A Newegg advertisement sent me down a rabbit hole of tiny little desktop PCs with full x86-64 processors. I knew about Intel’s NUC, but I hadn’t realized there was an entire product ecosystem of such small form factor machines built by other manufacturers. The one that originally caught my attention was distributed by several different companies under different names, I haven’t figured out who made it. But that exploration took me to GMKtec which is either their manufacturer, or a distributor with a sizable collection of similar products built by different manufacturers. The product that originally caught my attention is listed as their “NucBox5” (company website listing and Amazon link *) but I actually found their “NucBox3” (company website listing and Amazon link *) to be a more interesting candidate for my Sawppy Rover’s ROS brain. Both products have a Gigabit Ethernet wired networking port that I demand for resistance against RF interference, but beyond that, their respective designs differ wildly:
First the bad news: the NucBox 3 has an older CPU, the Celeron J4125 instead of the Celeron N5105. But comparing them side-by-side, it looks like I’d be giving up less than 10% of peak CPU performance. There is a huge (~50%) drop in GPU performance, but that doesn’t matter to Sawppy because most of the time its brain wouldn’t even have a screen attached.
A longer list of good stuff balances out the slower CPU:
- RAM on the NucBox 3 is a commodity DDR4 laptop memory module. That can be easily upgraded if needed, unlike the soldered-in memory on the NucBox 5.
- They both use M.2 SSDs for storage, but the NucBox 3 accommodates popular 2280 form factor instead of a less common 2245 size used by NucBox 5.
- The SSD advantage was possible because NucBox 3 has a different shape: is wider and deeper than a NucBox 5, but not as tall. Designed for installation on a VESA 100×100 mount, it will be easier to bolt onto a rover chassis.
- Officially, NucBox 3 is a fan-less passively cooled machine whereas the NucBox 5 has a tiny little cooling fan inside. (Which I expect to be loud, as tiny cooling fans tend to be.) Given that these are both 10W chips, I doubt NucBox 3 has a more effective cooling solution, I think it is more likely that the design just lets the chip heat up and throttle itself to stay within thermal limits. This would restrict its performance in stock form, but it also means it’ll be easy for me to hack up a quiet cooling solution if necessary.
- NucBox 5 accepts power via USB-C, which is getting easier and easier to work with. I foresaw no problems integrating it with battery power onboard a Sawppy rover. But the NucBox 3 has a generic 5.5mm barrel jack for DC input power, and I think that’ll be even easier.
A NucBox3 costs roughly 80% of a NucBox5 for >90% of the performance, plus all of the designed tradeoff listed above are (I feel) advantages in favor of the NucBox3. I’m sold! I placed an order (*) and look forward to playing with it once it arrives.
(*) Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.