Some PSAs for NUC owners

I’ve written before, in Contemplating the Cute Brick, that I’m a big fan of Intel’s NUC line of small-form-factor computers. Over the last week I’ve been having some unpleasant learning experiences around them. I’m still a fan, but I’m shipping this post where the search engines can see it in support of future NUC owners in trouble.

Two years ago I bought an NUC for my wife Cathy to replace her last tower-case PC – the NUC8i3BEH1. This model was semi-obsolete even then, but I didn’t want one of the newer i5 or i7 NUCs because I didn’t think it would fit my wife’s needs as well.

What my wife does with her computer doesn’t tax it much. Web browsing, office work, a bit of gaming that does not extend to recent AAA titles demanding the latest whizzy graphics card. I thought her needs would be best served by a small, quiet, low-power-consumption machine that was cheap enough to be considered readily disposable at the end of its service life. The exact opposite of my Great Beast…

The NUC was an experiment that made Cathy and me happy. She especially likes the fact that it’s small and light enough to be mounted on the back of her monitor, so it effectively takes up no desk space or floor area in her rather crowded office. I like the NUC’s industrial design and engineering – lots of nice little details like the four case screws being captive to the baseplate so you cannot lose them during disassembly.

Also. Dammit, NUCs are pretty. I say dammit because I feel like this shouldn’t matter to me and am a bit embarrassed to discover that it does. I like the color and shape and feel of these devices. Someone did an amazing job of making them unobtrusively attractive.

However…

Last week, Cathy registered a complaint that her NUC was making a funny noise. I went and listened and, alas, it was clearly the sound of the fan bearing in the NUC, screaming. That sound means you have worn or dirty bearing surfaces and the fan could fail at any time, forcing the device to shut down before it roasts its own components.

PSA #1: If you web-search for “NUC fan replacement”, you may well land at the website of a company specializing in NUC sales and support, named “Simply NUC”; I did. Do not buy from these people; they are lazy jerks.

First reason I know this: the “Fans” subpage in their Accessories section carries a link to exactly one model of fan. No indication of the range of NUC variants it matches, and not even a general warning that there are NUC models that require a different-sized fan. I had to find this out the hard way by pulling out the innards of Cathy’s NUC and sitting the fan I bought from Simply NUC next to it.

Two fans side by side

Second reason I know this: Simply NUC tech support was unhelpful, telling me they only carry that one fan and suggesting that I RMA Cathy’s machine back to Intel for repair, because obviously there could be no conceivable problem with it being out of service for an indefinite amount of time.

When I asked if Simply NUC knew of a source for a fan that would fit my 8i3BEH1 – a reasonable question, I think, to ask a company that loudly claims to be a one-stop shop for all NUC needs – the reply email told me I’d have to do “personal research” on that.

It turns out that if the useless drone who was Simply NUC “service” had cared about doing his actual job, he could have the read the fan’s model number off the image I had sent him into a search box and found multiple sources within seconds, because that’s what I then did. Of course this would have required caring that a customer was unhappy, which apparently they don’t do at Simply NUC.

Third reason I know this: My request for a refund didn’t even get refused; it wasn’t even answered.

It actually took some work to get the NUC board and fan out if its case. I watched some YouTube videos purporting to illuminate the process; none of them quite matched the hardware I was looking at and none told me the One Weird Trick I actually needed to know. Therefore:

PSA #2: If you’ve taken out both hold-down screws and the board still seems mechanically locked in place, it may well be because the NUC case is designed like that. On some NUCs you need to flex the two case walls with connector ports outwards by about a millimeter on each side so the connectors will pop out of their exit holes. The case is made of thin, springy metal; thumb pressure will do it.

So now I’m waiting on a second replacement fan to arrive. But there is good news; while I had the thing disassembled I blew out all the dust I could see with a can of air, playing it liberally over the fan. And since I reassembled it, it hasn’t screamed once. So:

PSA#3: Your NUC fan noise problem might be solvable just by blowing out the moondust under and around the fan bearings.

We’ll see. If I’m feeling lazy when the new fan arrives, I’ll leave it in the parts drawer until and unless the one now in the NUC fails. If I’m feeling energetic, I’ll swap in the new one, then disassemble and thoroughly clean and oil the old one before putting it in the drawer.

52 thoughts on “Some PSAs for NUC owners

  1. I read this right after getting outraged at some bad support I’m getting right now, so it resonated strongly. In my case there’s a fun technology twist that might amuse you. A few days ago, my wife and I woke up to a powerful stench of rotten eggs in our house. We tracked it down to our garage, where my 2016 Tesla Model X was parked. The Model X was completely dead, bricked. Couldn’t even open the doors (which are electrically actuated). I’ve smelled that smell before, when a conventional lead-acid battery died. Some web searching told me I was on the right track: numerous Tesla owners have reported the smell and the bricked car, and the problem turns out to be a 40AH 12V lead acid battery – that runs all the electronics!

    So I called Tesla to see if I could get their mobile support out to my house, something they’ve done several times before as I live 100 miles from the nearest service center. From their support number all I could do is walk through the menus of their automated response system – there is no way to contact a human. You’d think the manufacturer of a rather expensive car would at the very least make it easy for their customers to get answers, but no. Numerous attempts, lots of web searches, and I came up with nothing – no way at all to get anyone’s attention at Tesla. I was very surprised by this, as all my previous service experiences have been stellar. Not this time. I ended up making a service appointment for 12 days from the time my car died – the first one available. And getting the car towed there will be at my expense, of course. Crazy! So I did some more web searching and found out what the battery model was – a weird one, of course, with no identifiable source other than Tesla. And I couldn’t get in touch with Tesla to order a part. So frustrating!

    I ended up ordering a supposedly drop-in replacement that’s actually Li-Ion instead of lead acid. I don’t know how well this will work; but it was cheaper than the cost of a 100 mile tow, so even if all it does is get me to the service center I’m ahead.

    I’m guessing you’ll never buy from Simply NUC again. I think it’s unlikely I’ll ever buy another Tesla vehicle – being bricked for 12 days with no recourse at any price is just not acceptable for something I depend on every day…

  2. All fans seem to be designed to fail that way. If they screwed the housings together instead of using rivets, they wouldn’t sell as many replacements. There’s a market opportunity there, but it would require most people who buy them to pay more attention than they do today.

    • There’s a market opportunity there, but it would require most people who buy them to pay more attention than they do today.

      This here is the reason everything sucks these days. From consumer electronics, to cars, to our politicians.

    • One end of the shaft is usually available, but that varies by fan design. If you press on the center of the sticker, you may feel a hollow. If so, peel the sticker back. There may be a secondary plastic disc either in or over the bore. If you get to the shaft, a drop of light machine oil with PTFE will do the trick. Turn the fan by hand a few times, clean up any excess, then replace the seal and sticker.

      I did this a few hundred times, back in the day. Hundreds of servers, multiple fans each, all running 24/7 year after year. It got to the point where we knew which brands of fans had good lubrication from the factory, and which ones we needed to fix on day 1.

      Radio Shack used to sell Super Lube in a pen with a metal needle applicator. The current version uses a plastic tip that isn’t anywhere near as precise. But the good thing is that today you can probably find it, or the same thing in a different brand, in your local hardware store.

  3. Why not just have a raspberry Pi with Linux in it? That would do the job swimmingly and you’d probably be better off than having to depend on Intel.

    • Why not just have a raspberry Pi with Linux in it? That would do the job swimmingly and you’d probably be better off than having to depend on Intel.

      My guesses:

      1) Two years ago, Raspberry Pis just lacked the muscle to be usable as an office machine. The 8 GiB Raspberry Pi 4 may be up to the task, but you would still have power to spare by opting for an Intel chip.

      2) Cathy, like the vast bulk of people who don’t fuck with computers for a living or a very serious hobby, needs to use Windows for her work.

      • 2) Cathy, like the vast bulk of people who don’t fuck with computers for a living or a very serious hobby, needs to use Windows for her work.

        Actually, because Eric has commented on it in another channel, I’m aware that Cathy’s machine also runs Linux (Mint originally, which was recently upgraded to PopOS). First, because she can get all her workload done efficiently under Linux, with reduced cost of support, and second, because Eric would be damned unto the ninth circle of Hell before he would install Windows on a machine under his control.

        • >Eric would be damned unto the ninth circle of Hell before he would install Windows on a machine under his control.

          True, though you point this out at a time when I have been tempted.

          There’s a game called “Elite:Dangerous” that I learned of a few months ago and really liked the idea of. Future starflight simulator set in a model of the real galaxy (you can even visit the core singularity). Trade, explore, fight, and there’s a political overgame if you care. Yes, a proprietary game good enough that I want it; this is rare enough that the last one I went out and bought was Civilization II.

          I was greatly disappointed to find that it won’t run on Linux Steam, enough so that I put in some research to find out if I could run it in a Windows VM. Turns out not due to mode-switching issues with the graphics card, so the temptation has receded. I’ll just have to wait until Proton, Steam’s Windows emulator, gets good enough.

          (I own exactly two other proprietary games, both gifts to me on Steam. The Talos Principle and Stellaris.)

          • I put in some research to find out if I could run it in a Windows VM.

            Which virtualizer(s) did you look at? Oracle’s VirtualBox is pretty sophisticated (free, but not FOSS); VMWare is also a very mature product (ditto); haven’t used any of the others.

            • >Which virtualizer(s) did you look at?

              I didn’t get down to the level of specific products, I searched for Linux windows VM game and read what people had to say about the generic problems. Then I talked with Wendell Wilson, who explained the graphics-card issues in more detail.

            • Some of the newest and best AMD systems are getting to the point where you can virtualize your GPU. This is intended for VDI workloads where a server needs to run dozens of desktops, but the technology is beginning to bleed through onto physical desktops.

              Right now if you want to run both Linux and ‘doze on the same machine, both with close to wire-speed graphics, it seems that a good way to do this is to install a second graphics card and do PCI passthrough to the guest OS. I’m considering this; I’m even willing to run it to a spare HDMI input on my monitor.

              Obviously this solution is only viable for tower-style machines. Cute Bricks will not support a second video card, at least not until they get Thunderbolt support and can handle an external card cage, but at that point why bother?

              • Actually, there are NUCs with PCIe slots intended for graphics cards. Not many, but they do exist. I’m considering one as an energy-efficient replacement for the Mac Pro I’m using for my Linux desktop.

            • I thought VirtualBox was open source. Did Oracle take it back closed like they did with OpenSolaris?

            • These days, qemu with kvm is pretty highly regarded. It uses the kernel’s native support for hardware virtualization, rather than bunging in a (proprietary?) software virtualization module into the kernel.

              And yes, with some jiggery-pokery, you can do the GPU passthrough thing.

          • The Talos Principle is a masterpiece, isn’t it?

            ESR, your post is why I still run tower machines even though my home office is small, too. I strongly prefer computers (other than laptops) that use standard ATX power supplies, heat sinks, etc, that I can buy anywhere and replace easily.

            I have a Celeron NUC, but it’s a secondary machine running Mint 19.

            • >ESR, your post is why I still run tower machines even though my home office is small, too. I strongly prefer computers (other than laptops) that use standard ATX power supplies, heat sinks, etc, that I can buy anywhere and replace easily.

              For my own use, I do too. But my wife’s requirements are very different; SFF systems make sense for her, and she likes the one she has.

          • That’s pretty much the only game I am playing these days. They made the simulation of the galaxy as realistic as possible, Earth-like planets in the Goldilocks zone etc.

            As for the realism of the physics of spaceflight, they opted for an intermediate solution. In its 1993 predecessor, Frontier: Elite II, they tried to keep spaceflight realistic, but as fighting is an essential part of the game, they found out laser-jousting at relativistic speeds is not what players would enjoy.

            As a result, because apparently everybody likes to have their space battles in WW2 style, Star Wars style, ships have maximum speeds in normal space, explained as a safety feature, the drive shutting off, although not really clear speed compared to what. And by default flight assist is turned on, which makes the ship behave like an airplane, that is, turning in a direction makes the ship fly in that direction, by automatically applying directional thrusters, but this can be turned off resulting in more of a Newtonian behavior.

            However, some aspects of spaceflight in normal space, like gravity and orbits, are apparently realistic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xN__7GePcQ4

            Larger distances are solved through the usual handwavy FTL things, but with some realistic-looking aspects like how in FTL supercruise one slows down near to large centers of gravity, so the straight path is not always the fastest.

            An interesting thing is that fuel can only be scooped from main-sequence stars. It is not really explained why, nor what the fuel is. Any guesses? Memorizing if the next jump is scoopable i.e. main sequence or not is hard, the best mnemonic is “KGB FOAM”, for A, B, F, G, K, M, O are the main sequence.

            Another well done aspect is ship engineering, with various trade-offs like engineering everything for high power tends to make the ship hot, and then that causes problems.

    • >Why not just have a raspberry Pi with Linux in it?

      I have a lot of experience with Pi3s and I think they’re just a bit anemic for her workload.

      With a Pi I’d have to go with an outboard drive. And a connecting cable. And couldn’t hang the whole thing securely on her monitor.

      Another advantage of the NUC is that it can run the same Linux as the Beast, which reduces sysadmin hassle a bit.

      • A Pi4 is considerably chunkier than a Pi3 – especially a 4GB or 8GB Pi4.

        But you’ll want to buy a case with a fan for either one. I tested one of mine running a moderate docker workload and it got quite hot when run in a case with the top off and no fan. When run with a top and fan the temp never got about 40C.

        I would be entirely unsurprised if a GUI plus browser with multiple tabs etc. didn’t push the CPU a lot hotter than my docker server did.

        In fact, if you search on various RPi places there’s a lot of discussion about fans with the Pi4

        • >But you’ll want to buy a case with a fan for either one.

          Alas, for me that’s where the Pi line stops being interesting – when it needs a fan.

          • That’s the best reason for not using a Pi. Heat management.

            I’m not sure but considering how big flash drives are these days I think I could get away with just plugging one in and using it as a drive BUT I haven’t tried that out for long term use yet.

            Never heard of POPOS before.

            • I have a pi4 that I use as a network file server/NAS and a couple of other things. Bought a 1TB USB 3/C SSD for it. Works great. As a NAS it doesn’t need a fan to perform fine – though I did buy a case with a fan anyway because a couple of my other apps for it do occasionally push the CPU

            • Pop!_OS is the Ubuntu variant System76 ships with their machines. It’s lightly reskinned, but the real work is under the hood. They’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that everything Just Works. I originally got it on my Oryx Pro laptop, and liked it so much that it’s running on my Mac Pro desktop Linux machine – where it Just Works, too.

  4. I agree with you — the NUCs are neat. I was considering getting one for my daughter, but she wants to do some video editing, so I’m building her a Ryzen PC recycling some old parts. My younger daughter just needs to access Google Classroom, so I actually got her a used 7th gen Core i7 Chromebox — a roughly NUC-sized and shaped little box. It was like $150, both the RAM and SSD are upgradeable. When she wants to do more for it, I’ll double the RAM and give it a decent sized SSD and install Linux on it.

    And yeah, the way things look matters. More for non-hacker types than those like you and me, but it matters for us too. In the dark years when I had to run Photoshop and Illustrator, and thus opted for a Macbook, I’ll be damned if those things didn’t look and feel great. And their quality trackpads made using it without an keyboard and mouse feasible.

    I actually built myself a PC at the beginning of the lockdown, as I was working from home and didn’t have to use my employer’s laptop. Holy crap, what I’ve been missing from modern desktop-class parts. The thing is so fast, and it was REAL cheap to build.

  5. If you run into a tech support agent that’s a lazy jerk, it often pays to call back. Now, it may be that the whole place is full of lazy jerks, in which case you won’t get anywhere. But if there are competent people there, they tend to know who the lazy jerks are, because they end up picking up the slack for them. And as long as the customer is civil with them, they would love to have a customer tell management that the lazy jerk is a lazy jerk, so that management can tell HR. Furthermore, QA doesn’t like the lazy jerks, because lazy jerks have a tendency to needle customers too hard for QA to ignore, but not enough to present an open-and-shut case, and then, when QA marks them down for it, to appeal the case to management.

    So when you end up speaking to a lazy jerk, calmly hand them a few feet of rope and watch as they tie their own noose. Then call back, and if you get the same person, hang up. When you get a new agent, don’t mention the previous call. If they’re person helpful, thank them for their help at the end of the call, and say “You’ve been great. Unfortunately, the guy before you wasn’t. Could I speak to your supervisor about him?”. When the supervisor comes on the line, keep it short and sweet, praise the agent you just spoke to to high heaven, then say “However, I previously spoke to $AGENT_NAME at around foo-thirty Eastern. $CONCISE_COMPLAINT . I called from $NUMBER. You might want to pull that call. That’s all I have to say, thank you for your time.” At that point, if the organization is any good, and you’ve been civil to everyone along the line, all the people who have been picking up slack for the lazy jerk will cheerfully yank in *all* the slack on the rope you handed him. Depending on the circumstances, it might not get him fired immediately, but it will definitely contribute to his ultimate downfall.

    • >Now, it may be that the whole place is full of lazy jerks, in which case you won’t get anywhere.

      Unfortunately, it rather looks that way from the misleading website page. That’s two user-facing fuckups on first encounter, which suggests that they just don’t self-correct very well.

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  7. Years ago I have replaced the stock NUC case with an Akasa fanless design, which is an all metal heatsink kind of thing. No fan noise ever again and no dealing with failed fans, which happened to pretty much every computer I owned before.

    • >Years ago I have replaced the stock NUC case with an Akasa fanless design, which is an all metal heatsink kind of thing. No fan noise ever again and no dealing with failed fans, which happened to pretty much every computer I owned before.

      What an excellent idea! Had I known of this sooner I would have gone with one of these over a replacement fan. Er, if it could be VESA-mounted to Cathy’s monitor – that really is a consideration for this deployment. I can see the extra weight of the heatsinks potentially being an issue.

      • You are welcome. For what it is worth, if I were to get a small form factor machine today, I would seriously consider a Ryzen-based ASRock DeskMini (or its soon to be released successor):
        https://www.anandtech.com/show/14251/asrock-deskmini-a300-review-an-affordable-diy-amd-ryzen-minipc

        It is bigger (the size of an ATX power supply unit), and a CPU fan is not optional, but:
        – the CPU power is equal to desktop level CPUs, not the notebook-class parts found in NUCs
        – integrated graphics also far exceeds the NUC abilities
        – more storage options
        – the CPU is *upgradeable* as it is installed into the standard AM4 socket
        – I would like to support AMD with my euros: they are a much smaller company than Intel, yet were able to catch up and surpass it in the last couple of years with their Zen products, also pushing the CPU core count to unheard of levels, in all segments. While Intel has been repackaging essentially the same Skylake CPUs for several years now, and the situation (Apple silicon, too) looks increasingly worrying for them.

        RPi as a desktop machine? Not impossible, but the available distros are not as mature, and performance is sub par. I would wait for RPi 5.

        • I’ve found Ubuntu Mate on the Pi to be on par with Ubuntu Mate on x86, though I’ve not actually upgraded it to 18.04, for which MATE is fully GTK3-ized, and that might cause MATE to eat more memory than it used to.

        • There’s a binpkg gentoo distro for the pi3 and pi4 which is excellent. Most packages are available precompiled, and it’s nearly indistinguishable from desktop gentoo.

          The only real issue with the pi4 is the GPU is still a little under powered. It does okay, but if you want 1080p video playback, expect to overclock it a bit (which means expect to need a fan or larger passive heatsink).

        • RPi as a desktop machine? Not impossible, but the available distros are not as mature, and performance is sub par. I would wait for RPi 5.

          Most of the mainstream distros have a recent Raspberry Pi port. And, since same-model Pis are going to be identical in configuration modulo what’s plugged into the machine’s external ports and GPIO pins, support for the underlying hardware is often more consistent and complete than on PCs.

          This is not really an endorsement of the Pi so much as it is an indictment of just how awful the Linux desktop situation on PC is. The joke goes that if you want a smooth desktop experience, the distro to install is Windows 10 (because of WSL).

          Performance is going to be an issue on the Pi, no doubt about it. I spend enough time in Emacs to where I can get by on the Pi for almost all my needs except Web browsing — but expect to take a trip back at least ten years in terms of CPU performance. If you edit video, have lots of tabs open with JavaScript-heavy web sites, or wish to run a single instance of the Slack client, even the Raspberry Pi 4 isn’t going to be the machine for you.

          • >The joke goes that if you want a smooth desktop experience, the distro to install is Windows 10 (because of WSL).

            Oh, nonsense. Cathy wouldn’t go back to Windows if she could, and she’s not a techie.

          • > The joke goes that if you want a smooth desktop experience, the distro to install is Windows 10 (because of WSL).

            I tried that the other day on a old Acer desktop that has been promoted due to my laptop failing.

            AFTER I upgraded to the latest Windows, and AFTER enabled the hypervisor/virtualization crap WSL refused to work because my processor was too old.

            F*k you Microsoft. All I wanted was a bash commandline and a the ability to SSH.

            Back to Cygwin.

        • I’m looking at NUC-class machines to replace a dual-hex Mac Pro desktop. (The Mac Mini I bought runs faster than this Mac Pro, so I’m convinced that I can get comparable performance out of it.) The big problem is graphics: the main use case for that box is Second Life, which demands graphics performance that Intel UHD graphics just can’t provide. I would greatly prefer Nvidia graphics, as Nvidia gets along much better with Linux with its proprietary drivers, or at least did the last time I tried it. Pop!_OS does proprietary Nvidia natively, as well.

          I’ll have to look at that ASRock, though.

          • For the past several years, AMD’s mainline kernel drivers have trounced NVidia’s proprietary ones. They don’t quite as good of hardware (yet?), but the driver support beats NVidia by a wide margin. Just make sure you’re running a 5.3 or newer kernel if you are using the latest generation of cards.

            • I find that rather surprising, because in the past I’ve had such a horrible time getting AMD cards to handle anything other than DirectX at acceptable levels of performance and glitchiness. Even OpenGL on windows was horrible, and the last time I tried an AMD GPU on Linux, the driver would spinhang in kernel mode in a certain game I didn’t want to give up, with enough frequency to make it unplayable. It was impossible to get back to the desktop: even killing the game would just cause X to spinhang in kernel mode, this time unkillably. The system as a whole was still working, but interactivity could only be achieved over ssh, and one core (of 4) was tied up by the spinhang. A reboot was necessary to restore local interactivity.

              • Do you remember what card series it was and what kernel version? I first tried them with 4.14, from late 2017, and, except for when I undervolt or overclock the card, the stability has been excellent (both with a Radeon VII, and an RX 580). I have noticed that if the memory on the cards gets too warm, due to poor airflow or similar, and the card is under load, you can get graphical glitches or crash the kernel driver (the 580 has been fine, the Radeon VII ended up with an after market cooler due to that issue).

  8. I remember reading an article comparing several approaches to cooling a raspberry pi that found the most effective setup had the fan at a 45-degree angle to heat-sink cooling fins – which no vendor has shown any interest in!
    Perhaps the same applies to most?

  9. Investigate fan noise thoroughly.

    Some coating or other in an Asus Eee PC can flake off, get into the fan, and cause an alarming buzzing sound. Open case, remove and disassemble fan, remove flakes, reassemble everything, and it’s fine.

  10. >Also. Dammit, NUCs are pretty. I say dammit because I feel like this shouldn’t matter to me and am a bit embarrassed to discover that it does. I like the color and shape and feel of these devices. Someone did an amazing job of making them unobtrusively attractive.

    Erin, you’re human. Aesthetics matters to humans. We like pretty things, for varying definitions of pretty. Don’t feel bad for being human.

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