Intel's NUC Compute Element vs. Raspberry Pi Compute Module: Which is better?

Modular computing solutions are becoming increasingly popular, with Intel unveiling the 15W U-Series at Computex 2019.

Intel and AMD announce new CPUs at Computex 2019 Intel and AMD presented new processors that will make their way into upcoming computers. Karen Roby and James Sanders discuss the next generation of CPUs.

At Computex 2019 in Taiwan this week, Intel unveiled the NUC (Next Unit of Computing) Compute Element, a modular computing solution that combines a CPU, RAM, and (a relatively minimal amount of) Flash storage on a single board reminiscent of a 2.5-inch SATA drive, with edge I/O connectors on the long edge of the board. One side of the board is exposed, with the metal heat spreader fitted around the top of the board.

The NUC Compute Element is "an industry standard for modular compute utilizing Intel Architecture and standard compute technologies and interfaces," Intel said in a press release, adding that "The device incorporates an Intel CPU, memory, connectivity and other components and is capable of powering solutions like laptops, kiosks, smart TVs, appliances and more. The Intel NUC Compute Element delivers incredible performance and amazing connectivity at a low cost while making it easy to integrate, upgrade and service computing in next-generation devices."

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This is familiar territory for Intel, as their previous Intel Compute Card project was an attempt to stuff a CPU, RAM, and Flash storage into the size of roughly six credit cards stacked together. The Compute Card was more of a closed device, as the back of the Compute Card had a connector that allowed it to be plugged into a dock, which breaks out extra USB and Ethernet connectors, as well as video output. That dock also assisted in cooling, as the thin metal casing of the card itself was not particularly efficient at heat dissipation. Even so, the Compute Card reached such high temperatures that it was necessary to turn the device off for some time before handling.

Four variants were unveiled at CES 2017, but little mention of them was made afterward, with the line being discontinued earlier this year.

NUC Compute Element: An enterprise-tooled shot at redemption

While the Compute Card envisioned a hot-desking arrangement, in which users could simply plug their card into a dock at any arbitrary terminal and get to work, the NUC Compute Element has a decidedly enterprise and industrial angle to it. Intel showcased the Compute Element with a sample laptop design from education-focused ODM JP, for which Intel notes that "by creating its design around the compute element, JP is able to offer a wide range of performance options with a single product design, lowering costs and increasing its product offerings."

The Compute Element can be equipped with 15W U-Series CPUs, while the earlier Compute Card was limited to ultra-low power Y-Series CPUs. This is a modest increase in power, though the Compute Element is not a platform tailored to CPU-intensive operations. Remote management will be possible on the Compute Element, as vPro-enabled SKUs are planned.

Overall, the Compute Element is a rather ingenious solution to a problem posed by the miniaturization of electronics—as lower-power Intel CPUs are essentially available only for BGA sockets, requiring a CPU to be soldered directly to a board, the ability to upgrade platforms or swap hardware requires replacing entire boards, which is typically costly (if even possible).

Raspberry Pi Compute Module: How does it compare?

The modality of the NUC Compute Element is quite similar to the Raspberry Pi Compute Module, a variant of the Raspberry Pi that bolts the CPU and RAM onto a SO-DIMM board. Breakout boards can be used to provide expansion ports, making the Compute Module ideal as a field-replaceable CPU.

The Raspberry Pi Compute Module is available at the same (low) price as traditional Raspberry Pi units, making it an affordable and long-lived solution. The Compute Module 3+, introduced in January, will be available until at least January 2026. If the software you depend on for your workload can be compiled for the Arm processor powering the Raspberry Pi, the lower-cost solution may be a better one for your project. Intel's NUC Compute Element—while more powerful—will undoubtedly cost more, though the company is working to lower production costs compared to the Compute Card.

Notably, NEC uses the Raspberry Pi Compute Module for digital signage solutions used in schools, shops, airports, and train stations. NEC's Raspberry Pi-powered large-format displays are available in sizes up to 98 inches.

For more, check out "Intel and AMD announce new CPUs: Whose won?" and "Inside the Raspberry Pi: The story of the $35 computer that changed the world" on TechRepublic.

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Image: Intel

By James Sanders

James Sanders is a staff writer for TechRepublic. He covers future technology, including quantum computing, AI, and 5G, as well as cloud, security, open source, mobility, and the impact of globalization on the industry, with a focus on Asia.