Intel's first NUC laptop is stylishly generic notebook for the rest of us

November 21, 2020 

We've come a long way from Intel's original Next Unit of Computing modular computer that brought tiny computing to the mainstream. So far, in fact, that we're not sure what's actually "NUCy" about Intel's new NUC M15 laptop, which is intended as a "whitebook" design that other notebook makers can utilize for their own products.

Intel unveiled its in-house-designed laptop yesterday with a list of specs that is simultaneously welcome and somewhat confusing. The NUC M15 and comes with either an 11th gen Core i5-1135G7 or Core i7-1165G7 processor, paired with either 8GB or 16GB of LPDDR4X RAM. For ports, you get two USB-A connections and a pair of Thunderbolt 4 ports, plus a full-size HDMI port, lock port and headset jack.

And yes, the inclusion of two old school USB-A ports is a good thing, but it should tell you about the body of the laptop. It's a striking CNC-milled aluminum "unibody" shell with appealing right angles everywhere. In many ways, its looks to us like a big version of Google's original Pixel Chromebook. The key difference is the screen size. With a 15.6-inch screen, the NUC M15 is a pretty big laptop for "just" a low wattage CPU without discrete graphics.

intel nuc m15 laptop kit 1 Intel
Intel's NUC-based M15 laptop features a premium look and feel

It's not like that's never been done before, but premium laptops typically deploy 13-inch screens for low-wattage parts and 15.6-inch displays for high-wattage CPUs with discrete graphics.

Intel takes advantage of the large body by stuffing a pretty massive 73 watt hour battery inside of it that the company says is good for 16-hours of video playback. One drag from using such a large battery (a typical 13- or 14-inch laptop features 50-watt batteries) is weight. All that aluminum, battery, and screen tips the scales for the NUC M15 at 3.5 lbs, which in some ways is "only" half a pound heavier than a Dell XPS 13--but it's also "only" half a pound lighter than Intel's previous in-house laptop design that we reviewed under the banner of XPG.

You can read our review of the XPG Xenia 15 but we really dug it. Sure, the software may not have been as polished as what you'd find in an Alienware, Asus or MSI gaming laptop, but it really packed in the performance at a reasonable price. And by reasonable, these won't be fire sale laptops--expect the premium body and features to cost from $1,000 to $1,500 for the NUC M15.

Just why is Intel doing this?

Since it was designed by Intel (and built by laptop maker Tongfang) the XPG Xenia 15 also made some intelligent choices to not sacrifice performance at the altar of thinness. In some ways, that's what Intel may be trying do overall to with its "Whitebook" program. With these Whitebook kits, Intel is basically footing the bill for most of the expensive design work of making a laptop, and then letting smaller vendors add their own flourishes before selling them under their own banners.

Putting a 15- to 28-watt CPU into a 15.6-inch laptop is, perhaps, Intel hoping to show what its Tiger Lake chips can do when it isn't constrained by thermals. While very impressive overall, Intel's 11th-gen sings the loudest when it's given a little more power to consume and a little more room to get hot.

You might assume that all laptop makers chase performance as the end-goal of everything, but they don't. Laptops are often a careful balance of engineering, time, budget, and what that laptop maker believes its customers want to pay for. Intel's desires don't always align with the laptop makers.

With the Whitebook program and the NUC M15, Intel can implement features such as its nifty presence detection technology, which lets your laptop sense when you come near it so it can wake up. That's a feature a PC maker might want to pass on since it means throwing more resources at a feature its customers may not necessarily want.

With Intel promising a ton of new features when it rolls out its Xe Max GPU---which can work very closely with Intel's CPUs--we'd guess the NUC M15 is a way for Intel to get those features out and in consumers hands rather than wait for OEMs to do it.

An Intel warranty

While Intel, XPG and a host of other partners were shy to basically say that yeah, this is a 95 percent Intel laptop with the first whitebook design, that shyness seems to be gone here, which might be a good thing. A consumer looking at putting down $1,500 for a notebook from a small PC shop might be worried about just how good the warranty is from a company that isn't one of the big names, but with the M15, the laptop will be backed up by a two year warranty from the biggest name in PCs: Intel. We'd guess much of the support for drivers and BIOS/UEFI updates will also flow from Intel too, which is a good thing as well.

Intel NUC Compute Elements Gordon Mah Ung/IDG
The NUC Compute Elements laptop concept from 2019 would have made the laptop modular.

Where's the NUC Intel?

Of course, you're probably still wondering where exactly is the "NUC" in all this. After all, how do you get from a tiny, modular PC to this laptop?

Initially we thought the M15 was built around Intel's radical NUC Compute Elements. That was proposed as a modular laptop built around a replaceable card. While not intended for consumers to upgrade, a notebook built around the technology would have let small PC makers buy a shell and quickly slip in a Compute Elements card that contained the RAM, storage, Wi-Fi, chipset and CPU. All this would connect via a cartridge-like edge connector to the ports, screen, keyboard and antennas in the body. For NUC enthusiasts, that's probably a lot more, well, "NUCy" than the M15, but NUCs aren't what they used to be either.

Ghost Canyon NUC9i9QNX surrounded by other Intel mini PCs Alaina Yee / IDG
What is a NUC? We're not sure anymore anyway.

Just what is a NUC anyway?

The original NUC started out as a mini-PC that consumers could finish with their own storage and RAM. Intel also originally envisioned different top-plate configurations that could add NFC functionality or additional storage.

The Hades Canyon NUC was far faster, but far less modular (unless you wanted to swap out the top with the skull on it). With its Ghost Canyon NUCs, Intel seemed to lean back to its original intent, leaving questions about what the basic element of computing actually is.

In the end, maybe being a NUC just means being something really cool--throwing transistors at the wall and seeing what sticks.

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