Intel's Tiger Lake-based NUCs have been shipping for well over a year now. Four product lines were planned initially - Panther Canyon for the mainstream market, Tiger Canyon for the professional / business market, Phantom Canyon for gaming enthusiasts, and the Elk Bay Compute Element for embedded applications. Supply chain challenges have been impacting availability of different models in different regions, but that has not prevented Intel's partners from delivering complementary products.

Akasa is a well-known manufacturer of thermal solutions for computing systems targeting industrial applications as well as home consumers. They have been maintaining a lineup of passively-cooled cases for Intel's NUCs since 2013. We had reviewed their Turing case for the Bean Canyon NUC a couple of years back, and come away pleasantly surprised. Not often do we see a fanless case managing to keep the processor cooler than an actively-cooled solution for the same workload, but that is exactly what the Akasa Turing achieved. For Intel's Tiger Canyon NUCs, Akasa carries three main products - Newton TN, Plato TN, and Turing TN. The company sampled us the Newton TN for review with Intel's sample of the NUC11TNKi5.

On the Tiger Lake UCFF front, we had reviewed only a couple of systems - the ASRock Industrial NUC BOX-1165G7 last year, and more recently, the Supermicro SYS-E100-12T-H. We took the Akasa Newton TN review opportunity to also perform a detailed evaluation of Intel's own offering - the NUC11TNKi5 Tiger Canyon NUC. The review below introduces the Tiger Canyon NUC hardware and details the build process for its fanless version using the Akasa Newton TN before going into the usual platform analysis. Following this, the benchmark numbers for the passively cooled configuration are compared against the original NUC11TNKi5 (along with a host of other systems). Finally, results from the thermal evaluation of the fanless system are presented. Together, these provide an idea of what Tiger Lake can deliver in a reasonably compact fanless system and also whether the Newton TN manages to replicate the success of the Turing.

Introduction and Product Impressions

Intel's Tiger Lake processors brought the Willow Cove microarchitecture fabricated in a reasonably mature 10nm process to the market last year. The focus was mainly on the mobile market, but the company did launch a suite of mini-PCs based on them last year. The company segments the Tiger Lake-based mini-PCs them into different categories - Performance, Pro, Enthusiast, and Extreme. The NUC11 Pro Kit NUC11TNKi5 (Tiger Canyon) we are looking at today is a UCFF solution that places a 100mm x 100mm motherboard inside a 117mm x 112mm x 37mm chassis. The board comes with a soldered processor - the Core i5-1135G7. Belonging to the Tiger Lake-U family, it can operate over a range of configurable TDPs - from 12W to 28W. The NUC's default BIOS settings set the PL1 (sustained) and PL2 (burst mode) levels to 28W and 64W respectively, with the PL1 Time Window set to 28 seconds.

End-users have the flexibility to choose their own storage device and RAM. For best performance, a PCIe 4.0 x4 NVMe SSD can be used, and DDR4-3200 SODIMMs are supported. Our NUC11TNKi5 sample came with the following components pre-installed:

  • Samsung SSD 980 PRO PCIe 4.0 x4 NVMe SSD
  • 2x Kingston ValueRAM KVR32S22D8/16 DDR4-3200 SODIMM for 32GB of DRAM

The system is actively cooled, with a blower fan on the underside, away from the side of the motherboard with the SODIMM and M.2 slots.

The specifications of our Intel NUC11TNKi5 review configuration are summarized in the table below.

Intel NUC11TNKi5 / NUC11TNBi5 + Akasa Newton TN Specifications
(as tested)
Processor Intel Core i5-1135G7
Tiger Lake 4C/8T, 2.4 - 4.2 GHz
Intel 10nm SuperFin, 8MB L2, 28W
(PL1 = 28W, PL2 = 64W)
Memory Kingston ValueRAM KVR32S22D8/16 DDR4-3200 SODIMM
22-22-22-52 @ 3200 MHz
2x16 GB
Graphics Intel Iris Xe Graphics
(80EU @ 1.30 GHz)
Disk Drive(s) Samsung 980 PRO MZ-V8P500B/AM
(2500 GB; M.2 2280 PCIe 4.0 x4 NVMe;)
(1xxL V-NAND Gen 6 3D TLC; Samsung Elpis S4LV003 Controller)
Networking 1x 2.5 GbE RJ-45 (Intel I225-LM)
Intel Wi-Fi 6 AX201 (2x2 802.11ax - 2.4 Gbps)
Audio Digital Audio with Bitstreaming Support over HDMI Ports
Video 2x HDMI 2.0b
2x Display Port 1.4a with HBR3 over Thunderbolt
Miscellaneous I/O Ports 2x USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A (Front)
1x USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A (Rear)
1x USB 2.0 Type-A (Rear)
1x Thunderbolt 4 + 1x Thunderbolt 3 (Type-C) (Rear)
Operating System Windows 11 Enterprise (22000.739)
Pricing (Street Pricing on July 21st, 2022)
$420 (Board) + $150 (Case) + $130 (RAM) + $95 (SSD) = $795 (as configured, no OS)
Full Specifications Intel NUC11TNBi5 Specifications
Akasa Newton TN Specifications

The NUC package includes the usual VESA mount and screws along with an integration guide. A region-specific power cord accompanies the 120W (19V @ 6.32A) adapter.

The gallery below provides an overview of the kit's chassis and the I/O distribution. The key differences when compared to the Performance line of Tiger Lake NUCs (Panther Canyon) are the absence of a SDXC card reader, a HDMI 2.0b port instead of a mini-DP port, an extra USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A port in the front panel, and the restriction of Thunderbolt Type-C ports only to the rear panel.

Compared to the Performance line, the NUC11 Pro line adds official support for Linux and Window IoT, supports operation over a wider DC input voltage range, has an extra internal SSD slot (M.2 2242 SATA / PCIe 3.0 x1), vPro capabilities in select SKUs, and a longer product life cycle.

The standard NUC11TNKi5 kit above can be used in most scenarios, but there may be use-cases that require the complete absence of any moving parts. In industrial deployments, the reason may be the need to avoid performance loss due to cooling efficiency degradation resulting from dust build-up. For professional creators, it may be due to the need to avoid extraneous noise affecting the work output. The average home consumer may also prefer a silent system to better focus on the work at hand. For HTPCs, multimedia content can be enjoyed without distractions - an aspect that may be of paramount importance to audiophiles.

Traditionally, passively cooled computing systems have either been woefully underpowered for general purpose use, or carried a significant premium in terms of both cost and physical footprint. However, advancements in compute performance per watt and novel passive cooling chassis designs (that do not cost an arm and a leg to mass-produce) have combined to give consumers the ability to create powerful, yet affordable, fanless systems. This is where vendors like Akasa come in. For the NUC11TNBi5 (the board inside the NUC11TNKi5 kit), Akasa has three different cases, with dimensions that can satisfy virtually any deployment scenario:

  • Newton TN [ 176.6mm x 200mm x 53.6mm ]
  • Plato TN [ 247mm x 240mm x 38.5mm ]
  • Turing TN [ 95mm x 113.5mm x 247.9mm ]

We put the standard kit through our benchmarking process first. Following that, we disassembled the unit, and transferred the board to the Akasa Newton TN. The same benchmarks were processed again on the Newton build.

Prior to analyzing the NUC11 platform and looking at the comparative specifications of the considered systems, we take a deep dive into the build process using the Akasa Newton TN.

Akasa Newton TN Noiseless NUC Build
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  • meacupla - Sunday, July 24, 2022 - link

    At that point, you may just want to use a white noise maker
  • abufrejoval - Sunday, July 24, 2022 - link

    Thanks, that's what I've been hearing, too!

    And in a way that's what I've been thinking without hinting it explicitely to Ryan1981: Getting yourself tuned to zero noise is both very expensive and counter-productive.

    Humanity has operated on communal and external noises for hundreds of thousands of years: a large part of our brain is designed to do nothing but discriminate between sounds that indicate danger and those that don't. A total absense of sound only has your brain increase the sensitivity of your receptors to the point where minute sounds become a bother.

    Instead of making electronics completely silient, we should have them emit a soft snore or other comforting noises akin to humans being human.

    There is an auditorium in the midst of Gibraltar's rock, that offers a level of silence no recording studio can match. Anyone left alone in there is bound to develop tinnitus as the brain keeps increasing the sensitivity in your in-ear "DSPs" to the point where they get the "social noise" evolution set as a base line.
  • abufrejoval - Saturday, July 23, 2022 - link

    Your previous Akasa tests had me hoping, that I’d be able to silence any NUC, if a passive Mini-ITX based solution, like the one I’d been using for Gemini Lake Atoms, wasn’t going to be available.

    I had sampled a NUC or Brix once before and was quite shocked at the nervous noise it generated: the fan gave you an audio variant of a CPU graph that you couldn’t just click away. And at top load, it was an unacceptable howler.

    I wanted something with a bit more punch than an Atom, but a similar idle power and obviously a notebook SoC should be able to do that. But the only way to get that stationary and at a reasonable price (with a full complement of RAM) was to get a NUC.

    When I hit across a NUC8i7BEK with the “double sized” Iris 655 48EU iGPU for only €300, my resistance to the form factor melted away and I gave it a try, even if the primary use case—a Linux based HCI server—had zero use for a GPU. After all you never know if it might be recycled as a desktop later and I was just curious to see how this “Apple spec” SoC would perform.

    It turned out that they key to making it unnoticeable was to ensure that the fan would never rev beyond 3200rpm and for that I had to ensure that PL2 would never last longer than 10 seconds nor exceed 50 Watts, while a PL1 of 15 Watts ensured low fan revs even for a power virus.
    I had just ordered another, when I saw a hexa-core i7-10700U based NUC (with a very ordinary 24EU iGPU) going for just €50 extra. So I cancelled and got that one instead. It turned out much more difficult to tame, because Intel was desperate to wring performance leadership out of 14nm in a tiny NUC and only Watts can get you there. I managed again, playing with the PL1/PL2/TAU to get a system rather good for those sprints where the Atoms were trying my patience, yet with a low-enough power and noise footprint to operate 24x7 as a server.

    Half a year later in February 2021 I landed a fresh Tiger Lake NUC11PAHi7, that’s played hard to get ever since. But mine is a Panther Canyon variant, evidently consumer optimized, with a completely different layout of ports for which Akasa doesn’t build a chassis. I don’t know if Intel already made these differentiations in earlier generations, but it’s rather annoying when only the number of models increases, not their availability.

    Again, that Tiger could also be tamed to unnoticeability via the excellent control Intel’s NUCs offer in the BIOS. Of course, even better would be a set of CLI tools which allow you to adjust these things from Linux…

    In terms of snappiness, none of them needs to hide, because at least for a couple of seconds they will all clock to 4.5 GHz or more and match any desktop. For brutal workloads I have other machines with 16 or 18 cores and 140-150 Watts of TDP made tolerable via lots of giant Noctua fans and coolers.

    While there is no noticeable difference in scalar performance between the NUC8 and NUC10, the two extra cores on the NUC10 i7-10700U will obviously deliver a bit of extra punch until TAU runs out. But the Tiger Lake annihilates their value with better IPC: with its four cores it matches pretty exactly the six cores of its predecessor on any parallelized workload while the single core performance is on par with a Zen 3 at the same clocks.

    The “double sized” Iris 655 with its 128MB of eDRAM on the NUC8 turned out to be a paper tiger, effectively adding only 50% of extra power vs. a normal 24EU UHD iGPU at the expense of quite a bit of silicon real-estate and production complexity. If Intel were to sell “Apple spec” chips only, I doubt they’d be nearly as profitable. The list price of an i7-8565U is $409 while the list price of an i7-8559U is only $22 higher. They are close to identical on the CPU side, but the GT3e extra die area and the 128MB eDRAM chip must have cost a pretty penny! I still own a notebook with an i5-6267U, a dual-core Skylake variant of GT3e where the CPU cores were probably the smallest piece of the chip’s silicon pie.

    Really astounding was how badly it got beaten by the 96 Tiger Lake Xe iGPU, which doesn’t have eDRAM for extra bandwidth: that one scaled rather nicely to 4x 24EU performance, beating my Ryzen 3 based 5800U APUs in most benchmarks, just as you describe.

    I don’t really know where that performance is coming from, because DRAM bandwidth is very similar across the board and only around 40GB/s. All my NUCs run with 64GB and while the timings may have gone from DDR4-2400 (NUC8) to DDR4-3200 (NUC11), that’s just adding wait states on these low power devise.

    I love running Google Maps in 3D globe view on Chrome derived browsers at 4k, because it really shows what this low power hardware is capable of with perhaps the most efficient 3D pipeline on the planet: it puts Microsoft’s best flight simulator to shame on an RTX 2080ti!

    It proves the main issue is software, not hardware. But existing real-world games are no fun on these boxes, even the Tiger Lake needs another power of 10 to become reasonably attractive at 4k.

    Another aftermarket NUC solution would evidently be one that adds a beefy active cooling, say a Noctua NH-L9i or even a Noctua NH-L9x65. Obviously these chips could sustain 65 Watts with proper cooling and then deliver quite a reasonable desktop performance in only a slightly bigger form factor.

    BTW: for my use as µ-servers I've added TB3 based 10Gbase-T NICs so the NVMe based SSDs contributing bricks to the Gluster file system don't get slowed down to inacceptable levels.

    I'd have preferred to make do with TB3 based networking via direct connect cables, but fell afoul the fact that Thunderbolt ports don't have MACs and will randomly generate them on every boot or plug event. It's the software.... again!
  • xane - Sunday, July 24, 2022 - link

    Interesting to see continued development, but for me nothing beats Cirrus7 cases from Germany. I do understand it's subjective, though.
  • Hixbot - Tuesday, July 26, 2022 - link

    Ganesh, I've been politely asking you add noise testing to your mini-pc tests for the last couple years. Noise is a very important characteristic to home theater PCs.
    Here we are with a fanless offering with some obvious thermal compromises, but your other reviews don't highlight noise at load and therefore cannot be compared.
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, July 26, 2022 - link

    If there is any noise / electrical coil whine, or anything of that sort, I do make a mention of it in the concluding section (like I did in the Zotac ZBOX CI660 nano).

    Other than that, the ambient noise / noise floor is too high in the environment where these systems are tested for a sound meter to pick up anything at all from them.
  • kepstin - Wednesday, August 24, 2022 - link

    You should really consider retiring/updating that Gimp application startup benchmark… The multithreaded scaling being weird is actually a bug where it's doing extra redundant work that it shouldn't have been, and has been fixed (or at least worked around) in newer versions.
  • storapa - Thursday, September 1, 2022 - link

    Had an old NUC3 with the old version of the Akasa Newton. Worked like a charm for years, until the board died (google results suggests it was a common problem with NUC3, not the case).

    But note that the kensington "lock" doesn't add any security, as you can remove the entire backplate with 4 screws..

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