Monday, August 25, 2014

Do you need an audio interface?

Many people new to music production are confused when it comes to the topic of how to get music into and out of their PCs. The best solution for you will depend on your needs and preferences, and perhaps on the capabilities of your existing setup. I have at least a couple articles planned on the topic of audio interfaces, and this first one covers the basics:

What is an audio interface?

When music producers mention “audio interfaces,” they’re talking about devices that enable you to record music from external sources into your computer and play music from the computer through headphones or studio monitors. While some interfaces offer digital inputs and outputs (ADAT, S/PDIF, AES, etc.), almost all interfaces provide at least a couple analog inputs and outputs, meaning they have both analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) and digital-to-analog converters (DACs).

Nearly all modern computers have some form of audio ADC/DAC already, whether it’s part of the chipset on the computer’s mainboard, or a discrete card (like a SoundBlaster) plugged into a PCI or PCI Express slot of a desktop PC.

Some folks say “sound card,” whether they’re referring to onboard audio, a SoundBlaster, or an external audio interface. This is very confusing! Just know that if I say “sound card” below, I’m only referring to integrated audio chipsets or consumer add-on cards, like SoundBlasters.

How is an audio interface different from a “sound card?”

Audio interfaces are (usually) just for music production. PC sound cards and integrated audio chipsets are made for “all-purpose” use. They’re typically the default playback device for all system sounds, games, and Internet browsers, where as true audio interfaces normally default to only handling sound from applications that explicitly use them (for example, most DAWs require you to select an audio device, rather than just defaulting to your computer’s built-in playback device). On Windows (and I presume Mac?) you can adjust your computer’s settings so that all system sounds go through your audio interface (you make the interface your default playback and recording device), but that’s rarely an optimal configuration for music production.

Audio interfaces have pro audio connections. The most obvious difference between sound cards and dedicated audio interfaces is the connections. It is rare to find a sound card that includes any analog audio connection types other than 1/8" “headphone jack” style ports, and rarer still to find any kind of digital audio I/O connectors on a computer with integrated audio. True audio interfaces generally have balanced 1/4" connections and/or XLR connections (frequently you’ll find so-called combo jacks that can accommodate both kinds of cable), so you can plug any traditional microphone, instrument, or pro audio equipment into them.

Audio interfaces usually have preamps. Most audio interfaces also include built-in preamps, which amplify the weak signals from microphones and guitars. You can usually adjust the input levels on sound cards, but the amplified signal is often quite noisy, and the interfaces/control panels for making these adjustments are frequently arcane and imprecise.

Audio interfaces usually support higher quality audio formats. The sound cards of most computers I’ve seen seem to default to “CD Quality,” which is 44.1kHz, 16-bits, and frequently don’t go higher than maybe 44.1/24-bit. Most audio interfaces default to 44.1kHz/24-bit (which offers more headroom than CD quality), but some support more 96kHz/32-bit or even higher. (Note that it usually takes a pretty fast computer to keep up when you’re working at such high settings.)

Audio interfaces offer better performance. Digital audio is never “instant.” There’s always some delay/latency involved when recording digital audio, and your computer, your DAW settings, your audio hardware, and all related device drivers play a role in how long the delay actually is. “Low latency” is a big selling point for many audio interface manufacturers, so they strive to deliver drivers and features that enable users to hear what they’re doing in as close to real time as possible. The drivers for most PC sound cards usually simply aren’t optimized with this in mind, mainly because they’re mostly used for playback, not recording/mixing. Many don’t even come with ASIO drivers at all, meaning you might be stuck with 3rd party “band-aid” solutions like Asio4All just to let your DAW access the sound card.

Audio interfaces can sound better. There’s also the question of sound quality, which is not as simple a topic to tackle as some seem to think. The main issue with most computer sound cards is noise. Their physical connectors can be susceptible to hum from electromagnetic interference, the “noise floor” is often high (meaning you have less “headroom” in which to record your audio signals without having to deal with background noise), and some folks believe that the quality of the ADC/DAC just doesn’t match that of pro interfaces in an audible, qualitative way. I’ll take a closer look at this possibility in another post, but I will generally agree that your best chance at getting the best sound with the least noise/interference is to get a good dedicated audio interface.

Audio interfaces offer more flexibility. While typical PC sound is either built into your motherboard or mounted inside your PC’s case, most audio interfaces are external devices which connect to your PC via USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt, etc. There are also PCI and PCI Express audio interface cards, however these are usually wired to external expanders or “breakout boxes” for the actual audio connections. You can get audio interfaces with many analog inputs and outputs (versus the single stereo input/output pairs you find on most PCs), and you can find interfaces with numerous different kinds of analog and digital audio connectors. Also, many of the more expensive interfaces have very advanced software that enables you to route audio and configure the device’s settings and easily switch between various configurations.

What is a converter, and how is it different from an audio interface?

In the high-end pro realm, you'll often hear folks use the term "converter" to refer to devices that perform analog/digital conversion instead of "audio interface." This can be really confusing because "converter" is both the name of the device and the name of the electronic components inside it (and inside audio interfaces!) that perform the actual AD or DA conversion. While the distinction can sometimes be blurry, here are some general guidelines for telling the difference between converters and interfaces:

Audio interfaces connect to computers, while converters usually don't. All audio interfaces have some way to connect to a computer (USB, FireWire, or Thunderbolt ports, for example). Occasionally you'll find something marketed as a "converter" that also offers computer connectivity- perhaps with the use of an optional add-in card- but that's generally not the case.

Audio interfaces almost always perform both analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion, but some converters do only one or the other. Converters are sold in AD, DA, and AD-DA models. Interfaces generally do both.

Most interfaces have microphone preamps, but most converters don't. A converter simply converts a signal between the analog and digital domains; it generally doesn't try to do anything other than that.

Converters are generally more expensive than interfaces. You'll have a hard time finding a standalone converter for anything less than $1500 USD, and most models are in the $2000-3000 range.

For the rest of this article, I'm only talking about audio interfaces.

Do I need an audio interface if I mostly work with soft synths?

Excellent question! The most important purpose of an audio interface is to give you a reliable way to record external signals, such as vocals, guitars, or hardware synthesizers. When you work exclusively with plugins (like Sylenth1, Massive or Kontakt), you're not technically recording any audio- in fact during the rendering process (when you mix your DAW project down to a stereo audio file), your computer doesn't even use your interface at all. One occasional exception to this is interfaces that include special DSP features that actually process your audio like effects plugins would in your DAW. The UAD Apollo interfaces are an example of this. The majority of interfaces- even most high-end ones- don't do this.

Although an interface won't necessarily affect your sound quality when doing totally in-the-box work, they can have other benefits. Since audio interfaces often perform better than built-in audio, if you trigger your soft synths with a MIDI keyboard or pad controller, you might get better real-time performance when recording new MIDI parts, because there will be less of a delay between when you press a key or pad and when you hear the sound triggered in your DAW.

Another place an audio interface can help a totally in-the-box producer is by giving you better monitoring options (pro style amplified headphone jacks and balanced output connections) than you can get by plugging speakers and headphones directly into your computer.

To summarize:
  • Audio interfaces don't make plugin-based music sound any better, except for special cases where the interface provides DSP features that are used during rendering/mixdown.
  • Audio interfaces can reduce/eliminate noticeable lag when triggering software or hardware synths from physical MIDI controllers.
  • Audio interfaces are an important part of your monitoring/playback environment.

What are some good prosumer audio interfaces?

Most of the major manufacturers offer a wide array of solid options. I’m going to go into much more detail on some specific devices in another post, but right now I’ll offer some quick recommendations for interfaces I’ve personally owned, used, and tested.

While there are a number of connectivity options today (USB, FireWire, Thunderbolt, PCI Express, etc.), I'm just going to list devices that have USB 2.0 support, since that's still pretty universal, and it's perfectly capable of supporting the streaming needs of the majority of musicians.


A good entry-level interface should get you at least 2 analog ins and outs and deliver reasonable performance in the sub-$200 USD price category.

The Roland Duo-Capture EX has 2 analog ins and outs, plus MIDI in/out. It can optionally run on batteries and serve as an interface for an iPad or other other tablets. I've successfully connected mine to an iPad and a Dell Venue 8 Pro.

Roland Duo-Capture EX
I also really like the Steinberg UR22. Like the Roland, it's a 2-in/2-out interface with MIDI in/out. While the Steinberg lacks the Roland's tablet support, it offers higher sample rates (up to 192kHz) and slightly better performance.
Steinberg UR22


In the middle of the prosumer range, you'll find interfaces with more ins and outs, more I/O options, and often better bundled software for mixing and routing audio. There is a pretty wide range of prices in this category, from around $300-1400 USD. There are a number of "hybrid" interfaces in this range that can support more than one connection type (typically USB + FireWire).

The MOTU Track 16 is a pretty solid choice. It offers 8 analog input channels and 4 analog outputs, in addition to a number of digital I/O channels, plus MIDI. It includes CueMix FX software for audio routing and monitoring and has a number of useful level meters right on the hardware. Offers both USB and FireWire 400 connectivity. Also includes "loopback" support, for recording your PC's audio, among other things, and DSP effects, letting you apply reverb or compression to your vocals, for example, without taxing your computer's CPU.

MOTU Track 16


At the top end of the prosumer range, you will find interfaces with a large number of analog inputs and outputs, a wider range of digital I/O options, and very low-latency, high-performance drivers. Price-wise, these interfaces can cost between $1500-2300 USD.

In 2013, I bought an RME FireFace UFX out of curiosity more than anything else. I just had to know why that interface was so popular with so many producer types. Well now I know. Absolutely the best performance I've seen in any prosumer interface, USB/FireWire connectivity, a huge number of analog and digital ins and outs, four MIDI ports, and the famous TotalMix software, which is limitless in its flexibility. Like the MOTU Track 16 UFX also features loopback and DSP effects.

RME FireFace UFX

Interfaces in other places

Some audio mixers and instruments include audio interface functionality, but depending on your needs and your setup, those features can sometimes be more trouble than they're worth. The Access Virus TI line of synths have optional interface support, but the latency is very high and enabling that feature sacrifices some I/O capabilities. Several of the Roland Aira devices use an interface mode to provide multi-channel output straight into your DAW, but if you already have a standalone audio interface, you may run into headaches integrating this feature into your rig. (On Windows, you normally can only have a single interface or "audio device" enabled in your DAW at a time.)

The mixers with built-in interfaces, such as the Mackie ProFX line, make more sense, because they offer expanded I/O options over most standalone interfaces- but they aren't always known for delivering the best low-latency performance.

If you don't have any interface at all yet, purchasing one of these multi-function devices might help you out (since something's better than nothing), but ideally a standalone bespoke audio interface is going to give you the best performance and flexibility.

Friendly advice

When shopping for an audio interface, keep in mind that when you get to the high end, you're generally paying for features, performance, and reliability- not necessarily audibly better sound quality. If you have a solid entry-level interface and you're not satisfied with the quality of your recordings, it's very unlikely that purchasing a more expensive interface will improve things.

Try to focus on how many inputs and outputs you think you'll need, what features you think would be useful, and pay close attention to user reviews to learn about potential performance and stability issues. If the price is right and most users seem to be happy with it, you're probably gonna be okay.

Monday, August 18, 2014

REVIEW: Intel NUC D54250WYKH - The World's Smallest DAW PC?

For the past couple of years, Intel has quietly sold miniature computer kits under the product name Next Unit of Computing- NUC for short. Intel envisions a number of usage models for these tiny barebones PCs (they measure 4"x4"x2"), but I've never seen anyone discuss their suitability for music production- so I decided to spend some time working with and benchmarking a recent NUC model to see how it fares in the studio.

Left-to-right: Roland Duo-Capture EX interface, Intel NUC, Amazon Basics DVD writer.

Kit Contents and Specifications

The specific model I have is the Intel NUC D54250WYK.

Front view. USB 3.0 ports on left and audio jack / infrared sensor on right.
The D54250WYK unit has the following specifications and components:
  • Intel Core i5-4250U processor, which is permanently fused to the unit's custom motherboard.The processor is rated at 1.30 GHz clock speed, however with the NUC's Intel Dynamic Power Technology enabled, the clock speed runs closer to 2.40 GHz.
  • Intel HD Graphics 5000 (integrated).
  • WiFi antennas built into the chassis (the NUC does not include a WiFi card- more on this later).
  • Two SO-DIMM slots for up to 16GB of 1600/1333 MHz 1.35V DDR3L memory.
  • One mini DisplayPort connector (with audio support).
  • One mini HDMI connector (with audio support).
  • Four external USB 3.0 connectors.
  • One internal SATA port.
  • One full-length mini PCI Express slot with mSATA support.
  • One half-length mini PCI Express slot (for WiFi adapters).
  • One Gigabit Ethernet Connector.
  • Headphone/Microphone combo jack on front.
  • Infrared sensor on front panel.
  • Kensington style security connector on side.

Rear view. Those are vents near the top. Below those you see power, mini DisplayPort, mini HDMI, Ethernet, and USB 3.0.

When you open the box, you'll find the NUC kit includes the following:
  • The NUC itself (case, motherboard, processor, fan heatsink).
  • A brick style power adapter.
  • A VESA mounting bracket (for fastening the NUC behind your TV).
  • Very minimalistic instructions.
Here's what the kit DOESN'T include. I'll list the specific accessories and components I used with my NUC next:
  • No RAM.
  • No storage (although there are slots and connectors for both SATA and mSATA drives).
  • No OS, obviously.
  • No WiFi card (although there are built-in antennae and a slot for a mini WiFi card).
  • No adapters or cables for the mini DisplayPort or mini HDMI connectors; these particular connectors are not very common yet, so check your existing cables and adapters before purchasing.
  • No keyboard or mouse.
  • No discs. You can obtain all necessary drivers from the Intel Download Center.

 Recommended Components and Accessories

Since the NUC is just barebones PC kit, you're going to need some additional items in order to get any use out of it.

Here's what I paid for the NUC plus its essential components (each of which I list below):
  • NUC: $351.00
  • RAM: $87.99 x 2 = $175.98
  • mSATA SSD drive: $116.99
  • SATA hard drive: $72.05
  • TOTAL: $716.02
Here are the specific items I've used to set up my NUC and use it in my studio:

Installing Components

Installing RAM, storage, and Wi-Fi on the NUC is pretty straightforward. You flip the unit upside-down and remove the four screws that fasten the rubber feet to the bottom of the device. Once you remove the bottom plate, you'll find where you can install a typical laptop SATA drive:

The connectors on the right are for SATA and power.
After disconnecting the power and SATA cables, you can remove this layer of the NUC to reveal the moterboard:

This is where you install RAM and mini PCI Express devices. In my case, I didn't bother with a Wi-Fi card, and just installed an mSATA SSD drive to use as my boot device. The half-height mini PCI Express slot for Wi-Fi cards is directly under the slot for full-height cards.

So, can it make music?

Once I had everything set up, the first thing I did was install Cubase. Here's the NUC in action, playing a Steinberg demo project that includes a number of VST instruments and audio effects in addition to lots of digital audio content. Notice how fast Cubase starts!

So, yes, the diminutive NUC is certainly capable of running a modern DAW. But how well does it stack up against full-sized desktops and laptops?

DAW Performance Test Setup

Test tools 

In addition to simply setting up my NUC with a DAW and an audio interface, I ran a number of tests to get a sense of the NUC's overall performance both as a general purpose computer and as a DAW PC. Here are the test tools I used:
  • Windows Experience Index. This is the benchmark tests built into Windows to give users an impression of their computer's suitability for different tasks. For reasons known only to Microsoft, it's no longer exposed in the Windows 8.1 user interface, however the tests can still be run from an administrator command prompt.
  • PassMark Performance Test 8. This program tests all aspects of a computer, including operating system UI performance and resource intensive 3D graphics.
  • DAW Bench. This is a collection of DAW projects that push a computer's DSP processing abilities to its absolute limits, giving users a measure of how many plugins or how many simultaneous musical notes the computer can generate and still deliver reliable audio. DAW Bench comes in different flavors, to suit different DAWs. I use the Cubase version.
  • RTL Utility. This is a free tool that I use to determine the true round-trip latency of audio interfaces under various sample rate and buffer size settings.

 Computers used

In order to get a feel for how powerful the NUC is, I tested it against three other computers. Some quick descriptions and basic specs are below. All systems have Intel processors that support HyperThreading:
  • NUC: My D54250WYK NUC with a Core i5 4250U (dual core).
  • XPS-8300: An off-the-shelf Dell desktop with a Core i5 2300 (dual core).
  • Antec: My home-built desktop DAW PC with a Core i7 950 (quad core).
  • Latitude E6540: A Dell laptop with discrete graphics and a Core i7 4800MQ (quad core).

    : Like many modern laptops with discrete graphics, the Latitude uses graphics switching technology. It defaults to using the built-in Intel HD Graphics, but can be configured to use the internal ATI Radeon HD 8790M graphics on a per-application basis.

The systems under test. Please see above note about the Latitude's graphics.

Setup preparation

 I prepared each computer identically before running the various tests:
  • All computers are running 64-bit Windows 7 SP1 with the latest updates installed.
  • All systems were using the High Performance power scheme in the Power control panel.
  • All computers had version 1.0.0 of the Windows 7 drivers for the Roland Duo-Capture EX (it's the only version released for Win 7), and the driver was configured the same way for all systems:
  • All computers have Steinberg Cubase 7.5.2, and all were configured the same way:

    Cubase settings.
  • All computers had version 5.30 of Native Instruments Kontakt.

Test Results

Let's start off with the raw results:
Highest scores are green, lowest scores are red.

Understanding the tests

First, here's a quick rundown of what the scores indicate:
  • Windows Experience Index. Windows 7 Experience Index scores range from 1.0 to 7.9, where high scores are better. Things got a little more complicated when Windows 8 came along, but we'll talk about that later.
  • DAW Bench. The scores above represent three different tests. The ReaXcomp score indicates how many active instances of the Cockos ReaXcomp compressor could be enabled before audio started to break up. (This is a test of your PC's raw DSP power.) The Kontakt scores represent how many notes of polyphony your computer is able to play in Kontakt before glitching out. The "CV" version includes convolution reverb processing on the polyphony channels, and the "no CV" version doesn't include reverb. This is why the "no CV" scores are always a little higher.
  • PassMark PerformanceTest: This is a single overall score determined by the PerformanceTest test suite. It's the combined total of all points awarded to all subtests. 3D graphics play a large role in these tests, which is why the XPS-8300 and Antec systems outscored the otherwise more powerful Latitude system, as they both have heavy-duty graphics cards installed.
Now let's take a closer look at the results to see what they tell us about the NUC.

Windows Experience Index

The NUC trailed at least a little behind all other test systems in everything except storage, where it excels due to its SSD boot drive. It scored pretty well on memory performance, nearly tying with the Antec system. I am not sure whether Windows Experience Index used the Latitude's Intel or ATI graphics for the assessment, but I think it was the Intel.

PassMark PerformanceTest

Even though the NUC received the lowest PassMark score, it was surprisingly close to the ostensibly much more powerful Latitude system (I was able to configure the Latitude to use the ATI Radeon graphics for the PassMark tests). The Latitude only fell behind the two desktop systems because of their superior, power-hungry graphics cards. The NUC scored admirably well here, considering its competition.

DAW Bench

The NUC fared worse in the DAW Bench tests, receiving the lowest scores in every category. It did about half as well as the Antec system and around a third as well as the Latitude. While it was no surprise to find that it came in last, I was puzzled as to why its scores were so low in this department, compared to other test metrics where it didn't fall as far behind the other systems.

What could explain the gap between the NUC's performance in the Windows Experience Index and PassMark tests and its DAW Bench performance?
  • It's not the interface, and probably not USB 3.0. All of the NUC's external USB ports are USB 3.0, and nearly all USB audio interfaces are USB 2.0, including the Roland interface I used in the tests. While USB 3.0 claims to support backward compatibility with USB 2.0 devices, the reality is that it doesn't always work, and different USB 2.0 devices can deliver different results depending on the USB 3.0 bus they're connected to. To rule out the possibility of an incompatibility issue with my specific interface on the NUC, I re-ran the tests using my RME FireFace UFX in USB mode, at 44.1kHz, 256 samples. The RME's scores on the NUC were very close to the Roland's scores (ReaXcomp: 100, Kontakt CV: 200, Kontakt No CV: 220), so I don't feel the the interface is to blame. This does not completely rule out basic USB 3.0/2.0 compatibility, but I used other USB 2.0 devices on the NUC with zero problems, so I don't think that's a factor either.
  • The number of cores plays a part. The NUC and the XPS-8300 are both dual-core, whereas the Antec and Latitude are quad core, and except for graphics-intensive tests, the NUC's scores were closest to the XPS-8300's. Cubase was configured for multi-core support, and the ReaXcomp test especially draws every ounce of computing power your CPU can deliver.
  • The clock rate is low. Not only is the NUC dual-core, it also has the lowest factory clock rate by far of the other processors. Now Intel has some very clever ways to squeeze some extra juice out of the CPU (which I'll talk about in a moment), but out of the box, this is a very modestly rated CPU.
  • The features that make it a good gaming device don't necessarily improve audio streaming. Intel's modern CPUs feature Intel Dynamic Power Technology, which combines some power management and performance boosting features to dynamically strike the balance between power efficiency and performance. This usually results in little bursts of improved performance here and there, which is perfectly appropriate for gaming (modern games are written to seamlessly adapt based on computing needs and CPU/GPU availability), but not generally beneficial in audio applications where consistency is every bit as important as raw speed. In earlier generations of the Intel Core processors, disabling Intel's CPU power management facilities commonly improved DAW performance- but that's no longer the case today.
  • Face it, the thing's just plain tiny. At only four inches squared, the NUC's form factor didn't offer Intel's engineers many options for heat dissipation, and putting too much processing power in that little box would simply not be feasible. As a result, they locked down some of the overclocking features (several options are grayed out in the NUC's BIOS and the Intel Extreme Tuning utility) and gave it the most powerful processor they could that wouldn't melt the motherboard in day-to-day operation. Part of the reason it's not as powerful as a desktop or an enterprise laptop is that it's just too small to safely deliver that kind of speed in this small a package.

Loudness levels

Desktop DAW PCs and even many laptops are known for being a bit loud in the studio, thanks to fan noise. The NUC is fan-cooled, so it does have potential to introduce noise into the studio environment. To measure its impact, I used a Galaxy Audio CM-140 SPL Meter at a distance of 9 inches from the NUC at different operation states. For reference, my primary desktop DAW PC increases the ambient sound in my room by 6 dB (measured 9 inches away from the side of the PC that faces me) when just sitting idle.

In contrast, the NUC only introduced 2.9 dB of noise when running idle, and 3.6 dB when working at 100% CPU load. (Also measured at 9" away from the NUC.) So even when working at top capacity, it's still a fair amount quieter than my main DAW system is when it's doing nothing at all. And the NUC's sound is just a breezy little whirring that I normally don't even hear unless I'm listening for it, versus the DAW desktop's much more noticeable deep hum.

Dynamic Power Technology

Several years ago, when computers with the first couple generations of the Intel Core processors started showing up in studios, music producers learned pretty quickly that the best way to ensure solid DAW performance was to disable the various power saving and performance boosting technologies in BIOS- at the time those features improved power efficiency and sporadically boosted PC performance at the cost of consistency, which is a problem in DSP-instensive activities like music production. (If you ever hear people talking about disabling EIST, SpeedStep, Turbo Boost, or "C-States", that's what they mean.) These technologies have evolved in more recent generations of Intel's processors, though, and it's now generally recommended to leave them on.

The NUC's BIOS groups SpeedStep and Turbo Boost under a single umbrella, called Intel Dynamic Power Technology. It is enabled by default, with the High Performance BIOS profile, and you should not turn it off. Disabling Dynamic Power Technology on the NUC seriously compromises its performance, as the following video demonstrates:

Windows 7 versus Windows 8.1

Around the time of Windows 8's release there was a lot of conjecture and misinformation about whether Windows 8 would improve DAW performance. I and several other people conducted benchmarks at the time which established that none of the various performance enhancements included in Windows 8 have any significant effect on DAW performance (which is measured as how far you can push your computer's DSP resources before audio breaks down). But I was curious if anything had changed with the Windows 8.1 update, so I re-ran all of my benchmarks on a fresh Windows 8.1 install with all the latest drivers and updates applied. Here are the results:

Best scores are green, worst scores are red, tied scores aren't colored.
 Overall, the scores were a little lower on Windows 8.1, but really all tests came out close enough that there isn't much practical performance difference between either operating system. So long as all your drivers are 8.1-compatible, I don't see a strong argument one way or the other.

The Windows Experience Index situation is a little weird on Windows 8.1. I had to search around a bit to learn how to run the test. There's a built-in command-line tool called winsat that runs the tests, and when they're complete you have to open up an XML file or use a Powershell command to find the results. I don't know why Microsoft decided to hide this feature from the user interface. It does appear that they increased the maximum possible score (considering that the "primary hard disk" result on Win 8 was 8.1), but I don't know what the new cap is. The highest possible score in Windows 7 was 7.9.

Skyrim Performance

Running benchmarks is one thing, but I was curious how gaming on the NUC felt and looked, considering that traditionally, playing modern 3D games on computers with built-in (usually Intel) graphics chipsets usually isn't a very pleasant experience. I was surprised to find that Skyrim was playable at all four graphics settings (low, medium, high, and ultra) at 1360x768 resolution, although gameplay was noticeably less smooth at high and ultra.

Here are the FPS metrics I recorded at each graphics setting:
  • Low: 40-60 FPS
  • Medium: 24-40 FPS
  • High: 13-25 FPS
  • Ultra: 8-20 FPS
I recorded a video showing the differences between each of the four modes. The actual act of recording video affects performance a bit; I did the FPS measurements before I recorded any footage. The video still conveys the visual and performance differences.

Final thoughts

From my experience with the NUC, I can say that it's absolutely a viable solution for music production use, although that comes with some caveats. It's small and quiet, making it attractive for space-limited studios, and you can pack it with enough RAM and storage to host all the apps and samples you can throw at it.

The NUC's small size comes with some necessary sacrifices in terms of raw performance, though. And while this means less for gaming (where the NUC performs surprisingly well), if you routinely have many dozens of virtual instruments and effects plugins in your DAW projects, you'll probably find yourself freezing tracks to free up CPU cycles more often than you'd like.

The NUC is about as expandable as a typical notebook (and it's quite a bit easier to install and upgrade RAM and storage in the NUC than it is in many laptops), and definitely smaller and more portable than any laptop I've ever used- although laptops don't need you to bring your own display. While the NUC can't compete with a modern desktop for expandability and performance, it is somewhat competitive with modern low-to-mid-range laptops, assuming you've already got a monitor with HDMI or DisplayPort support handy.

While the base NUC kit is quite inexpensive, once you add in all your RAM and storage, the total price for a functional setup is about half what you would pay to build a high-end desktop or to purchase a high-performance laptop.

  • Tiny
  • Quiet
  • Stable and reliable
  • Good performance for gaming and general purpose use
  • Capable of running modern DAWs and plugins
  • More power efficient than a desktop or high-end laptop
  • Not the best DAW performance for the price
  • More portable than a laptop, but not really a mobile device (no display or batteries)
  • You might need to get some new cables or adapters for the mini DisplayPort or mini HDMI connectors.