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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  • Alien88 - Saturday, December 22, 2018 - link

    Check out the Udoo Bolt... Reply
  • LMonty - Friday, December 21, 2018 - link

    Hello Ganesh, could you pls. confirm whether the NUC operates in dual channel mode when using 32GB of RAM? I saw one review on Amazon complaining that his J5005 NUC was running in single channel mode, when using 2x8GB sticks (16GB total). Reply
  • mode_13h - Friday, December 21, 2018 - link

    Maybe it's still dual-channel, but the speed drops due to difficulty driving the load. In the past, certain Intel CPUs would do things like that. Reply
  • craxity - Friday, December 21, 2018 - link

    @LMonty: The NUC works in dual-channel mode (tested 2x16GB, 2x8GB and 2x4GB), but the memory performance is simply low.

    I'm using a NUC7PJYH since June and already discussed the topic in Intel's forum.
    Reply
  • LMonty - Friday, December 21, 2018 - link

    @craxity thank you for this info. Could you elaborate pls. on low memory performance? Wouldn't the memory bandwidth be dependent on the RAM speed (e.g. DDR4 2400 with 64-bit controller will result in 2400x8 = 19.2 GB/s single channel, 38.4 GB/s dual channel)? Reply
  • denywinarto - Friday, December 21, 2018 - link

    Any words on legacy boot ? I had to sell j4105 that i bought because it lacks legacy boot Reply
  • speculatrix - Monday, December 31, 2018 - link

    I'm not trying to be difficult but UEFI works well on modern Intel motherboards. It's all the crappy older systems, or cheap Chinese tablets, with crappy UEFI implementations that give UEFI a bad name. Reply
  • mode_13h - Friday, December 21, 2018 - link

    Thanks for this, but I sure wish you'd have included an i3 NUC (or whatever's the next step up with a performance-optimized core) and like a Pentium Gold G5400 desktop CPU.

    I'm always curious to know what one is leaving on the table by opting for Intel's power/cost-optimized product line (AKA its Atom-lineage processors).
    Reply
  • GreenReaper - Saturday, December 22, 2018 - link

    The LIVA Z2 looks to be underperforming, but perhaps not once you consider it's over 40% cheaper, includes an OS, and uses half the power. If you need more you could throw another stick of RAM in. Anything more and I suspect you'd want to step up to a full-fat CPU anyway. Reply
  • eastcoast_pete - Sunday, December 23, 2018 - link

    I must say that I am disappointed with both these two "HTPC"s and the review. The review is cookie-cutter type and only just okay if what one want to know are the benchmark numbers shown, but is deficient in key areas. The biggest missing piece is: Are these Home Theater (!) PCs any good for home theater use? The answer (probably not) is buried in the last section in a single sentence: "The only disappointing aspect from a HTPC viewpoint is that HDR is not supported". That's it? In 2018/2019?
    @Ganesh: please expand on what these NUC-type units can and cannot do when it comes to playing media, and mention severe limitations like "no HDR" in the first paragraph or so! The missing information on these two "HTPC"s reviewed here include the HDMI standard that they feature and what that means (i.e. can they do UHD (4K), at how many frames/second, 8bit or 10bit color output etc.), can the CPU natively decode HEVC/VP9 etc. at what frame rate especially for UHD, how is the playback quality, is there tearing or stuttering etc. An actual test or two of decoding/playback capabilities might be important in an HTPC (!) review, don't you think? Lastly, information on the audio out (channels, connectivity, distortion..?) is similarly MIA.

    For me, the summary for the two NUCs or NUCalikes reviewed here is: Nice, compact mini-computers for light computing and office use, but not suitable for use as a home theater PC as we approach 2019. As of now, UHD with HDR comes standard with essentially all new TVs, including almost all entry-level models (try to find a model year 2018/2019 TV set without those). A new HTPC that cannot even utilize those minimum capabilities is obsolete the moment it's purchased.
    Reply

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