Late last year, Intel released the 4-by-4-inch Next Unit of Computing Form Factor. Housed in a tiny case of Intel’s own design, their NUC system, the DC3217IYE “Ice Canyon”, offers consumers a smart, super-small solution for home media and desktop replacement.
Soon after the launch of the Intel system, the Logic Supply product engineering team began thinking about how to capitalize on the qualities of the NUC motherboard (small + powerful) and apply them to the embedded market. The result is the NUC-based AG960 system.
So what does a commercial NUC look like? And how does it compare to its consumer cousin? I worked with Logic Supply’s Field Application Engineer Casey Atherton and Support Technician Travis Bigelow to test and describe some key differences.
FORM AND FUNCTION: PLATED STEEL, FRONT POWER BUTTON, 4 USB
The AG960 differs cosmetically from Intel’s system in a number of ways, but these choices are far from purely aesthetic. While the DC3217IYE’s three-piece case is composed of a steel skeleton with a plastic and aluminum enclosure, the AG960’s two-piece case is composed entirely of high-quality, rust-protected, plated steel, which offers a high degree of durability and EMI protection.
The AG960’s front-mounted, graphic-overlay power button and LED is sleek and also allows for expanded mounting options. A top-mounted power button like Intel’s could pose problems in a space-constrained setting. That is, it works well for consumer-based home media and set-top box applications, but in the embedded world computers are often mounted in hard-to-reach places.
And, the AG960’s extra USB 2.0 port on the front of the system (making four in total, compared to the DC3217IYE’s three) allows for more connectivity options.
There has been considerable chatter on the forums about the Intel NUCs thermal performance, specifically with regard to mSATA. Because many of our customers are focused on system stability, the Logic Supply team took an aggressive stance on thermals when engineering the AG960. In addition to the standard NUC fan, we engineered a heat spreader (picture below) to improve temperature performance. Significantly, we found that the mSATA make/model and the addition of a WiFi card were key variables in thermal performance.
I enlisted my colleague Casey Atherton to test several variations. The test scenario was as follows:
- Fresh Windows 7 SP1 install
- Passmark Burn In Test 7.1 Pro
- CPU test: duty cycle 50
- Disk test: duty cycle 50
- Network test: duty cycle 50
- Test Run 2 hours
(This is obviously a demanding test scenario. Its rare that light industrial applications equal a 50% duty cycle on three items.)
Temperature Failure was indicated by a Windows crash and a system shut down. On a few occasions, I experienced total drive failure. Here are the results:
Intel DC3217IYE NUC
N/A – not available
Note: Intel’s pending bios change may solve the Intel mSATA issue with Ice Canyon. We understand there is also a pending hardware change on the Intel NUC.
EXTERNAL ANTENNA, INCREASED SIGNAL DISTANCE, MULTIPLE FREQUENCIES
While the case material and design doesn’t directly affect computing power, there is a significant difference in WiFi function between these two systems. The Intel system contains a built-in internal antenna, which is generally all the consumer needs, but the AG960 has an option for two external antennae. External mounting boosts antenna options. Users can even remotely mount (via an SMA connector) an antenna using coaxial cable, enabling in-kiosk wireless.
We measured the range of both systems—using an Intel 6235 card in both, and two standard 8” inch antennae in the AG960—by connecting to the Logic Supply network and — using a UPS battery — walking further and further away from the building. The AG960’s WiFi range was markedly boosted, dropping its connection 171 feet from the Logic Supply building, compared to 125 feet for the DC3217IYE. This alone is not to say that Logic Supply has outrun Intel: While the average consumer simply doesn’t need this range, in light industrial-based markets, that 46 extra feet could mean the world. But even close up there was a marked difference: The AG960’s signal averaged -54dB from the nearest access point—substantially stronger than the DC3217IYE’s -62dB average.
JUST THE SPECS
(4) 2.0 USB ports
(3) 2.0 USB Ports
Power Button & LED
Front-mounted, graphic overlay
Top-mounted, integrated LED
Fan noise (dB)
WiFi signal in office (from nearest access point)
WiFi range (with an intel 6235 card)
● User-experience focused
Enclosure construction & rigidity
● 2-screw, 2-piece, slide-together assembly
● 4-screw, 3-piece, vertical-stack assembly
1.065lbs / 483g
1.160lbs / 526g
115 x 37.4 x 108.3 mm
116.59 x 39.37 x 112.01 mm
VESA breakouts in floor
VESA add-on plate
Markets & Applications
Custom branding and case modifications available
*Measuring WiFi Strength:
0dbm is equal to 1 milliwatt into 50 ohms.
-3dBm is half a milliwatt
-6dBm is 1/4 of a milliwatt
-9dBm is 1/8 of a milliwatt.
For every 3dB below 0dBm, you get half your strength.
THE LAST WORD
In the end, whereas Intel specializes in chipset performance, the Logic Supply team focuses on chassis engineering and system configuration. Intel’s cases are built to house their internal innovation; the AG960 marries each company’s strength and makes Intel’s expertise available to a wider market. Not only that, the AG960 is quite customizable. And, since Logic Supply controls the design and manufacturing, it is easy to manage lifecycle and revision history: Customers can lock in a tailored design for the long-haul.
The NUC represents an exciting new form factor. I’m convinced that in the AG960 we’ve managed to nuance a NUC-based system for the world of commercial appliances. A fanless chassis is on the drawing boards. Stay tuned!