When it comes to power efficiency, Intel's Ivy Bridge CPUs aren't always given the credit they deserve, at least in enthusiast circles. They're undoubtedly quick, but the main focus has been on the £180 Core i5-3570K and it's pricier hyper-threaded sibling, the Core i7-3770K and their overclocking abilities.
At the lower end, though, mixing it up with the Pentium and Core i3's, there are some pretty good reasons to consider these CPUs for low-power PCs or HTPCs. Some examples have TDP's of less than 40W and cost less than £60, meaning that building a cheap and quiet system is incredibly easy.
However, there's some increasingly stiff competition in the form of tiny embedded motherboards such as Raspberry Pi and numerous Android-based examples, geared towards low power use and HTPC tasks.
Intel has clearly been watching this unfold, but with the smallest PC-based motherboards being the 170mm x170mm dimensions of mini-ITX (it too is massively popular at the moment), it had to come up with something else to take advantage of Ivy Bridge's potential in the mini PC department.
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Next Unit of Computing, or NUC is what it has come up with. The motherboard covers just over a third of the area of a standard mini-ITX motherboard, and measures 100mm x 100mm - about the same as your average beer mat. The the CPU on most current models is the Intel Core i3-3217U, which has a frequency of 1.8GHz, dipping down to 800MHz when not under load. There's no Turbo Boost, but it's two physical cores are hyper-threaded, providing an additional two virtual cores, and it is equipped with an Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU.
It's Level 2 cache of 256KB per core and total of 3MB Level 3 Cache combined with the lowly CPU frequencies aren't going to light up any benchmarks, but are clearly going to provide far more grunt than the vast majority of other embedded mini platforms out there. In the UK there are currently four models of NUC, with a fifth, sporting a cheaper Celeron CPU, already available in the States. Of the four Core i3-based models, they essentially use two different boards - one comes with a case and PSU and require RAM and a mini PCI-E SSD, while the D33217CK we're looking at here and BLKD33217GKE are OEM board-only, meaning you'll have to source a 19V, 65W PSU and case as well.
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Many low-end laptops use the right bit of kit, but it's the connector you'll likely have problems with. We found an Asus EXA0703YH laptop adaptor worked fine, as did one of the fittings on an Innergie universal power adaptor we had to hand. However, while we were keen to take a look at an OEM board for the purposes of modding and making your own case, for the sake of £15 or so on top of the D33217CK's £240 price tag, it's probably easier to opt for one of the case-clad versions as they come with a PSU and are otherwise identical.
The D33217CK differs from the cheaper BLKD33217GKE OEM board mainly in terms of ports - the BLKD33217GKE has two HDMI ports and a Gigabit Ethernet port, while the D33217CK offers a single HDMI port and a Thunderbolt connector.
Chipset Intel QS77 Express
CPU support Intel Core i3-3217U (Embedded)
Memory support 2 SODIMM slots: max 16GB DDR3 (1,600MHz)
Expansion slots Two mini PCI-E (one full-length, one half-length)