Andre's Blog

Personal blog of Andre Perusse

HTPC Build 2014 - Intel Haswell NUC

For several years back in the early 2000's, I had an original XBox that was modded so it could run XBMC (XBox Media Center). XBMC on the original XBox was awesome - it had a great user interface and would play every video file format known to man. But the original XBox wasn't high-def, so about 6 years ago I upgraded to a home theater PC built around an AMD Athlon 64 X2 5200 with a Radeon video card placed in an Antec NSK2480 HTPC case. Again, XBMC (on Windows) was my media player software and it has worked mostly great right up to now. I say "mostly" because XBMC has always been a little twitchy on this machine, requiring a restart every time the machine came out of sleep. But a small price to play for the amazing flexibility it offers.


My old Antec NSK2480

Well, six years is a long time for a PC and the Antec case is a little too big for the new equipment stand I recently purchased, so I decided it was time for an upgrade. I set my sights on Intel's NUC (Next Unit of Computing) machines because they have Core i3, i5, and i7 processors and are amazingly diminutive. The most recent iteration of the NUC has a few killer features that make it absolutely ideal as an HTPC:

  • The integrated GPU on Haswell Core CPU's can now output reliably at 24 fps (ideal for film material)
  • Because the NUC uses laptop-grade parts, it is amazingly power-efficient
  • It has a built-in infrared receiver

In addition to its size, the above three features were key to my decision to go with the Intel NUC. I looked briefly at a competing NUC unit from Gigabyte which includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for the same price as the Intel (you have to buy your own PCIe Wi-Fi card for the Intel if you want it), but foregoes an integrated IR port. I didn't need Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and an outboard IR receiver is much less tidy. I'm also an Intel Ethernet bigot and the Gigabyte offering uses a Broadcom part instead, so the Intel NUC won out on several counts.



I ordered the i3 version of the NUC from Newegg.ca, along with 4 GB of RAM and a 120 GB SSD. Note that the RAM is a 1.35 volt SO-DIMM and the SSD is an mSATA drive - be careful when ordering these parts as the NUC doesn't use standard desktop memory and you can't fit a regular 2.5 inch SSD in this case (though Intel now has a slightly larger NUC that will accommodate 2.5 inch drives). I usually order my parts from NCIX, but in a rare instance Newegg was actually cheaper this time around and had all the parts in stock. The NUC shipped from Canada, but the RAM and SSD shipped from the States. In a happy twist of fate, both shipments arrived on the same day (3 days after I ordered, and using ground shipping, too - kudus to Newegg on this one). I should also mention that I had ordered a mini-HDMI to HDMI cable from Amazon.ca a few weeks prior, since the Intel NUC doesn't have a standard HDMI port.

  • Intel NUC Kit D34010WYK - $315
  • Crucial M500 120GB SATA mSATA Internal Solid State Drive - $95
  • G.SKILL 4GB 204-Pin DDR3 SO-DIMM DDR3 1600 - $44


One thing I found amusing about Intel's packaging for the NUC was the Intel jingle that played when I opened the box, much like those greeting cards that play a tune when you unfold them. The NUC was also much smaller than what I expected - only a little over 4 inches square, not much larger than Apple's current Apple TV box. I wasn't so impressed that I had to unscrew the four large Phillips foot-screws in order to install the RAM and SSD, but that was hardly a big deal. Once everything was installed and the NUC was reassembled, I was pleasantly surprised to see a nice GUI-based UEFI BIOS screen. It is very easy to use and I had the latest NUC BIOS upgraded in no time.

I used Microsoft's Windows USB Boot Tool to put Windows 8.1 on a bootable USB flash drive and had it installed on the SSD in less than 15 minutes. Another plus for Intel was the fact that you can download the entire set of Windows drivers in one ZIP file - a nice time-saver. I'll say this for Windows 8.1 on Intel's i3-4010 and the Crucial SSD - the machine boots wicked-fast in less than 15 seconds! This is a welcome change from my old HTPC which took well over a minute to boot.

I soon had XBMC installed and was ready for some testing. First, I wanted to check the power draw of this feisty little NUC. Man, this thing barely uses any juice. While playing a 1080P video file with DTS-HD Master Audio, it barely hits 15 watts. I measured idle power draw at around 9 watts, and it sips a measly 2 watts while in sleep mode. I was absolutely floored by these numbers. I also had some concerns that the integrated graphics in the Core i3 chip wouldn't be able to handle Blu-Ray quality 1080P video and high-def audio (I seriously considered spending an extra $100 for the i5 version of the NUC), but the machine barely breaks a sweat. Well under 20% CPU time while playing such a clip - amazing.

The last thing to mention is the fan noise. This is the one quibble I have with the NUC as the fan is clearly audible even from several feet away. It isn't necessarily loud, but if you had to listen to it that close for an extended period of time I think it could get very annoying. Thankfully I sit about 12 feet away from it which makes it barely audible, and you certainly can't hear it when watching something. Even a whisper is enough to drown it out.

Not directly related to the NUC itself but still pertinent to the HTPC experience as a whole is how I control the unit from way across the living room. I have a Logitech K400 wireless keyboard with an integrated track pad that works smashingly. But I hate to haul it out just to select a movie to play so instead I've programmed my Logitech Harmony Ultimate remote to work with Windows 8 and XBMC. It works really well, especially after making a few tweaks to the remote configuration to add some important functions. I'll write about those in a separate post.

Overall, I am immensely pleased with the Intel Haswell NUC. It's blazingly fast, amazingly energy-efficient, performs magnificently, and is nice and tiny. In fact, this would make a great general-purpose PC for anyone who didn't need an optical drive or required any expansion room. And while Intel's integrated graphics have come a long way and are well-suited for video tasks like this, their performance in today's top-tier games is underwhelming so gamers should look elsewhere. For an HTPC it's a tad pricey, true, but its tiny footprint makes it incredibly flexible. It even comes with a VESA mounting plate to attach it to the back of a monitor for a truly out of sight configuration. All in all, this is a great little device and I expect it will serve my HTPC needs for years to come. Highly recommended.


Still Stuck With An iPhone

I recently upgraded my cell phone from an iPhone 3GS to an iPhone 5. I had REALLY wanted to get a Windows Phone 8 device, but the killer feature for me was iPod integration in my car, and my car doesn't support streaming over Bluetooth. I have an AUX jack, but that just seems so primitive. So I was "stuck" with the good ol' iPhone.

As it turns out, the iPhone 5 isn't so bad, though I still think the screen is too small. There are several advantages to Apple's little iOS device, and near the top of that list is the fact that everyone gets the latest OS release at the same time. There is no "oh, well, carrier X is going to release it today but carrier Y won't release it for another two months." This is an endemic problem in the Windows Phone world, and possibly even a worse problem in the Android world. For example, last month Microsoft released their "Portico" update to Windows Phone 8 and to their credit Rogers in Canada pushed out this update almost immediately to their HTC 8x customers. However, 40 days later and Bell (my preferred carrier) is still sitting on this update and they're not saying when they'll release it. (I understand Verizon in the US is also dragging their feet on this.)

In addition to the immediate global availability of iOS updates, I have to give Apple credit for still supporting iPhones as far back as the 3GS. Sure, it doesn't have all the latest features (like Siri) but they're still supporting their loyal customers with older devices. Kudos. Another reason that Apple has kept me as a customer is the fact that I can buy a phone directly from them, unlocked. Buying any other manufacturer's phone in an unlocked state is not often straight-forward. I can't buy a Lumia 920 directly from Nokia. I can't buy an HTC 8x from HTC. I can't even buy a Galaxy SIII from Samsung. Though there are some vendors who sell these items unlocked, they are not major retailers and I don't know whether to trust them or not.

One more thing that Apple has in their favour is the available AppleCare+ warranty and insurance for the iPhone. I never buy extended warranties for anything but I paid an extra $100 for this. Why? It's not so much the additional one-year warranty (for a total of two years) but rather the "accidental damage" insurance. If I drop my iPhone and break the glass, for example, I pay Apple $49 and they give me a brand new iPhone. I can do that twice within the two-year AppleCare+ coverage period. I don't know of any other smart phone that offers that optional coverage.

So, yes, I'm "stuck" with the iPhone. I really prefer the Windows Phone 8 operating system and I would like a bigger screen, too. But, it turns out being stuck in the iPhone world isn't so bad after all, and I haven't even mentioned the ubiquity of iOS apps. I guess I can be satisfied with my situation, for now.

Left High 'n' Dry By OnHop.ca

I recently decided to build myself a brand new computer system based on the new Intel P55 chipset and a Core i7 860 processor (I'll be blogging about that entire experience shortly). While I was at it, I decided I would dive into the wonderfully speedy world of SSD drives, too. Unfortunately, my local retailer wasn't able to source my preferred drive (an OCZ Vertex 120GB) and my usual online retailer (ncix.com) had no stock.

I decided to try OnHop.ca since they had the lowest price on PriceCanada.com and they had stock. They also have favourable reviews on PriceCanada, so I figured I was safe. The product page for the drive listed the item as "in stock" and a delivery estimate of 1 to 2 days. I ordered the drive late on a Tuesday night, so I figured it would arrive by Friday which would have worked out great since I had put aside the entire weekend to build my machine.

But Friday arrived and there was no drive. Boo. I was disappointed but well, these things happen so I decided to be patient. By the following Tuesday there was still no drive, so I sent an inquiry to OnHop to ask about my order. Wednesday morning I got a response back claiming that the shipping company had "lost" the order, and that OnHop was shipping out a new unit immediately, and that I would have it the following day. Thursday came and went, and so did Friday - no drive. So, weekend number 2 and I'm still unable to assemble my system.

At this point, I'd had enough and dispatched a strongly worded (but not abusive) email to OnHop demanding my money back, since their order fulfillment process was apparently horribly broken. Naturally, I had to wait until Monday afternoon for a reply, and while they complied and immediately refunded my purchase, I was rather shocked by their laissez-faire attitude about the whole matter. They claimed my order had been "delayed" because the item they had in stock was a "defective unit." I guess they only had the one defective item as stock, but why would a defective unit count against their sales inventory? And why did it take almost 2 weeks to discover the error? I was expecting a bit more along the lines of "sorry we screwed up - please allow us to fix it and keep you as a customer" but no, here's your money back, now get lost.

Anyway, I'll never order from OnHop again, and I've since reordered the drive from trusty ol' NCIX since they now list it back in stock. Here's hoping it arrives by THIS Friday.

HTC Touch As An iPhone Replacement

In January of this year (2008), I was getting the itch to buy something to replace both my cell phone and my Palm PDA (I used the Palm as my MP3 player). I wanted an all-in-one solution so I wouldn't have to carry around two pieces of technology with me. Being the geek that I am, I was naturally interested in the iPhone but at that time it still wasn't available in Canada, and wouldn't be available at all through my preferred mobility provider which uses a CDMA network. So entranced was I by this new Apple technology that I seriously considered getting an iPod Touch and just keeping my old cell phone. I'd still have two items to carry around, but at least one of them would be super-cool.

In doing some research, I came across an interesting Windows Mobile phone from HTC called the "Touch." It has no number or key pad and instead relies almost completely on its touch sensitive screen for controlling the device (much like the iPhone). Windows Mobile was never designed to be operated by a touch screen, so HTC includes this glitzy little interface called Touch Flo which is neat enough, but doesn't really replace the standard Windows Mobile interface. However, the real advantage of the HTC Touch was the network fee - it came with an UNLIMITED data plan for only $7 a month! For replacing my MP3 playing Palm, the HTC Touch uses a microSD card, so I could at least approximate the storage capacity of an 8GB iPod Touch.

So that's what I did. I bought the HTC Touch with an 8GB microSD card and I've been mostly happy with it. Unlike the iPod or iPhone, the HTC has both regular and stereo bluetooth, so I also bought a pair of Motorola S9 bluetooth headphones, which work and sound pretty darn good. So, things have been good - mostly. There are some serious downsides to this solution, however.

First, I've mentioned that Windows Mobile is not really a mobile OS designed for touch screens so it has nowhere near the usability or cool flashiness of the iPod Touch/iPhone. Second, the battery life is atrocious - with the bluetooth radio on all the time and playing MP3s for about an hour a day, the device won't last 24 hours without a recharge. These aren't deal-breakers mind you, just a little annoying. What is more than just a little annoying is the fact that the HTC tends to corrupt the contents of the microSD card every once in a while (a couple of times a month on average). This is a known issue all over several Internet forums, but no one knows why and a fix is not forthcoming from HTC. So I just live with it, growling when it happens and re-copying my MP3s over when it does. I expect this doesn't happen on the iPhone.

UPDATE (March 2, 2009): After upgrading the HTC Touch to Windows Mobile 6.1 (a free upgrade) several months ago, I haven't experienced a single SD card corruption issue.

The latest "gotcha" with using the HTC as an iPhone replacement is with my car stereo, or pretty nearly any car stereo that supports "MP3 players." Usually this means they have an AUX jack that you can plug your MP3 player's headphone jack into. And I suppose that works well enough - it's certainly way better than using a tiny FM transmitter to do the same thing. But if you're lucky enough to have a decent car stereo, it will also come with an iPod dock connector so that you can completely control your iPod through the car stereo system! Playlists, artist names and song titles show up right on the car stereo display, and the iPod can be controlled with the steering-wheel radio controls, if your car is so equipped (mine is). But, if you don't have the magical device from Apple, all you've got is the AUX jack. Boo. (I understand that come vehicles also let you plug in any USB memory stick that contains MP3s and will work much like the iPod control - alas, my car does not have this option.)

So, do I buy an iPod so I can have the convenience (and cool) factor when I'm in my car (not to mention the absence of corrupted memory cards)? Do I go back to having two items of technology to lug around? I'm very tempted, though having everything on my cell phone is mighty handy. I suppose if it was really worth it to me, I could dump the HTC and switch mobility providers and get the iPhone now that it's available in Canada. Honestly though, paying $75 a month for the privilege isn't really enticing, not to mention the early termination fee I'd face with my existing provider. But I still have my eye on a new iPod. :)

Car Dilemma Solved - Mostly

I few months ago, I blogged about my search for a replacement vehicle as my existing lease was about to end. My lament was that I absolutely loved my existing car (a 2004 Volvo XC70) but that the lease buyout price was far too high given its current market value. And leasing a new version of the same model was somewhat price-prohibitive. I began an exhaustive search for a replacement, but nothing else really caught my fancy.

So, on the lease termination date I returned my car. It was a sad moment - tears were shed (well, no, not really). I was going to wait until the following month to see if Volvo's lease deals were more attractive, though if you've been following the news in the automotive industry lately you'll know that almost every car manufacturer is taking a bath on lease returns lately, with most manufacturers either raising their lease rates or discontinuing their lease programs altogether. This option was looking like a long shot and, as it turned out, it was.

So I starting looking at used XC70s to replace my returned 2004. A few days after I returned the car, I saw a gem of a car online. It was a nice 2004 XC70 and the price was agreeable. I dug a little deeper and realized that this was my car that I had just returned! So I scooted on down to the local Volvo dealer and said I'd like my car back, please.

Me and my precious 2004 XC70 have been reunited. However, it's making some odd noises now - perhaps a new Volvo is still in my future after all.

New Car Search: T-55 Days And Counting

The lease on my beloved 2004 Volvo XC70 is up in July and I've been caught up in new car shopping fever for the past few months. Since my current car has been an absolute paragon of reliability and I utterly love it to death, a new 2008 XC70 would seem to be the obvious choice. And it is, except that it's awfully bloody expensive. I was hoping to reduce the amount of money I pay every month for my transportation, so I decided to try out some other less expensive alternatives. Since the XC70 is actually quite competitively priced in its class, cross-shopping with similar models (Audi, BMW) wasn't really an option. Other Volvo models aren't really that much cheaper so I'm not considering those, either. So I started with some more commonly popular vehicles.

My first test drive was with the uber-popular Hyundai Sonata. I took their top trim level car (V6, leather, climate control, other niceties) for a drive and was thoroughly unimpressed. My main beef with this car was the short travel length of the suspension - it kept bottoming out on me. So much so in fact, that I thought there must have been something wrong with the car. But no, this is apparently how it rides. I understand that the 2009 model of this car is a complete redesign so I may have to revisit it in the future and see if it has improved. Unfortunately, my disappointment with this car was to be the first in a long line of disappointments.

My next test drive was with a top trim level Nissan Rogue. Though smaller than the big Murano, the Rogue is still SUVish in size and style. So SUVish in style, in fact, that my wife was sure it was going to roll over while we were driving it. And while the Rogue is wonderfully fuel-efficient, its 4 cylinder engine coupled with a CVT transmission means that it goes nowhere fast. My next test drive was going to be a Subaru Outback, but due to some crazy cash incentives from Subaru the dealer had none left in stock! I may still investigate this alternative, though reviewers claim the economically priced V4 is quite sluggish, and the more suitable V6 is almost as expensive as the XC70 so I'm not holding out much hope.

Other cars I have tested included the Volkswagen Passat which actually wasn't too bad. It handled well, had very nice acceleration, and was more or less comfortable. The same could be said of the Honda CR-V I drove, too (except for the acceleration part). However, as was starting to become painfully clear to me, my expectations were way too high for any car to meet. Naturally, none of the cars I was driving were even in the same class as the XC70 and while I knew this intellectually, I couldn't help but compare every car I drove to the Volvo. The result was that every test drive left me feeling empty inside (pathetic, I know).

On a whim, I even took a Mercedes C230 (they had no C300s in stock) out for a drive. It was the sport trim model, and I'm not a sporty car guy (bet you figured that out already, didn't you) so you can see where this is headed. The Mercedes is a fantastic feat of engineering genius and high-quality manufacturing that more or less exactly failed to impress me. I would have taken the more luxurious "Elegance" trim level for a drive, but as you can probably guess they didn't have one in stock.

So, I now have roughly 55 days until my Volvo lease expires and I have no idea what I'm going to do. Paying the buyout for my car isn't an option since it's much more than what the car is worth on the market today. Leasing a new 2008 XC70 leaves me in the poor house for another 4 years, though it is obvious I will not be satisfied with anything else. Actually, I have my eye on a 2009 instead of a 2008 since the 09 has a much better engine option and has integrated Bluetooth (for the two phone calls a year I make from my car - yes, Bluetooth is VERRRRY important to me). And that much better engine is going to cost even MORE money. I am totally, 100%, unequivocally screwed.

So what is it that I like so much about the Volvo? Two words: creature comfort. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who would disagree with the statement that Volvo has the absolute best seats in the automotive industry. I could ride all the way from Halifax to Vancouver and not feel the least bit fatigued, they are that good. And on this car the seats are at the perfect height to make getting into and out of the car totally effortless. So, the moment I get into the driver's seat of any other car I am immediately unhappy. And, while many driving enthusiasts would likely find the wagon's handling less than ideal, it is just about perfect for me. The steering has just the perfect amount of resistance, the suspension has the perfect blend of comfort and firmness, and the turbocharged engine with the all-wheel drive transmission has plenty of power. What more could I ask for (except for a lower price)?

So, seeing as how any car other than the Volvo is going to leave me terribly unsatisfied, I believe I have two real choices: suck it up and get the new Volvo, or simply buy some used late-model version of pretty much anything bigger than a Hyundai Accent. In the latter case, I may not be happy, but at least I won't be paying much for my unhappiness (as opposed to say, a new VW Passat). Stay tuned as my pathetic melodrama continues to unfold over the next several weeks.

XBox 360 Fun

I had been holding off buying an XBox 360 since I'm really not that much of a gamer and when I do play I totally suck anyway. For us non-gamer types, the XBox Live Marketplace sounds interesting since it offers high-definition movies, but alas as a Canadian I am deprived of such a useful feature (though Microsoft has said this will be available in Canada by the end of 2007). However, with last week's release of Halo 3, I really had no choice but to break down and get myself one. Halo is just about the only video game I've played in, oh, ten years so once again I bought an expensive piece of hardware just so I could play this damn intoxicating game.

I decided to get an XBox Elite primary for the larger hard drive, since outside of Halo I expect my only primary use of the machine will be for buying and watching high-def content. I ordered my machine through Dell Canada and got a deal where Halo 3 was included for free (I also got $30 off an extra controller with the play and charge kit). For a company that almost exclusively sells their stuff through an on-line web site, their on-line order tracking is really poor. I placed my order 2 weeks before Halo 3 was scheduled to ship. I got an email stating an "expected ship date" of September 21st (the Friday before Halo's release). However, when I clicked on the order number to go directly to Dell's site for an update, it said the order (or more presicely a single line-item on the order) wouldn't ship until the 27th. The other line item had no details for the ship date, so was the first line item's ship date also for the entire order?

Naturally, being the instant gratification freak that is typical of my generation, I checked the site for updates several times a day. I even called Dell in an attempt to gain clarification. I was told that this deal was extremely popular, but that it probably wouldn't ship until a day or two AFTER Halo's release. Grrrr.....  But then, on the 21st (this was the original "expected ship date") something went haywire on Dell's order tracking site and it now said an "expected DELIVERY date" of the 24th! Woo-hoo! Hours later, however, and it was back to a SHIP date of the 27th. Boo. I checked again on the morning of the 25th to find that it had actually shipped the day before (though no notification email was sent to me). They shipped it by air, and it actually arrived on the 25th! So, good marks for execution but an F for a rather useless order tracking system.

Anyway, I hooked up my new toy that evening and was relieved to find the cooling fan was much more quiet than my original XBox. I used my original XBox with XBox Media Center to stream video from my PC to my television in the living room and the fan was always distracting. The DVD drive is another story - it is quite noisy when it's in use even though it's the vaunted Benq drive which is supposed to be the most quite DVD drive in the 360s. I'd hate to hear what the noisy ones sound like.

I won't bore you with a review of Halo 3 since the entire gaming community has already given it plenty of thumbs-up. I haven't even played it much yet, though it looks like Halo, feels like Halo, and sounds like Halo. That's a good thing. Since I totally suck, I play on the "easy" setting but in Halo 3 it is way TOO easy - I haven't died yet! I think I'll restart on the normal difficulty setting and see how I fare. Oh, and the new hammer weapon totally rocks!

One thing that I wasn't looking forward to about the 360 was the fact that while it can play video from a PC, it only supports WMV and MPEG video formats. My original XBox with XBMC plays just about every video format on the planet and I like it that way. Thankfully, some clever programmers developed an ingenious (and free, let's not forget free) piece of software that allows you to play just about any video format on the 360. It's called Tversity and what it basically does is "transcode" a video file on-the-fly to an XBox 360 supported format. Since I just upgraded my rig to a quad-core system, I can easily transcode high-def material without breaking too much of a sweat. This is great stuff.

So, I'm quite happy with my new Halo 3 Machine (let's call it what it really is). Hell, I might even try to do the XBox Live multi-player thing too if I can think up a decent gamer tag. My usual nicknames are all taken, so this might take a while. (UPDATE: I am now known as UnhingedBeaker.)