How we built a tiny home theater PC with Intel's NUC

Intel's "Next Unit of Computing" platform provides everything you need for a competent entertainment PC in an extremely small package.

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Other hardware considerations

If you want additional storage, you'll need to hunt down Thunderbolt equipped external hard drives. There are a number of these on the market, ranging from massive, pricey multiterabyte RAID arrays to small portable drives. In keeping with the tiny nature of the NUC, I experimented with Seagate's Thunderbolt portable drive, aka the "GoFlex for Mac with Thunderbolt." Despite the Mac name, this drive works fine with PCs equipped with Thunderbolt ports. The downside: it's fairly pricey for a 1TB mobile drive, at roughly $250. It's bus powered, however, so no need for another power brick.

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The NUC next to the Seagate GoFlex Thunderbolt drive.

Loyd Case

The GoFlex actually has two parts: the drive itself, which is docked to a small, USB 3.0 module. Disconnect the USB 3.0 module and dock the drive to a somewhat bulky Thunderbolt interface module. This is where I discovered another downside: the unit doesn't include a cable, and Thunderbolt cables, which are smart cables with tiny microcomputers, cost $40 and up. Still, the whole affair mates very well with the NUC. Bear in mind that this little portable drive can handle one or two streams well, but don't try to stream eight HD channels with audio, or you'll probably be disappointed. You'll need a full-size drive, or even RAID array for thatbut then, you won't be using an NUC either.

Of course, if you plan on using the NUC primarily for streaming, then you don't need external storage. Bear in mind that you'll want a reliable Wi-Fi connection with a strong signal. If you don't have that, you may need to spring for a USB-to-Ethernet dongle, which is pretty inexpensive these days. All this presupposes that you have a good network infrastructure wherever you decide to install the NUC.

If you want to control the system remotely, a variety of wireless keyboard and mouse combinations exist, including Bluetooth hardware and compact keyboards with built-in trackpads. I used a Logitech Wireless Combo MK520, mostly because I had one around. It uses a tiny USB receiver with enough range to reach across my 16 by 16 foot media room.

If you want HDTV in, you'll need some kind of tuner. You can use any of a variety of USB HDTV tuners, but I already have a SiliconDust HD HomeRun Dual, which is a very cool device with two over-the-air HDTV tuners that will pipe HDTV signals to PCs over an Ethernet network. Increasingly, however, I'm relying on streaming over the Internet for much of my media consumption.

Operating system

I installed Windows 8 Pro, then obtained a key from Microsoft to install Windows 8 Media Center. Media Center is available at no cost currently for all Windows 8 users, though owners of Windows 8 standard will eventually have to pony up some money to get it.

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Windows Media Center looks a little dated by modern standards.

In truth, I shouldn't have bothered. It's the very same Windows Media Center as was built into Windows 7, and seems a little dated. It works well, even with HD HomeRun. But support for streaming solutions seemed to have fallen by the wayside. Alternatives that work well for local streaming include the venerable (and free) VLC, and the streaming solutions built into Windows 8, in the form of the Video and Music apps. They're adequate, if you're willing to pay for content. You can also use other streaming services, such as Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus and, of course, Netflix. Both Hulu Plus and Netflix have their own native Windows 8 apps.

Let's fire it up!

I connected the NUC (along with the Seagate hard drive) to my Onkyo TX-NR 809 A/V receiver, to the HDMI input conveniently labeled "PC." The receiver takes care of all the audio processing, but routes video to a 60-inch LG plasma HDTV. Windows 8 and the Intel GPU drivers detected the Onkyo as a graphics device, and everything came up roses. I didn't even have to wrestle with overscan, which can be a problem with older HDTV displays or graphics cards.

Of course, you can just use Windows 7, but it looks like Windows 8 will be a very nice OS for home theater PCs. HD video playback and multichannel audio playback looked and sounded great. Standard definition video was just a touch soft looking, but acceptable.

One issue that may concern some users is noise. The NUC contains a tiny, laptop-style cooling fan. Even when running at its max, which seems to be about 2,000RPM, the box can get warm (but not hot) to the touch. CPU temperatures seemed to hover around 60 degrees C, which is warmer than my six-core desktop PC. The fan is noticeable, mostly due to its high pitch. It's not loud, but might bother some people. However, once you fire up any content with significant audio volume, you won't hear the fan.

Overall, the NUC proves to be a surprisingly capable little box, if you're willing to work within its limitations. It's no processing powerhouse, but Intel QuickSync video works pretty well, and audio was clean. The relatively high CPU temperature and fan whine might be an issue, but only time will tell. At its relatively low cost, I'm looking forward to experimenting with it in other scenarios.

This story, "How we built a tiny home theater PC with Intel's NUC" was originally published by PCWorld.

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