Intel NUC – the perfect Linux desktop PC?

5 minute read

The Intel NUC is a barebones little PC that might be mistaken for a lightweight machine, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find this could be your perfect Linux PC.

Intel makes the claim that with a NUC you can work, study or play so I wanted to see for myself if this claim could be true. After a bit of research I found that there is a large variety of models to choose from like Celeron, Pentium, i3, i5 and i7 versions ranging from 5th, 6th and 7th gen processors. So what does this mean for Linux users?

Well, it means you can choose a NUC version with the processor you want, add RAM and storage and install Linux without having to pay for a Windows license and in doing so save yourself around $50 to $100. Not bad huh?

So can I really replace my large tower PC with this little thing?

The large range in processors means you can use the NUC as a desktop replacement whether that’s for your business, for your homework, for playing games, music or movies. So far so good, I think the Intel NUC does actually live up to it’s tag line. In my quest to find Linux hardware at the right price that could be a 2nd PC for Linux or a desktop Linux computer the NUC ticks the right boxes. In fact last week my chosen NUC arrived and I am pleased to say that it’s an impressive bit of kit.

Regular visitors of this site will know that I have been recommending Chromebooks for Linux and my distro comparisons post proved very popular. So by popular request I will be doing regular distro reviews and so needed a desktop PC that would be suitable.

I intend to review distros, young and old, bleeding edge and conservative so needed hardware that would give each distro a fair chance of running. In the end I chose the 5th generation Pentium version which was released in late 2015 and which I expect to support a wide range of distros as well as being a very affordable price.

The NUC is also a prime candidate for a Linux server or Linux media box because of it’s small size, low noise and power usage.

Quick Specs (Model: NUC5PPYH)

The N3700 Pentium quad core processor runs at 1.6 GHz which allows several applications to run at the same time smoothly. Along with the integrated HD GPU that supports 4K this little box should be good for most everyday tasks.

Processor Intel Pentium processor N3700(1.6 GHz to 2.4 GHz burst, quad core, 6 W TDP) with Intel HD Graphics
RAM DDR3L SODIMM1.35V, 1333/1600 MHz (8GB maximum, 1 slot)
Storage 2.5″ HDD/SSD SATA III drive bay
Ports/Connections HDMI and VGAHeadphone/Microphone/digital out, 4 USB 3.0 ports (1 charging), Internal USB 2.0 header, Infrared sensor, SDXC card slot, 10/100/1000Mbps Network port, Intel Wireless-AC 3165 with Bluetooth 4
Audio Up to 7.1 surround audio via HDMI
Size 115mm x 111mm x 52mm
Warranty 3 year limited

There’s one slot for RAM with a maximum of 8GB DDR3L SODIMM supported. It’s always a good idea to buy as much memory as you can afford because this is one of the main factors that separates a slow PC from a fast one. I brought the HyperX Impact 8GB RAM module that runs at the fastest speed supported by the NUC, 1600 MHz.

The 2.5” drive bay supports SATA III mechanical and solid state drives so unless your budget is tight you really should go for an SSD because the boost in performance is amazing. I used my 120GB Sandisk SATA III SSD.

There are 4 USB 3.0 ports in total and one of the front ones doubles as a charging port (orange) so you can charge your phone for example even when the PC is turned off. Also included is a built in WIFI and Bluetooth 4 card, audio in/out (front and back), mic in, a gigabit Ethernet port and an SD card slot.

As a desktop PC, that should be enough ports and connections for most users. For those of you thinking about buying one of these as a media centre PC, there is also an Infrared sensor so that you can use a remote control as well.

One of the main selling points of the NUC is the small size of these units, this is my NUC next to my standard size mouse.

Included in the box is the NUC, a VESA mount plate with screws, a 19V power adapter, guide and an Intel sticker.

Intel NUC…Assemble!

Fitting the RAM and SSD is super simple even if you’ve never opened a PC before. After unscrewing the 4 screws on the underside of the NUC, simply raise the cover and fit and click the RAM into place taking care to match the notch correctly (the RAM can only be slotted in one way).

Next slide the SSD into the drive bay so that the SATA connectors align correctly. Secure the SSD with 1 screw on each side and put the cover back on. Finally screw the 4 screws back in – that’s it, you’re done!

The NUC is well made and solid and Intel have come up with such a great design that even novices can put this thing together.

Update the BIOS and install your favourite Linux distro

If you read reviews online you will find reviews from buyers complaining about problems with the unit. All these issues can now be resolved by updating to the latest BIOS. The process is as simple as downloading the .bio file from the Intel website and copying it to a USB drive, pressing the power button for 3 secs and pressing F7. There you can use the link to update the BIOS using the .bio file.

You will need to install your Linux distro from a USB drive unless you have an external USB DVD drive. Insert your USB drive and press F10 to boot from the drive. I tried booting Ubuntu, Fedora and linux Mint in live mode.

I found that the NUC was snappy and am very happy with my purchase.

Is this the Linux desktop you’ve been looking for?

For Linux users looking for choice, I think the Intel NUC barebones system is a great choice. There’s no Windows tax, the RAM and storage can been picked based on your budget and the hardware is fully compatible with Linux.

As a desktop PC you have the choice of lower end processors all the way up to Intel’s flagship CPU the i7. It’s a space saver because this unit is just so small and compact compared to a tower PC as well as being low noise and power usage is low too. The only one negative is that the higher end models with i5 and i7 processors are more costly but I suppose you are paying a premium for the compact form factor of the NUC. 🙂