Intel vs. AMD: Battle of the world's smallest PCs

These incredibly tiny, amazingly quiet computers can fit almost anywhere and perform most any task.

The desktop PC isn't dead, it's just shrinking. There's a new breed of miniature marvels on the market, and they boast a nonexistent footprint when attached to the back of a display. Unlike some micro-size, micro-priced computers--the $35 Raspberry Pi, for example--these incredibly small machines provide more than enough processing power for all but the most strenuous computing chores.

New generations of powerful but cool-running CPUs are largely responsible for this sudden onset of wee-ness, so it makes sense that AMD and Intel would both conjure tiny PCs to demonstrate what's possible within the confines of an ultra-small size. Intel has christened its concept the Next Unit of Computing (NUC), while AMD's primary manufacturing partner, Sapphire Technology, has dubbed its effort the Edge VS8.

Alas, neither the NUC nor the Edge VS8 Is cheap.

Intel's Next Unit of Computing

What the heck is a Next Unit of Computing? It's Intel's vision of a miniature-size computer. It measures four inches square by two inches high, and it's available in three kits: The $300 DC3217BY features a Core i3 3217-U processor, an HDMI audio-video port, and a Thunderbolt port (supporting DisplayPort 1.1a); the DC3217IYE (also $300) has the same CPU and dual HDMI ports; and the $175 DCCP847DYE is outfitted with a Celeron 847 processor and dual HDMI ports. (Video resolution through HDMI maxes out at 1920 by 1200 pixels for all three models).

Before you get too excited about Intel's prices, know that they don't include memory or the solid-state drive required for storage, so add another $100 to $200 for an mSATA SSD and DDR3 SODIMMs. Add another $5 more for an AC power cord. Intel leaves one out so it can ship the same SKUs all over the world, expecting consumers to buy whatever type of power cord they need. While that makes things easy for Intel, it will be incredibly annoying for the customer who excitedly opens the box only to discover that his or her shiny new PC is as functional as a brick.

Intel does include a VESA-standard mounting plate, so you can attach the NUC to the back of a display.

Features common to all three NUC models include full- and half-size mini-PCIe slots, two USB 2.0 ports, a gigabit ethernet port, and a Kensington lock socket. There's no support for USB 3.0 or eSATA, although the QS77 Express chipset on all three motherboards does support these features. The DC3217BY model's Thunderbolt support provides a fast external storage option if you're ready to move up to that premium-priced technology.

The NUC's performance--at least in the DC3217IYE model we tested after adding one 4GB SODIMM and an Intel m525 240GB mSSD--was quite good. The box scored above 60 on our WorldBench 8 tests, and gaming frame rates are playable at lower resolutions. The NUC is also quiet, because it has no cooling fans: The entire case functions as a heat sink and becomes warm to the touch under heavy load.

Overall, the NUC is a neat, if not particularly versatile, little unit. The price might seem high, but when you cost out similar components for a mini-ATX unit, you're not paying as much for the form factor as you might think. But you are losing the ability to expand storage internally and to upgrade its graphics. We're also puzzled by the absence of any USB 3.0 ports, since the chipset supports it.

Sapphire Edge VS8

The jet-black Sapphire Edge VS8 is easily mistaken for a Wi-Fi router, given its dimensions: 7.8 inches high by 7.2 inches deep by 1.25 inch thick. Unlike Intel, Sapphire ships a fully functional PC with everything you need: 4GB of memory, a 500GB hard drive, and a VESA mount. You also get a power cord (nice!), as well as HDMI and optical S/PDIF cables and an HDMI-to-DVI adapter.

Sapphire expects to fetch $429 for the package. You can easily configure either of Intel's Core i3 NUCs with 4GB of memory and a small-but-fast SSD for the same amount.

The Radeon HD 7600G GPU integrated into the Edge VS8's accelerated processing unit (APU) performs considerably better than the NUC's HD 4000 graphics. Truly playable frame rates, however, are available only at resolutions of 1024 by 768 pixels or lower. But the somewhat slow 500GB, 5400-rpm hard drive (yes, they squeeze a hard drive into that tiny package) made the Edge VS8 feel less than sprightly. The unit scored a mere 34 on our WorldBench 8 test (that's in the neighborhood of a low-end notebook). It would be great if Sapphire offered an SSD option.

Sapphire's machine clearly beats the NUC in terms of ports, though: The Edge VS8 has a gigabit ethernet port, two USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, an SD card reader, analog audio in/out, S/PDIF audio out, HDMI (with a maximum resolution of 1920 by 1200 pixels), and a DisplayPort (2560 by 1600 resolution, max).

As with the NUC, you pay more for the Edge VS8's form factor. You could easily put together a mini-ATX breadbox PC with the same components for at least $100 less. Still, the Edge VS8 is a nice concept, and once Windows has finished caching, it's a perfectly usable if not exhilaratingly quick, pint-size PC.

Note: Finding the chipset drivers for an AMD APU can be extremely frustrating. You can find them here if you need them.

Head-to-Head Comparison

Performance While the NUC is the clear winner in both everyday performance and subjective feel, the Sapphire managed better frame rates with games. The upshot: Thanks to its Core i3, the NUC wins the performance category--unless you're gaming.

Storage Intel expects you to supply an mSATA SSD for the NUC, and that will be faster than any hard drive. The Edge VS8's hard drive is slow, but it delivers a lot more capacity. That means the storage contest ends in a tie.

Ports The lack of eSATA, USB 3.0, and any audio other than HDMI are definite drawbacks to the NUC. The Thunderbolt-equipped model is great, provided you have the premium-priced peripherals to take advantage of the technology. The Edge VS8 has everything you'd expect, including DisplayPort. This gives the Edge VS8 the clear advantage in this category.

Display Both the Edge VS8 and each of the NUC models will drive two displays at 1920 by 1200. The DisplayPort NUC and the Edge VS8 will both drive a larger 2560 by 1600 display. Another tie.

Power Consumption Intel claims the NUC draws 17 watts, but it actually consumed a little less than that in our static tests. The Sapphire drew 19 watts, which is also a bit less than its spec. Still, NUC wins this round.

Price Depending on how much memory you add and which mSATA SSD you use (smaller-capacity models are slower), the NUC can be either cheaper or more expensive than the Edge VS8. Bear in mind that neither system ships with Windows, though Sapphire does provide Free DOS preinstalled. You can either provide your own copy of Windows or install your favorite flavor of Linux to either machine, so we'll call this a toss-up.

Appearance The NUC and the Edge VS8 are both attractive, but the Edge VS8 is more interesting to look at, giving the Edge VS8 a slight, uh, edge here.

Overall Neither the Edge VS8 nor the NUC is the perfect miniature PC. The Edge VS8 needs better overall performance and a friendlier sticker price, while the NUC needs more ports. That leaves us with a dead heat overall.

Buy now or wait?

The tiny PC is such an appealing idea that it's bound to catch on, so expect better-rounded and faster Intel- and AMD- based efforts in the near future. You can already find alternative cases for the NUC motherboards if you shop around, and Lenovo's IdeaCentre Q190 showed up the day before we finished this story. We'll have a review of that machine soon, so stay tuned!

This story, "Intel vs. AMD: Battle of the world's smallest PCs" was originally published by PCWorld.

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