Tiny PCs make a lot of sense in homes and offices where there isn’t enough space for full-sized desktop towers. Not everyone needs top-end hardware with elaborate cooling mechanisms and multiple hard drives – and much of the volume inside today’s PC cabinets is actually empty thanks to increased integration. If you can get all your work done on a laptop, you’re already using components that can be packed into much smaller spaces. So why aren’t tiny PCs, such as Intel’s NUC lineup, more popular?
It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. Not a lot of people know that such options exist, and shops don’t make such PCs readily available to retail buyers. As such, there’s not a lot of demand from either end. Another factor is that these PCs are generally sold barebones with no RAM or storage – the user has to add their own, and then install an OS and set everything up. Such devices are widely used in offices where they are deployed in large numbers, and they’re also great for powering kiosks and large information displays. This is a niche segment, but f you want to find one for personal use, it isn’t impossible.
Intel’s NUC (Next Unit of Computing) brand has been around for nearly a decade now. The range has expanded to cater to various niches spanning everything from gaming to fanless industrial deployments. Over the years, we’ve seen tiny HDMI sticks, dockable cards, modular gaming PCs, and even barebones laptop kits. Today, we have a relatively simple model for review, but it’s loaded up with a modern 11th Gen Intel Core CPU featuring integrated Iris Xe graphics. We’re going to see how such a PC can fit into people’s lives and whether it could be right for you.
Intel NUC 11 Pro NUC11TNKi5 design and setup
From the outside, the NUC 11 Pro (codenamed Tiger Canyon) looks like much any recent NUC model, which is no surprise since these things are meant to be utilitarian and will usually be tucked out of sight anyway. The body measures 117x112x37mm which is roughly 4.5 inches square and about as tall as the average desktop mouse. Larger models are available, with space to accommodate a 2.5-inch SATA hard drive or SSD, or more powerful hardware.
You can place the NUC 11 Pro on a table, and it will be pretty unobtrusive. A VESA mounting bracket is included in the box so you can also screw it to the back of a compatible monitor or use a wide variety of industry-standard mounts. You could also just use strong Velcro or double-sided tape – it isn’t too heavy, at just over half a kilo. You will have to deal with a rather large external power brick, though.
Despite its diminutive size, there are a lot of options for connectivity. The front panel has two USB 3.2 Gen1 (5Gbps) Type-A ports. and on the back you’ll find the DC power inlet; one more USB 3.2 Type-A port; one legacy USB 2.0 port; one Thunderbolt 4 Type-C and one Thunderbolt 3 Type-C port (both supporting DisplayPort 1.4 video output and 40Gbps USB4 data); two HDMI 2.0b ports with CEC; and 2.5Gigabit Ethernet. Strangely, there’s no 3.5mm audio socket so you’ll have to route audio through HDMI or DisplayPort, or go wireless. Sadly, you can’t run this mini PC using USB Type-C power delivery.
You can technically have up to four displays at the same time, either using all four video outputs (HDMI and Thunderbolt) or by daisy-chaining Thunderbolt-compatible monitors. All four can run at 4K 3840×2160 and at 60Hz. Alternatively, you could have two of those plus one 5120×3200 60Hz display. The Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 ports are different in terms of supported PCIe data rates and some feature-level functionality, but there are no external markings telling you which one is which.
The bottom panel comes off if you loosen the captive screws in each of the four rubber legs. You’ll be able to access the two SO-DIMM RAM slots with no trouble. There’s a standard M.2 2280 slot (which is keyed only for NVMe SSDs) and a second, shorter M.2 2242 slot which can be used for a SATA SSD or PCIe x1 module. There are also two internal USB 2.0 headers and even a serial port header for hobbyists to exploit. The top panel can be popped off with a fingernail but nothing beneath it is accessible – only the interior fan shroud and Wi-Fi antennas can be seen.
Intel NUC 11 Pro NUC11TNKi5 specifications and features
At the heart of this particular NUC 11 Pro is a Core i5-1135G7 processor, from Intel’s 11th Gen ‘Tiger Lake’ family. This CPU is mainly intended for use in slim laptops and has a nominal 15W TDP, but can be scaled between 12W and 28W and Intel has chosen the latter option here. This takes advantage of the better cooling that’s possible in a chassis like this, compared to a slim laptop, and will allow it to run at peak speeds for longer. The Core i5-1135G7 has four cores with Hyper-Threading, and in this implementation, the CPU will run at a 2.4GHz base speed with a single-core boost speed of up to 4.2GHz.
The integrated Iris Xe GPU is a big draw here – this is one of Intel’s big pushes for its mobile 11th Gen CPUs and is built off a new architecture that has been taking shape for years. It promises a significant performance jump over Intel’s previous integrated GPUs, which have had a reputation for just about being able to cover the basics. The G7 suffix on the CPU’s model number indicates that the GPU is relatively powerful, with 80 execution units.
In addition to the ports listed above, you also get Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5. Up to 64GB of DDR4-3200 RAM is supported across the two SO-DIMM slots. 7.1 channel audio is supported, but only over HDMI or DisplayPort.
Intel lists a few other uncommon features – the NUC 11 Pro is said to be suitable for 24×7 operation, and can run “headless”, ie with only an emulated display. It can also handle DC input voltage fluctuations to some extent. You’ll find a little nub at the back to anchor the DC power cord to so it doesn’t get yanked out (or stolen), and a Kensington security slot on the left. The warranty is three years, and Intel also lists a guaranteed three-year availability window. These things all cater to the commercial target audience, more than the average home user.
Intel NUC 11 Pro NUC11TNKi5 performance and usage
Intel’s NUC boxes are generally sold barebones, with no RAM or storage. It’s up to system integrators to configure and resell them, or for buyers to add their own hardware and operating system. For the purpose of this review, Intel loaded up the NUC 11 Pro review unit with a single 16GB DDR4-3200 Kingston ValueRAM module and a 512GB Transcend SATA SSD in the M.2 2242 slot, with Windows 10 already installed. This was a surprise, considering that an NVMe SSD in the standard M.2 slot would have perfored far better, but that was left blank. If you choose to use this slot (which you will probably have to, given the rarity of retail M.2 2242 SSDs), your SSD will sit right on top of the Wi-Fi module, which might affect thermals.
After allowing Windows 10 to download all the latest updates, I began with benchmark tests. The Core i5 CPU put up a decent show in PCMark’s standard and Extreme runs, with scores of 4,543 and 3,853 respectively. It also scored 523 and 2,166 respectively in Cinebench R20’s single-threaded and multi-threaded tests. POVRay ran its render benchmark in 2 minutes, 29 seconds, while VRay’s CPU and GPU scores were 6,229 and 33 respectively. The NUC 11 Pro also managed 1,385 and 4,555 points in Geekbench 5’s single-core and multi-core runs. These numbers are predictably a little below what we saw from the MSI Prestige 14 Evo laptop, powered by an 11th Gen Core i7-1185G7 based on the same architecture and with the same Iris Xe integrated GPU, earlier this year.
If you want to compare scores against the current-gen Mac mini, we can look at some browser-based cross-platform scores. The NUC 11 Pro got 249 in WebXprt and 165.321 in Jetstream 2, compared to 286 and 177.110 respectively for Apple’s in-house M1 processor.
The preinstalled SATA SSD doesn’t show off the full potential of the Tiger Lake CPU, which supports PCIe Gen4 speeds. CrystalDiskMark reported sequential reads and writes of only 560.1MBps and 507.9MBps but this PC is capable of much better. It also took 2 minutes, 59 seconds to compress a 3.24GB folder of assorted files using 7zip, and 1 minute, 4 seconds to transcode a 1.3GB AVI file to H.265.
As for graphics, you shouldn’t expect to run heavy 3D games. 3DMark’s Time Spy and Night Raid tests showed scores of 1,196 and 10,177 respectively. The Unigine Superposition test managed 1,480 points running at 1080p at Medium quality. Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which is not very recent anymore, only ran at an average of 17fps at 1280×720 using its Medium preset, which made it unplayable. Far Cry 5 averaged 24fps at its Normal preset at the same resolution. You’ll have to limit yourself to much simpler games or experiment with cloud streaming options if they become viable in India in the future.
In everyday use, the NUC 11 Pro was snappy and responsive. It ran productivity apps and Web browsers with dozens of tabs open, and the experience was perfectly smooth. As benchmarks show, this hardware isn’t the fastest at heavy content creation tasks or gaming, but it’s fine for common usage situations. Streaming HD and 4K video was no problem. With normal use, you won’t hear the cooling fan spin up at all. Even when the NUC 11 Pro was under heavy load, I was only just about able to hear a slight hum as hot air was pushed out the large vent at the back. The plastic body gets only about as warm as you’d expect any laptop to.
A tiny PC can be much more versatile and cost-effective than a laptop or all-in-one – you don’t have to throw out a perfectly functional monitor, keyboard, trackpad, etc when you need a performance upgrade. You can also choose your own RAM and storage, and take advantage of one or more large desktop monitors. It’s a great middle ground – no bulky desktop tower, but it can’t be used on the go – and that should be just fine for plenty of people in their homes and offices.
The NUC 11 Pro in particular offers all these conveniences, plus lots of ports and connectivity, and reasonable upgrade potential. It’s clearly designed more for commercial deployment than home or consumer use, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t serve for all your everyday productivity, entertainment and communication needs – with maybe even a little light gaming thrown in.
The big challenges are availability and cost. While companies such as Gigabyte with its NUC-based Brix line and Zotac with its Zbox and Mek mini PCs do sell directly to retail buyers, Apple’s considerably larger Mac mini is perhaps the best known such device. Asus, Lenovo and others target offices and schools with their commercial models but some of these do find their way to retail channels. There’s a market to be tapped, for barebones as well as fully built mini PCs, and Intel should really think about promoting the NUC lineup either directly or through system integrators.
It’s possible to find the NUC 11 Pro online and order it, but do check out the variety of other models available – some with 2.5-inch SATA bays, some with additional connectivity, and some that are just the bare motherboard for use in your own projects.
As for the price, the NUC 11 Pro sells for nearly Rs. 40,000 (slightly less if you’re buying in bulk) and you’ll have to factor in the cost of your RAM, storage, OS, monitor, keyboard, and mouse. For what it will all come to, you could buy a decent laptop, so any buying decision will have to come down to your individual needs.
Intel NUC 11 Pro (NUC11TNKi5)
Price: Rs. 38,972 (barebones)
- Good overall performance
- Lots of ports and connectivity
- Compact, quiet, and versatile
- Easy access to RAM and storage
- Relatively expensive and hard to find
- Bulky external power adapter
Ratings (out of 5)
Value for Money: 4