Economical NUC desktop running Ubuntu

The TV in the kitchen has long had a Mac Mini attached to one of its inputs. We used it to watch Youtube videos, listen to music from iTunes and Google Music, to browse the web, to show photographs from our trips, and so on.

Sadly, the little Mini passed away earlier this year, refusing to power up. When we priced out replacement machines we discovered that the new Minis were a lot more expensive, even if a the same time more capable.


Given that we were not planning to store lots of data on the machine, we decided to leverage the lessons we had learned from building our little collection of NUC servers and design and build a small desktop on one of the NUC engines. We conducted some research and selected a machine sporting an i3 processor. The parts list we ended up with was:

  • Intel NUC DCCP847DYE [1 @ $ 146.22]

    • Intel Core i3 Processor

  • Crucial CT120M500SSD3 [1 @ $ 72.09]

    • 120GB mSATA SSD

  • Crucial CT25664BF160B [2 @ $ 20.97]

    • 2GB DDR3 1600 SODIMM 204-Pin 1.35V/1.5V Memory Module

  • Intel Network 7260.HMWG [1 @ $30.95]

    • WiFi and Bluetooth HMC

  • Belkin 6ft / 3 Prong Notebook Power Cord [1 @ $6.53]

Which brought the total expense to $ 297.73, substantially cheaper than the more highly configured i5-based servers that we described in a previous post.

We ordered the parts from Amazon and they arrived a few days later.

The next step was to get the BIOS patches needed for the machine and an install image.

The new BIOS image came from the Intel site.  Note that the BIOS for the DYE line is different from that in the i5-based WYK line that we used for the servers.  The BIOS patch that we downloaded is named and we found it on an Intel page (easier to find with a search engine than with the Intel site navigation tools, but easy either way).

The Ubuntu desktop image is on the Ubuntu site ... they ask you for a donation (give one if you can afford it, please).

The, by now familiar, steps to create an installable image on a USB flash drive are:
> diskutil list
> hdiutil convert -format UDRW -o ubuntu-14.04.1-desktop-amd64.img ubuntu-14.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso
> diskutil unmountDisk /dev/disk2
> sudo dd if=ubuntu-14.04.1-desktop-amd64.img.dmg of=/dev/rdisk2 bs=1m

Where /dev/disk2 and /dev/rdisk2 are identified from examination of the output of the diskutil list call.

That done, we recorded the MAC address from the NUC packaging and updated our DHCP and DNS configurations so that the machine would get its host name and IP address from our infrastructure.

A couple of important differences between building a desktop and a server:

  • We added the WiFi and Bluetooth network card to the machine.  We did not use the WiFi capability, since we were installing the machine in a location with good hard-wired Ethernet connectivity, but we did plan to use a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse on the machine.

  • The desktop install image for Ubuntu 14.04 is big, about 1/3 larger than the server image.  The first device we used for the install was the same 1G drive that I had used for my initial server installs, before I got the network install working.  What we didn't realize, and dd did not tell us, is that the image was too big for the 1G drive.  When we tried to do the install the first time we got a cryptic error message from the BIOS.  It took us a while, stumbling around in the dark, to realize that the install image was too big for the drive we were using.  After we rebuilt the install image on a 32G drive we had in a drawer, the install proceeded without error.

After the installation completed we had trouble getting the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to work well.  The machine ultimately paired with the keyboard, but we could not get input to it.

We then thought back on some of the information we'd seen for our earlier NUC research and verified that the machine actually has an integrated antenna.  We opened up the case and found the antenna wires, which we connected to the wireless card as shown in this picture:


Shortly after we were logged on to the machine.  We installed Chrome and connected up to a Google Music library and were playing music as background to a photo slide show within a few minutes.

The only remaining problem is that the Apple Wireless Trackpad that we're using seems to regularly stop talking to the machine.  The pointer freezes and we're left using the tab key to navigate the fields of the active window.


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