TAIPEI—A few trade show cycles ago, Intel rolled out a hardware concept called Compute Card. It was a credit-card-size module resembling a 2.5-inch SSD, containing core system components, and it could be swapped into ready slots in various host hardware for easy system serviceability and upgrades.
At least, that was the idea, but Compute Card never really took off. Now a new version aims to benefit from Intel’s experiences and learnings from that project.
The new NUC Compute Element, demonstrated here at Computex during an Intel open house, is something of an evolution of the Compute Card, but with a slightly less ambitious, and more practical, slant. The original Compute Card was designed to be handled, and to allow for easy end-user upgradability. Not so for the NUC Compute Element, which is more of an OEM solution for easy implemenation of different CPU options, or as a quick-swap repair or upgrade solution for IT departments.
What’s in the Intel NUC Compute Element?
When you think of the Intel NUC (which stands for “Next Unit of Computing”), you probably think of the chip giant’s small-form-factor PCs, which come in fully configured or bare-bones versions, and take up small patches of desk space or mount behind a display. The NUC Compute Element is a different animal altogether, and does not serve a standalone system. And it can vary in composition according to the needs of the OEM.
One thing that will be common to all NUC Compute Elements is an Intel mobile CPU. The initial NUC Compute Element being shown at Computex is centered on an 8th Generation, 15-watt Core U-series processor. This, an Intel representative pointed out, is one of the key differences from the Compute Card. The company now can incorporate the more powerful U-series chips, rather than just the ultra-low-voltage Y-series.
Intel notes that vPro-capable versions will also be available. When I got to heft the sample Compute Element, it felt like nothing more than a SATA SSD. It’s a little larger than a business card and weighs just a few ounces.
The typical usage cases for the NUC Compute Element would be laptops, kiosks, and smart appliances—in other words, hardware environments where the ease of dropping in a CPU for configurability at the manufacturer’s end, or by service personnel for repairs, is key. Intel was showing off an OEM sample from JP, an ODM making laptops for the education sector.
In addition to the CPU, the card contains the system chipset and the main system memory, and, in some cases, it could accommodate storage. The representative we spoke with pointed out that the storage capacity would necessarily be limited, given the size of the PCB.
Learning From a Modular Past
One of the things that held back Compute Card was its reliance on low-power Y-series CPUs, but more so that Intel designed it to be possible for a user to install as an upgrade.
Why was that seeming upside a downside? Because it meant it had to be designed as a sealed module. According to the Intel rep we spoke with, that sealed design and extra durability added nominally to the card cost but about $50 to each unit on the OEM side to incorporate the module, which stunted its adoption.
The NUC Compute Element is more bare-bones. One side is sealed and protected, but the other is a bare PCB. A proprietary connector along one edge interfaces with the host system or appliance. It’s designed for OEMs or IT personnel to insert and configure, though it’s certainly durable-looking enough for a careful end user to insert. In the JP laptop design shown at Computex, however, the Compute Element slot was fully inside the chassis, and would require the laptop’s bottom to be removed for access.
In the case of the JP design, the company makes laptops for the education market. Incorporating a design like this could allow for, say, a school board to allocate a mixture of power levels or component loadouts with ease from a laptop maker without incurring the cost of whole new laptop designs or retooling of chassis. Think of it as an SoC-based MXM module for CPUs and other core components.
When should we see the first NUC Compute Element-based hardware? Intel estimates a timeframe in the first half of 2020. We’ll have to see if NUC Compute Element fares better than Compute Card and other ostensibly modular-computing formats.