop PC with the same basic feature set as that of a much larger machine.
Each system in Intel's Next Unit of Computing (NUC) line combines versatility, upgradability, and affordability in one miniature package. Unlike some other NUCs, which are bare-bones boxes requiring additional components to function, the NUC6CAYS comes with everything you need, including memory, storage, and even Windows 10. With plenty of connectivity options and expansion potential, it's a good choice for an enterprising DIYer, though you never have to crack the case if you don't want to. Factor in its impressive price ($215 as tested), and it deservedly replaces the more expensive Shuttle XPC Nano as our Editors' Choice for budget desktop PCs.
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Looks Can Be Deceiving
Unobtrusive and compact, the NUC is the one of the most space-saving, travel-friendly PCs out there. At 2 by 4.5 by 4.3 inches (HWD) it's not quite as small as the pocket-size Intel Compute Stick or the Asus VivoStick, but it's faster and much more fully featured. It's roughly the same size as other mini PCs, like the Shuttle XPC Nano (1.14 by 5.6 by 5.6 inches) and the Asus VivoMini (1.9 by 7.8 by 7.8 inches). At just 1.3 pounds, the NUC has a little weight to it that prevents it from feeling cheap, but you won't be too hesitant to take it on a trip. The $99 straddles the line between stick and desktop, is even lighter, at only 5.76 ounces.
The four sides are all gray plastic, while the top edge is a shinier black plastic. Around the ports and Power button is a slim LED trim that can be changed between multiple colors and effects. This is a somewhat surprising inclusion, something normally reserved for gaming systems and peripherals, though the fact that the light can only be configured through the BIOS is a pain. Less-experienced users may be entirely unaware that the BIOS even exists, but access to it is simple and uniform across Windows PCs. You can get to the menus while the NUC is booting, and in this case the LED controls are tucked away in the Power tab within the Advanced section.
The options there are (again surprisingly) rather granular for this type of product—you can make the ring flash, glow steadily, or fade in and out slowly. You can also configure the NUC to flash it like a traditional smaller LED activity light when the computer is "thinking," but it's pretty distracting and irritating on a machine this size. This is for some reason the default behavior, so you may very well want dive into the BIOS and change it, or at least reduce the brightness. The Power button's LED color can also be changed from blue to orange, and set to serve as the activity light, if you want.
There's 32GB of flash storage on board, a modest amount that matches up with the stick PCs and budget laptops like chromebooks. The XPC Nano offers the same amount, but the Asus VivoMini VC65-G042Z boasts a full 1TB drive, albeit for a much higher price. The amount of storage here isn't a ton, but it's enough to store some photos and video, along with plenty of documents—just don't fill it up quickly with super-high-res footage or pictures.
The NUC's upgradability can save the day, however. You can outfit it with an additional 2.5-inch hard drive or SSD alongside the boot drive, should you desire more space. Removing the four screws on the bottom releases the panel for access to the drive tray, a nice, simple solution. Getting under the tray to the rest of the components is only bit trickier—just be careful with the attached SATA cables as you lift it away. Underneath the tray is the motherboard, with two DDR3L SO-DIMM slots. The NUC6CAYS unit comes with 2GB installed, so adding more wouldn't hurt, though there is a maximum of 8GB. That's the extent of your upgrade options, but they're useful and can make meaningful differences to the NUC's capabilities.
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For a tiny box, the NUC is loaded with connectivity options. It has a more robust suite of ports than you'd find on many laptops, and stacks up well to the selections on some full-size desktops. On the front, inside the LED ring, are two USB 3.0 ports (one with charging capability), the headset jack, and the Power button. The right panel is empty aside from some venting, while the left includes a matching air vent, an SD card slot, and a Kensington security slot. On the rear, there are two more USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port with 4K support, a VGA connection, an Ethernet jack, and an optical audio line. Wireless connectivity includes Bluetooth 4.2 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. The NUC also features a dual-array front mic, enabling you to take advantage of Windows 10's Cortana voice features. Intel supports the NUC with a limited three-year warranty.
Just Enough Zip
This version of the NUC features a 1.5GHz quad-core Intel Celeron J3455 processor, 2GB of memory, with integrated Intel HD Graphics 500. It performed modestly on the PCMark 8 Work Conventional test, scoring higher than the Kangaroo, the 2016 Compute Stick, and the VivoStick, but behind the XPC Nano. It's not a powerhouse, obviously, but is reasonably capable for its price and size. It fared a bit better on the multimedia tests, more closely matching the XPC Nano (and in fact, completing our HandBrake encoding test much quicker).
With this speed and feature set, you can set up the NUC as a secondary media streamer in your house, for instance, or take it with you to connect to a display and show a presentation or set up a demo. Its power and use of only integrated graphics mean it's obviously not suited to gaming or demanding 3D programs, though—we haven't arrived at palm-size gaming PCs quite yet.
Generally speaking, the Intel NUC Kit NUC6CAYS is not going to make quick work of your media projects or be a multitasking powerhouse, but it can handle your average daily activities and without much delay. If you can pay up and need the speed, the VivoMini and its Core i5 processor are definitely quicker, while the XPC Nano is slightly faster and can hold up to 16GB of memory. The NUC6CAYS probably can't serve as the main PC for most users (certainly not without upgrades), but the value and versatility at $215 mean it can affordably fill in at multiple roles, as long as you have a need.
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Matthew Buzzi is a junior analyst on the Hardware team at PCMag. Matthew graduated from Iona College with a degree in Mass Communications/Journalism. He interned for a college semester at Kotaku, writing about gaming. He has written about technology and video game news, as well as hardware and gaming reviews. In his free time, he likes to go out with friends, watch and discuss sports, play video games, read too much Twitter, and obsessively manage any fantasy sports leagues he's involved in. More »
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