Last fall, I got my first new laptop in about 18 months which is an eternity for me. For a bit of my history see my blog post Laptops of Doom. The Panasonic CF-J10 served me well, but still wasn’t perfect. At 10.1″, 16GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD, 1 x USB 3.0 (albeit slow), a Core i7-2620M, and decent battery life with weight under 3lbs, you’d think I’d be happy as a clam. Even with the 1TB of SSD I had in there, it wasn’t enough room and the USB 3.0 was slow compared to other machines, which led me to believe it has to do with motherboard design (boo). It was starting to act up on me (trackpad not functioning right), so I knew I needed an interim solution. Enter the Sony Vaio Duo 11 (which I will do a review of at some point). I love the machine but its main weak link is only 8GB of memory, and it can’t be expanded since it’s basically soldered onto the motherboard. Welcome to 2013.

For the deliveries of my mission critical/high availability class last year in Australia, I took both machines with me – I was still well under 6lbs. I got an external mouse for the Panasonic and it was basically my demo box with Hyper-V and Windows Server 2012, and the Duo my main presentation machine. One nice thing about the Duo is the pen input for things like virtual blackboarding. Even with the Core i7 ULV, the Duo really seems snappier than my Panasonic. To date, I still haven’t yet sent the Panasonic back to Japan because I need a backup computer. The Duo only has regular Windows 8 (not Pro), so I’ve been using VMware Workstation a lot like I have in the past. I’ve been able to do my demos with an external USB 3.0 SSD drive, but they’ve been limited. Bottom line is I use both Hyper-V and VMware Workstation, and need a presenter machine. Sometimes one machine isn’t enough, so that got me thinking (and also because I want to be able to send my J10 in for repair) – what can I do?

My idea – crazy as it is/was – was to find a small, yet portable PC, connect it to my Duo via a crossover cable, and use Remote Desktop to get in.

Enter the small form factor (SFF) PC.

My weight requirements for schlepping still have not changed, and I am hanging out to see what happens once the Haswell-based laptops are introduced before even considering something new, but carrying around my Duo plus a small box running Hyper-V seemed somewhat reasonable if I can keep the solution portable. One reason I need this for some speaking engagements is that VMware Workstation allows me to show, say, Hyper-V and some scenarios like Live Migration easily. The problem is that you can’t easily run both Hyper-V and VMware Workstation at the same time under Windows 8 – you basically have to enable one and disable the other which you can’t really do mid-talk. The weight requirement has historically been difficult, since most SFF PCs with any power have been small by tower standards, but still kinda beefy and robust. That has changed recently.

Two boxes fit the bill: Foxconn’s AT-7000 series which you can get in Core i3 (AT-7300), i5 (AT-7500), or i7 (AT-7700) variants, and the Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC), which currently only has a Core i3 (rumor has it  they are going to introduce an i5 version soon). There are two main variants of the NUC – one that has ethernet built in (the DC3217IYE) and two HDMI outs, and one with one HDMI out and one Thunderbolt but no ethernet (the DC3217BY). With both, it’s basically a plug in your own RAM and storage and away you go.

There are some other technical differences between the AT-7000 series and the NUC, namely:

  • The NUC has 3 x USB 2.0 ports (boo) and you would need an adapter for HDMI to VGA if you wanted to hook it up directly to something if HDMI was not an option (and it often isn’t when presenting; VGA is still the defacto standard). The AT-7000 has 4 x USB 3.0, 2 x USB 2.0,  DVI and HDMI out (and they include a DVI –> VGA adapter in the box).
  • Ethernet only comes with the DC3217IYE; you would have to get a USB one if you wanted ethernet for the DC3217BY. The AT-7000 series has it built-in, just like the DC3217IYE.
  • The AT-7000 series also has microphone, headphone, and line out if you want such things (unnecessary for portable use), as well as a card reader (SD/MS/MMC).
  • The NUC only has mSATA internally, whereas the AT-7000 can take a full 2.5″ drive.

You may be thinking that the AT-7000 is a slam dunk considering you can get your choice of processors and it has some better port options. On paper everything is always better.

I ordered both the DC3217IYE and the AT-7700 with the intention of returning one of them (we’ll see if that happens …) with 16GB of Corsair Vengeance RAM (DDR3 1600 MHz [PC3 12800]), a Mushkin 480GB mSATA SSD, and for the AT-7700, a StarTech mSATA –> 2.5″ adapter enclosure. I got the DC3217IYE and RAM from Amazon (they had better prices at the time, and with the NUC, a better return policy), and the 480GB SSD and the adapter enclosure from Newegg. Let’s look at my costs:

  • DC3217IYE – $292.49
  • RAM – $99.99
  • Crossover cable – $2.52
  • SSD – $439.99
  • AT-7700 – $489.99
  • mSATA adapter – $30.99

The NUC solution costs $834.99 and the AT-7700 solution $1063.48. Now, you may not need a 480GB SSD, and standard 2.5″ SSDs are cheaper than mSATA ones; I didn’t want to buy two sets of storage so here it really is the same thing for me. If you went down to the i3 ($339.99 at Newegg) or i5 ($399.99 at Newegg) and used a different SSD or even a standard platter-based drive, the NUC and AT-7000 series are basically parity cost-wise. Let’s say you pick the i3 AT-7300:

  • AT-7300 – $339.99
  • RAM – $99.99
  • Crossover cable – $2.52
  • 500GB 2.5″ SSD (Samsung 840; not the Pro which is about $130 more) – $335.09 on Amazon now

The total is $777.59 – cheaper than the equivlent NUC solution. If you splurged and spent the extra $60 on the AT-7500 to get an i5, it would be only a few dollars more than the NUC solution. Crazy!

The thing about these solutions is that I’m looking at them as portable hypervisors and that’s how I’ll largely talk about them, but they’re so cheap and cost effective that they can work for a lab solution for your own personal use or where you work – and they’re tiny. That can’t be underestimated.

In Part 2, I will cover some differences that may make a difference for some (including myself) such as size and weight, and talk about the process of configuring these little wonderboxes. The third part of this series will concentrate more on usability and how they work in conext of my workflow.