Small form-factor PCs have become a major growth segment in the PC market over the last decade. In particular, UCFF (ultra-compact form-factor) PCs have become a welcome and permanent fixture in the desktop PC market, all the while they've also seen a good bit of success in the embedded and industrial market segments.

Further segmenting the UCFF market is the level of performance desired, and by proxy the CPU that gets used. Intel's two CPU architectures, Core and Atom, serve to split the market into premium and entry-level devices. And, even with the relatively lower performance of Atom-based SoCs, their aggressive prices make them an attractive proposition for economical desktop PCs as well as industrial motherboards and systems. Atom-based SoCs are long-life products, with Gemini Lake being the most recent SoC family in that product line. Today, we're taking a look at two contrasting Gemini Lake UCFF PCs - the fanless ECS LIVA Z2 and the actively-cooled Intel NUC7PJYH.

Introduction

Intel's Apollo Lake SoCs introduced in 2016 were the first to use the Goldmont CPU microarchitecture. The Gemini Lake SoCs (introduced late last year) are an evolutionary upgrade, bringing in double the amount of on-die cache and providing better performance despite running at approximately the same frequency as their Apollo Lake counterparts. The integrated GPU is also slightly more powerful - both in terms of EUs as well as multimedia capabilities. Prior to the 14nm supply constraints issue, multiple vendors had introduced Gemini Lake-based systems in the market. Similar to our Apollo Lake experiments (reviewing an actively-cooled Arches Canyon NUC and a passively-cooled ECS LIVA ZN33), we got hold of a couple of Gemini Lake UCFF PCs for evaluation - the Intel June Canyon NUC (NUC7PJYH) and the ECS LIVA Z2.

A comparison of the Arches Canyon NUC against June Canyon, and the ECS LIVA Z2 against the ECS LIVA Z, shows the following updates:

  • Usage of DDR4 SO-DIMM slots compared to the DDR3 ones in the Apollo Lake systems
  • Standardization of at lease one HDMI 2.0 display output
  • Replacement of the Apollo Lake SoC with a Gemini Lake one

June Canyon also makes use of a more advanced WLAN solution (AC 9462 vs. AC 3168 in Arches Canyon) that takes advantage of the integrated wireless MAC in the Gemini Lake SoC. However, the ECS LIVA Z2 still uses the older AC 3165. The form factor of the LIVA Z2 is quite different from the LIVA Z - It has a smaller footprint, but is thicker, and doesn't have the dual LAN capabilities of the older version.

The June Canyon NUC comes in multiple flavors, with our review sample being the highest-end configuration. Similarly, the LIVA Z2 comes with either the Celeron N4100 or the Pentium Silver N5000. Both versions come with Windows 10 Home pre-installed on an eMMC card. The two UCFF PCs come with a 65W (19V @ 3.42A) power adapter and a VESA mount.

Both machines integrate a dual-array microphone. This allows the end user to configure it as an always-listening machine (if needed), without the need to connect an external microphone. The other selling point is the availability of a HDMI 2.0 port with HDCP 2.2 support. 4Kp60 capability is present, allowing for specific digital signage use-cases. It also lends itself to usage as a HTPC capable of driving a 4K display.

Platform Analysis

The Gemini Lake SoCs support up to 6 PCIe 2.0 lanes, 8 USB 3.0 ports, and 2 SATA 3.0 ports. The distribution of the PCIe lanes in the two PCs is as below:

  • June Canyon NUC7PJYH
    • PCI-E 2.0 x1 port #3 In Use @ x1 (Realtek RTS5229 PCI-E Card Reader)
    • PCI-E 2.0 x1 port #5 In Use @ x1 (Realtek RTL8168/8111 PCI-E Gigabit Ethernet Adapter)
  • ECS LIVA Z2
    • PCI-E 2.0 x1 port #4 In Use @ x1 (Realtek RTL8168/8111 PCI-E Gigabit Ethernet Adapter)
    • PCI-E 2.0 x1 port #5 In Use @ x1 (Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3165 AC HMC WiFi Adapter)

Note that the usage of the integrated AC MAC in the NUC allows Intel to utilize one of the PCIe ports for a high-performance card reader.

In the table below, we have an overview of the various systems that are being considered today. The relevant configuration details of the machines are provided so that readers have an understanding of why some benchmark numbers are skewed for or against a particular system when we come to those sections.

Comparative PC Configurations
Aspect Intel NUC7PJYH
CPU Intel Pentium Silver J5005 Intel Pentium Silver J5005
GPU Intel UHD Graphics 605 Intel UHD Graphics 605
RAM Kingston HyperX KHX2400C14S4 DDR4 SODIMM
16-14-14-35 @ 2400 MHz
2x16 GB
Kingston HyperX KHX2400C14S4 DDR4 SODIMM
16-14-14-35 @ 2400 MHz
2x16 GB
Storage Crucial BX300 CT480BX300SSD1
(480 GB; 2.5" SATA III; Micron 3D MLC)
Crucial BX300 CT480BX300SSD1
(480 GB; 2.5" SATA III; Micron 3D MLC)
Wi-Fi Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 9462
(1x1 802.11ac - 433 Mbps)
Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 9462
(1x1 802.11ac - 433 Mbps)
Price (in USD, when built) $170 (barebones)
$518 (as configured, No OS)
$170 (barebones)
$518 (as configured, No OS)
BAPCo SYSmark 2018
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  • eastcoast_pete - Sunday, December 23, 2018 - link

    @Ganesh To clarify: I know you didn't call them HTPCs in the title, but that is what many (most?) users are or will be considering these NUCs and NUCalikes for. Almost anybody I know bought their NUC for use as an HTPC, and that is where these Gemini Lake NUCs fall flat. It can get frustrating to have to tell people over and over "Yes, this NUC is cheaper. No, it will not give you the HTPC experience you're looking for". So, even if you haven't run the media playback tests on these and can't add the information, a stronger "buyer beware" and what to consider instead is in order. Intel made sure that Gemini Lake systems cannot provide the multimedia experience that a 2018/2019 HTPC should provide; for that, one has to buy a core-based NUC. Reply
  • silverblue - Sunday, December 23, 2018 - link

    To be fair, I can't remember the last time I saw HTPC benchmarks, maybe it was back during the Kaveri era. Reply
  • mode_13h - Sunday, December 23, 2018 - link

    These aren't just light desktops, and perhaps you overestimate the size of the HTPC market.

    My employer actually uses NUCs for another purpose, entirely. A lot of things that would formerly be handled by lightweight servers can be done with a NUC. If you need to do some processing on-site (i.e. cannot move it into the cloud, or on a VM hosted by a big server), then NUCs are a pretty good option. I wish they had ECC, but it's not needed for our purpose (and there are industrial mini PCs that have it).
    Reply
  • eastcoast_pete - Monday, December 24, 2018 - link

    I agree with you that, for the use you describe, these NUCs are (almost, no ECC) perfectly fine. I disagree on underestimating the size of the HTPC market. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who think hey, this could be a cheap solution for my media needs.
    I wish Ganesh would have put a clear statement in his review along the lines of " these units are okay or even excellent for situations where you need a compact PC that can run general office software or on-site processing. However, if you hope to put these Gemini lake systems to use as HTPCs, you're better off looking elsewhere" or similar.
    Reply
  • GreenReaper - Sunday, December 23, 2018 - link

    To be honest, these have not really been positioned as HTPC, but as ultra-compact form-factor PCs. Other places describe it as a "PC replacement" or for "entry-level digital signage", e.g.:

    "The NUC7PJYH kit also comes with dual Ultra HD 4K display support via two full-sized HDMI ports, consumer infrared, and a TOSLINK audio jack, they’ve got everything they need to stream media, play, or finish that last-minute presentation. In addition, with 3.2x better graphics, you can create robust entry-level digital signage at entry-level prices for your SMB customers."

    If you are looking for more in a NUC, and in particular HDR support, you probably want to be looking at Bean Canyon (CFL-U) or Hades Canyon (KBL-U) as described in https://www.anandtech.com/tag/htpc
    Reply
  • speculatrix - Monday, December 31, 2018 - link

    The TOSLink port works perfectly under windows 10, with dd5.1 out. Reply
  • Oxford Guy - Friday, December 28, 2018 - link

    "For example, in the average office scenario, it might not be worth purchasing a noisy and power-hungry PC just because it ends up with a 2000 score in the SYSmark 2014 SE benchmarks. In order to provide a balanced perspective, SYSmark 2018 also allows vendors and decision makers to track the energy consumption during each workload. In the graphs below, we find the total energy consumed by the PC under test for a single iteration of each SYSmark 2018 workload. For reference, the calibration system consumes 5.36 Wh for productivity"

    versus 6.03 for the LIVA and 6.60 for the NUC. So, they both fail the office work test. That is not what I expected nor what most would expect, since Atom in particular is supposed to be more, not less, energy-efficient for things like office work. Is it due to the i3-7100 being able to finish tasks more quickly, a storage speed bottleneck, or both? I assume it's the first one.

    It's also rather sad how slow these are when compared with Piledriver parts in the Cinebench tests. Even single-threaded Cinebench, which exposes how slow Piledriver is when compared with Intel's real CPUs, makes these low bad. The multicore performance is pitiful. Yes, I realize that Piledriver uses more energy. However, a processor like the 8370E is hardly an energy nightmare if it's not overclocked and it kicks the tar out of these chips (100 for single-threaded and 614 for multithreaded). The 8320E was ultra cheap at MicroCenter and even qualified for the motherboard price reduction. Color me underwhelmed when a design from 2011/2012 that wasn't much of an upgrade when it came out manages to greatly outperform parts being sold on the cusp of 2019, without using a tremendous amount of energy. Clearly, an officer worker would be happier with an 8320E than one of these CPUs and it's not even for sale anymore — let alone a Sandy Bridge chip which has better single-threaded performance.

    These boxes, then, seem to be for more niche activities, like HTPC use.
    Reply
  • Oxford Guy - Friday, December 28, 2018 - link

    "makes these low bad" unfinished sentence... oops: "Makes these low low end chips seem particularly bad." Reply
  • speculatrix - Monday, December 31, 2018 - link

    I bought a June Canyon NUC specifically because of the TOSLink optical output. I can vouch that, with the right drivers under windows 10 you can get Dolby Digital out, when playing Netflix from the Netflix app, or movies with the right audio codecs with VLC. Reply
  • pseudoid - Wednesday, January 23, 2019 - link

    I thought I was in the PC aisle of Fry's Electronics store. Yeah, here it is 2019 and they are still trying to offload the NUC7s at retail prices. I bought NUC8s (one w/i5 and the other with the i7) in December 2018 and I'm tickled pink. Reply

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