Introduction, Design Features
Small, inexpensive computers make excellent gifts, especially for family members who seem to have everything. After all, who couldn’t put an extra PC to good use? And space-strapped businesses like them, too. Smaller PCs mean less office real estate devoted to equipment, and sleeker-looking workspaces.
With advances in compact solid-state storage and new mobile CPUs, through all of 2016 PC makers such as Shuttle have been rolling out new compact desktops, often referred to as small-form-factor (SFF) computers. These compact models have been around for years, but they’re powerful enough now to replace much larger desktop computers, in many cases.
Finding a place to put a new PC shouldn’t be very difficult in most homes, particularly when the computer itself is smaller (much smaller, in fact) than a tissue box. If you’ve been using an aging laptop or tablet in the kitchen, an SFF PC is a solid replacement. Grab an inexpensive keyboard (or, better yet, a spill-resistant keyboard), and you have a system that can handle homework, video streaming, and recipe searches from your countertop. Or, in a busy commercial kitchen, that same little PC can handle the customer order stream while still being smaller than a saucer.
Prefer to put your compact PC in the family room? Most SFFs are at home alongside your other entertainment devices, but not all compact PCs are up to the task of powering modern 4K TVs, which have a resolution of at least 3,840×2,160. Shuttle’s XPC Nano NC02U3 Series is capable of doing exactly that, however, so we decided to take it for a spin. It’s an SFF PC that’s both ideally suited to hiding alongside or behind a big TV or monitor, or tucked into a niche in a business or point-of-sale environment. (Some legacy ports onboard suit it to that latter usage case, too.)
Although mid- and full-size desktop PCs sometimes include a (very basic) keyboard and mouse combo, SFFs rarely, if ever, ship with any peripherals. The XPC Nano’s shipping box isn’t much bigger than a shoebox, and it includes only the XPC Nano system, a power brick, and a few small accessories for attaching the chassis to a small stand or the back of a monitor. You’re on your own for said monitor, of course, as well as a keyboard and mouse. But if all you need is a small system with plenty of connectivity for basic productivity work, this one brings the goods.
The pricing is more or less dead-on for this class of system. Shuttle offers this model as the “NC02U,” a bare-bones PC, minus the RAM, a storage drive, and an OS (all of which you provide and install yourself), for $359.99 MSRP with a Core i3 CPU. We also spotted a Celeron bare-bones variant at $150. (Bare-bones systems are aimed at DIYers who want to customize the PC themselves and provide the exact core components and OS they want.)
Although the bare-bones models of Shuttle’s XPC Nano NC02U series are already available, the ready-built NC02U3 version that we tested here won’t hit U.S. retailers until February 2017. That system, as we tested it, has an MSRP of $859.99, but according to Shuttle will probably retail closer to $775. That’s very much in line with the pricing of similar pre-built Core i3 configurations of Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) mini-PCs available on Newegg.com.
Shuttle oversells the XPC Nano’s dimensions a bit when it refers to the PC as “palm-sized,” but there’s no doubt that the XPC Nano is extremely small. The computer is a 5.6×5.6-inch square that sits just 1.7 inches off the ground (when horizontally oriented; more on that in a moment). For comparison, that’s a little smaller (and just a smidge taller) than a typical Sony Blu-ray player. It’s also right in line with Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) bare-bones mini-PCs, like the Intel NUC 5i7RYH we tested last year.
The XPC Nano has three placement options, thanks to those accessories we mentioned earlier. Its standard stance is to sit flat and low to the ground, which will work fine for most situations. You can also stand up the XPC Nano on one of its narrow edges by attaching a set of included feet, visible above. This approach saves a little space, but not much, as the feet stick out far on either side for stability. Attaching the feet is as simple as installing four included screws. The metal feet have rubber treads to protect (and grip) your desk surface.
The XPC Nano also includes a VESA-compatible mounting kit that attaches the PC’s body to the back of a so-equipped TV or monitor. It’s a two-part mount that makes attaching (and removing) the Nano a simple process. If you’re very pressed for space, attaching the XPC Nano to the back of your monitor will solve that problem, but keep in mind that you’ll need to reach behind your monitor anytime you want to insert a USB drive or SD card, perform a hard reset, or attach or detach cables.
Shuttle kept things simple when designing the XPC Nano. The plastic chassis has silver sides and a black top that looks like brushed aluminum, giving it just a hint of style. Still, if the XPC Nano gets any attention at all from your friends or colleagues, it’ll be for its size, rather than its looks. We’re a little disappointed that Shuttle kept the bottom of the chassis silver, instead of making it black like the top. When you put the system on its feet, the XPC Nano’s industrial-looking silver bottom, laden with screw mounts and stickers, becomes its side, detracting from what little stylishness the XPC Nano mustered in the first place.
Then again, the XPC Nano is more about convenience than looking spiffy. A compact PC is meant to be something you can tuck out of the way, so in many cases, people won’t even see the XPC Nano. In situations where the system is visible, it looks like a plain set-top box.
One of the downsides to going with a compact PC is that you usually give up certain features and performance that a larger desktop offers. Shuttle, which has been building SFFs for decades, is an expert at squeezing features into a tiny chassis. The front panel sports a USB 3.0 Type-A port, along with a USB 3.0 Type-C port and an SD card reader. (Shuttle notes that this XPC Nano model is its first to receive a USB 3.0 Type-C port.) The power button also sits on the front panel, flanked on each side by power- and hard-drive-status LEDs.
The XPC Nano’s right side has a standard Kensington-style cable-lock notch, but aside from that and some cooling vents, that side is bare. The left side, meanwhile, has a port that we don’t see very often anymore: an RS-232 serial port. For some business uses, this port might come in handy—indeed, the XPC Nano is designed to bridge the business and consumer worlds—but most home users will ignore this antique port. A shop or workfloor with a serial-interface bar-code scanner in use (say, at a point of sale, or for testing equipment) will appreciate this, however.
The bulk of the XPC Nano’s ports are on the back edge. Here, you’ll find two USB 2.0 ports, but no more USB 3.0s, which is a little disappointing. Most buyers will use these rear USB ports for their keyboard and mouse, for which the USB 2.0 standard is just fine. But we’d like to see an additional USB 3.0 port here for people who have multiple devices that use the faster standard. As it stands, the Nano has just that one USB 3.0 Type-A port on the front panel, and the Type-C for which few common peripherals are in most folks’ hands.
The back also features a DisplayPort video-out, as well as the HDMI output that you’ll likely use to connect the XPC Nano to your 4K TV, if that’s what you bought the XPC Nano for. And Shuttle is betting that 4K support is going to be the deal-maker for some buyers: It promotes the XPC Nano’s 4K capabilities heavily.
It’s worth noting that you can run two monitors off the XPC Nano at once. Connect one monitor to the DisplayPort and the other to the HDMI port, and you’re all set. Given that much of the XPC Nano’s appeal is how it fits in small spaces, we doubt that most units will end up in dual-monitor setups, but we don’t mind the extra capability. In theory, you could power a dual-display desktop for light office work with no sign of the PC itself, mounted behind one of the monitors.
Other ports at the back of the XPC Nano include a headphone/mic combo jack, the power-adapter port, and a Gigabit Ethernet jack. The system also has Wi-Fi, of course, which we’ll discuss later in the review.
As we mentioned, Shuttle offers bare-bones models of the XPC Nano NC02U, but we kicked the tires on a complete system, which Shuttle dubs model NC02U3. We also opened it up to see whether upgrading components would be difficult, and were pleasantly surprised.
We had the system open in minutes. Shuttle added two small divots to the right side of the XPC Nano so you can pry off the top and bottom of the PC’s case after removing the screws. The XPC Nano’s motherboard sits in the center of the system, offering mostly unobstructed views of the most important components. The side revealed by removing the XPC Nano’s top cover features the processor, which is covered by a heatsink and the system’s sole fan, along with one of the two SO-DIMM memory slots. (In our test system, this slot was empty, meaning you could add another 4GB SO-DIMM to bring the total system memory to a more palatable 8GB.)
This side also has an M.2 Type-2280 slot, which supports M.2 solid-state drives (SSDs) that are 22mm wide and up to 80mm long. (These are gumstick-size SSDs; see our guide to The Best M.2 Solid-State Drives for some background on these.) The board has a movable peg and holes at the 42mm and 60mm positions, giving you additional options for installing shorter M.2 drives. But we should note that the system as a whole supports only one M.2 SSD at a time.
Opening the other side of the XPC Nano, we immediately saw the main storage drive, a 2.5-inch typical SSD, which was attached to the inside of the bottom cover. A drive sled makes it easy to remove the drive (or install one on the bare-bones model). Shuttle designed the tray to support Serial ATA drives ranging from 7mm to 15mm thick, covering many, but not all, 2.5-inch SSDs and hard drives. Almost all modern 2.5-inchers ought to fit, but still, pay attention to the drive-thickness dimension when shopping for storage. You can use a drive in this bay in place of, or in addition to, an M.2 SSD in the main M.2 slot. Either can be the boot drive.
This side of the system also features a second M.2 slot for the wireless card (which is included), as well as another slot for a main-memory SO-DIMM. In our test system, this slot held one 4GB memory module. You can see both the M.2 Wi-Fi card and the one RAM module in the image below.
The Shuttle XPC Nano NC02U3 we tested featured a 6th-Generation Intel Core i3-6100U “Skylake” processor running at 2.3GHz, along with 4GB of memory. Thanks to the CPU, the XPC Nano makes use of Intel’s HD Graphics 520 integrated graphics, which should be enough muscle to handle the entertainment tasks typically asked of a living-room PC. You can forget playing graphics-intensive video games, but that’s to be expected with an ultra-compact system. In any event, onboard graphics are the rule in compact systems like this one.
Audio comes by way of a Realtek ALC662 codec, while an Intel I211 handles the Gigabit Ethernet connectivity. The XPC Nano also has built-in 802.11n wireless networking, which can handle video streaming. Still, we would have liked to see 802.11ac onboard, which has been around long enough that it should be standard on PCs above the most basic. The Asus VivoMini VC65, a competing compact PC, features 802.11ac in some models.
In our pre-built configuration, the 128GB SATA SSD we pictured above (a Transcend SSD420 series drive) provided modest-but-speedy storage. As we mentioned earlier, the XPC Nano also has that M.2-drive slot, which means you can add more speedy storage if your 2.5-inch hard drive or SSD doesn’t provide enough on its own. The M.2 drive slot supports M.2 SSDs of either the SATA or (generally faster) PCI Express persuasion.
If you opt for the bare-bones version of the Nano, you can install up to 32GB of memory in the two DDR3L slots (via two 16GB SO-DIMMs). You can also add a hard drive or SSD of your choice in place of the Transcend that we got.