Intel Next Unit of Computing becomes a workstation with the NUC 9 Pro

intel nuc 9 pro • TopThreeRatings.com

It’s a rare thing in 2020 to encounter a product where the first thing written in the manual [PDF], after the usual safety and warranty rigmarole, tells you how to pull it apart.

This isn’t your usual workstation from the usual OEM suspects, or a full tower desktop cooked up by your local PC shop from components either. This is a relatively small 5-litre workstation — think about the size of a typical boxed wine package — that contains not only a Coffee Lake-based Xeon E-2286M processor, 1TB of Optane storage, and 32GB of memory, but also a full-sized Nvidia Quadro P2200.

Run the NUC9VXQNX, to use its full name, through some benchmarking software and you get some chunky numbers out of it, as one should with the sort of hardware on offer.

Inside the NUC 9, there are two cards: The M.2 storage and RAM are attached to a compute unit that plugs into one of the connectors on the backplane, and the GPU fits onto the other. Hypothetically, this should mean it is far more simple to upgrade a processor than on a regular desktop, but until there is extensive proof of such events happening in the real world, and Intel loses its propensity to swap out sockets, motherboard chips, and such things that prevent generation-to-generation upgrades, I’ll reserve judgement.

When asking Intel about upgrading the compute element between generations, the chip giant was less than definitive, and most of its response is produced below.

“Future Intel NUC compute elements will be backwards compatible with carrier boards, meaning customers will not need to redesign boards when upgrading. This may help reduce E-waste, since the whole system will not need to be recycled. Instead, only the compute element will be replaced,” the company said.

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“We’ve worked closely with more than 25 partners to create modular solutions based on the compute element. Moving forward, we have begun development on the 2021 products and are actively defining the 2022 products. Our goal is to help our partners and customers have an easy drop-in solution to upgrade performance with each refresh cycle.

“In the future, our channel partners will sell the standalone compute element that allows for any customer to easily upgrade their existing compute element product with the latest generation processor and technology.”

That sounds a lot like a yesses, without mouthing the critical words needed in many sentences, but I’d still wait and see since plans can easily change at Intel HQ.

However, if you are managing a fleet of these things, I can see the attraction in swapping out faulty memory, storage, or processor in one go to keep a system working, and allowing for a more thorough examination later. And should the promised upgradability arrive, all the better.

If the GPU is in place, accessing the compute unit will require ripping out the graphics card, but it’s no better or worse than instances of needing to move components in some workstations I’ve seen. While the unit cover is screwed in place and there is a support bar that needs to be removed to access the NUC, it’s no more trouble than pulling out all the cords I need on my current desktop, then lifting it out and unscrewing the side panel, all while making sure I don’t accidentally pull out the power cable for the side fan.

The edge the NUC 9 has in the accessibility game is that it can live on a desktop and be quickly turned and handled — in no timeline am I putting my full tower on a table, or rotating it instead of me when peering inside.

With the sort of components that the NUC 9 Pro packs, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was one of those systems that had a noisy, whirling fan that never shut off, and yet, it was not.

For users of Windows, there is a massive benefit to be gained from using a NUC, and that is the absolute lack of the usual crapware found on system from the usual hardware-selling suspects.

This is a serious workstation that has made me raise many questions about the large Skylake-era desktop I’ve been using every day during isolation, and whether I should continue in that vein the next time I upgrade since the NUC 9 Pro can pack more power in a tighter and more convenient package.

But before I could get too excited, the availability of the unit in Australia is less than optimal. It is out there in a handful of places, but it’s far from helpful when Intel’s own site says it is unavailable in Australia.

When you can find it, the base model is around AU$2,400 to AU$3,000, and this is before you add another AU$800 for the P2200 GPU.

In the world of beefy business workstations, this cost sits in the middle of a AU$3,000 to AU$5,000 range when looking for a comparable device from Dell, HP, or Lenovo.

Intel has taken it’s NUC a long way from the first Celeron version almost a decade ago. Now, it’s entirely acceptable to be powering four displays while doing some machine learning with CUDA, and still have Xeon cores left over for whatever else you want to do.

A lot of products use the Pro moniker nowadays, but the Intel NUC 9 Pro truly deserves it.

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