Intel Next Unit of Computing Kit DC3217BY

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Thermals & Noise

The Intel NUC has the distinction of being the quietest fan-cooled mini-computer we've come across. In normal use, it is hard to tell whether the fan is running until your ear nearly pressed atop the unit. Our highly sensitive acoustic test system barely registered any rise in the ambient sound level in the anechoic chamber when the NUC was idling or playing HD video, at 0.6m from the unit. There was a minor peak around 8~9 kHz, the peak of which barely reached minus 12 dBA. (See the spectrum graph below.) That was the only sign of the fan spinning.

The overall SPL at 0.6m distance was just a hair over 11 dBA. The three small spikes at 8~9 kHz is the only indication of the sipping fan.

The CPU (Cores 1 & 2) seemed to run hot with the default Automatic settings, but they're still comfortably lower than the 105°C maximum T-junction temperature spec of the i3-3217U. The casing got fairly hot in some spots, but it was never too hot to touch. SpeedFan is generally preferred for monitoring system sensors, but this NUC was not properly identified by SpeedFan at time of testing. We used the feedback report feature in AIDA64 Extreme to obtain a near-immediate update which allowed the software to correctly identify and monitor the various sensors.

System Measurements
System State
SPL @0.6m†
Power (AC)
11 dBA
H.264 Playback
12 dBA
TMPGEnc Encoding
16 dBA
CPU Load
20 dBA
CPU + GPU Load
31 dBA
Ambient: 22°C, 10~11 dBA.
*External temperature measured using an IR thermometer pointed at the hottest portion of the external chassis
We measure SPL at 0.6m for all devices meant to be used atop a desk, as it is more realistic a distance than the usual 1m. It also corresponds to the "seated user SPL" distance as per the computer noise measurement standard ISO 7779.

The fan is very smooth and unobtrusive in normal use though a bit hissy and whiny at top speed. Even with Prime95, an artifically load that's difficult to match with real applications, the noise was very modest. Only the graphics torture test Furmark pushed the fan to obtrusive levels.

Mounted on the back of a monitor, the SPL did not drop by more than a decibel, but the overall perception of higher frequency noise dropped so that the subjective impression was of a softer overall sound. This is a benefit only when the system is being pushed hard enough so that the fan RPM exceeds ~3,000 RPM; below that it's quiet enough even just resting under the monitor.

BIOS Fan Control

Unlike most mini-systems, the NUC features the Intel Visual BIOS, a modern UEFI/BIOS with mouse control. Never mind that most of the options enthusiasts expect for CPU clock and voltage adjusments are missing; there is a fan control section, and it does offer some options.

Yes, Intel has included a full GUI BIOS, albeit with minimal real user controls. But there are some fan control options.

Five fan profiles are offered: Automatic, Manual, Cool, Blended, and Quiet. Blended, one presumes, is a compromise between Cool and Quiet but how is this different from Auto? Manual allows the fan to be preset to a single speed, from 50% to 100% in 10% steps. The 50% minimum is too high; it turns out to be 3,800 RPM.

The Auto mode offers the widest range of user controls: Minimum CPU temperature can be set from 1° to 100°C, though setting it to a very low number simply keeps the fan running at full speed. The minimum duty cycle can be set from 1% to 100%, and the changes in fan speed can be set to increments of — surprise! — 1% to 100%.

The Automatic fan control mode is nice, but to be honest, there was no point fiddling with it much. At the default BIOS setting Auto | 78°C minimum | 20% minimum duty cycle | 8% duty cycle increment the acoustics were excellent, and the cooling good enough, despite the relatively high CPU core temperatures.

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