By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, June 7, 2015
I love technological marvels. I’ve been lusting after the new iMac, the one with the 5K 27” screen, but since I didn’t have that kind of money my new tech toy is the tiny Intel NUC 5i5RYK – a powerful desktop computer smaller than a book. Whenever I buy a new computer I have great expectations before my purchase, and all kinds of imaginative ideas how I would redesign the computer afterwards. Because I’m reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I was inspired to get the NUC to significantly reduce computer clutter.
The evolution of computers in my lifetime has been towards smallness. How little can a fully functioning desktop computer get, and still offer all the usability and configurability that a traditional desktop offered? Many users have already given up on desktops, switching to laptops, tablets and smartphones, but those mobile devices have limitations that force their users to buy extra gadgets to return them to desktop functionality – like keyboards for tablets. Or they invent kludgy apps, like programs that use the camera to scan images. People write novels and edit movies on laptops, but it’s doubtful we’ll see that kind of work done on a smartphone or tablet. And even heavy-duty laptop users often add an external monitor, mouse and printer.
This experience has made me wonder what the perfect desktop computer setup would be for me. Contemplating tidying up my life reveals the essence of my tech needs.
- Fast computer (I hate waiting)
- 27” monitor with highest resolution possible (I love to see the digital world as sharply as possible)
- scanner (paper input)
- printer (paper output)
- speakers (digital music output)
- keyboard mouse (for me the best interface for communicating with computers)
I figure the Apple 5K iMac with its 27” screen is about ideal for reducing the size of a computer and leaving it big enough for productive work. However, it costs a fair penny. Since I’m a do-it-yourselfer and cheap, I bought an Intel NUC 5i5RYK. The NUC (Next Unit of Computing) is tiny. My NUC was $384, plus $98 for 16GB of memory, and $117 for a Samsung 250GB M2 SSD, and $20 for an Amazon Basics wireless keyboard and mouse.
The machine the NUC is replacing is a desktop I built myself with an Intel i5 2500K CPU, 8GB of memory, a 2TB drive, housed in a spacious Antec ATX case with 600w power supply. The NUC seems about 1/30th to 1/40th the size, yet has roughly the same capabilities. Intel even claims the NUC can drive a 4K monitor – something I want to buy in my future. I threw Windows 10 Technical Preview on it and installed all my favorite software. My desk is closer to the Zen simplicity of my fantasy, and my home office is silent enough for meditation. Since I ran my old desktop 24×7, I didn’t know how much ambient noise it made.
Both machines are fast enough for me. The old chip, a 4-core i5, ran at 3.3 Ghz, and the new 2-core i5 runs at a much slower clock speed, but is a 5th generation Broadwell chip that is much more efficient. I assume my old machine has a lot more muscle for processor intensive work, but I don’t do those kinds of jobs, nor do I play games. I’ve also learned moving to a SSD drive is blazing fast compared to the mechanical drive. I don’t ever want to go back. The boot up time is so fast I don’t mind shutting the NUC down when I’m not using it. Not only is this computer small, but it only uses 6-30 watts of electricity, as oppose to 80-200 watts of the old machine.
My fantasy before buying the NUC was to have a very clean desk. I pictured this simple box sitting on the desk, out of sight, or even attached to the back of my 27” monitor. The NUC does come with a plate to do that. However, I didn’t foresee how many wires I’d have to plug into the thing, which has turned it into a desktop octopus. It has two USB ports on the front and back, including one powered port in the front.
It terms of clutter configurability, I wished all it’s ports were on one side. What I need is two USB hubs. One to snake around to the front of the monitor for easy access for removable devices, and second hub for permanent connects I can hide in the back.
I currently have a 27” 1080p monitor without USB ports. I plan to buy a 27” 4K monitor with 4 USB 3.0 ports when the price is right. That should solve most of those wiring problems. You can never have too many USB ports, but how many are too little? I never had enough USB ports on my iMac at work before I retired, or my big desktop at home. I’m always swapping out cables. Engineers can design smaller computers, but we still have all the peripherals to deal with. I have these USB devices (but don’t always use them):
- Printer/scanner/copier all-in-one.
- Web cam
- Wireless nub for keyboard and mouse
- UPS backup
- External drives
- Apple iPhone/touch/Nano/iPad and other MP3 devices
- Kindles and a Nexus 7
- Memory card readers
- LP turntable
- External Soundblaster
All-in-one computers elegantly solve the problem of reducing clutter, but if something goes wrong, they are hard to fix. Modular systems are ungainly, but it’s easy to swap out components. The goal is to get rid of wires and cables. A wireless keyboard and mouse are about perfect in their minimal footprint. All-in-one printer/copier/scanner machines are approaching an ideal minimal design. My Epson WF-3540 has SD card readers and a USB port, and it’s wireless. Sadly, the wireless only works with printing, but I can print from my iPad and iPhone. I wished the scanner would work through the Wi-Fi so I could store the Epson out of sight. I hate seeing it on my desk.
My speakers are now the ugliest thing on my desktop. Each speaker is about seven times the size of the Intel NUC, plus an ugly subwoofer under the desk, and they have a lot of tangled wiring. No all-in-one computer has great sound, but I might find high-fidelity nirvana with a sound bar, or a SONOS system. There’s no reason why the music playing from my computer must come from near my computer. On the other hand, Mackie Studio Monitor Speakers might be the way to go.
Finally, I have my ugly UPS surge protector. Since the new setup is so low powered, I will be able to get a much smaller UPS in the future. Most people don’t use a UPS backup, and I wonder if I could live without one too.
I haven’t decided if I’ll put iTunes on this system, or even use Windows Media Player. I only use iTunes to put Audible.com files on old Nano players. I only used Windows Media Player to rip CDs. I’m very close to giving up CDs and MP3s because of Spotify, and I get all my audio books through my iPhone now.
Most of my data and photo files are in the cloud. I think going from the 2TB HD to a 250GB SSD is possible.
I’m already well satisfied with the NUC. I gave one of my desktops away, and packed the other in the back of a closet. My on-the-go computer is a Toshiba Chromebook 2 with a 1080p IPS screen. It’s also tiny. Once I let go of my old desktop, I’ll be done with CD/DVD/BD drives and mechanical disk drives. Next, I wonder if I can ever give up printing and scanning?