Friday, April 23, 2021

GMK NucBox2 mini workstation PC

In 2020, one of the minor trends in computing was the rise of so-called nano PCs, tiny computers, barely bigger than a multiplug, went on sale as the pandemic went global. Such pocket-sized devices proved to be instant winners for a slice of the target market looking for something that can be connected to a big screen and doesn’t cost the earth.

The GMK NucBox was probably the best of a slew of devices that included the Chuwi Larkbox and the XCY X51. GMK is now back with something a bit more powerful, expensive and larger, in other words, a more traditional workstation. It’s time to meet the NucBox 2.

Pricing and availability

The GMK NucBox 2 mini PC is available from Amazon for $399.99 after a $100 discount after applying a coupon. Alternatively, international buyers can use the code Easter60OFF to buy the item directly from GMK while US buyers can get $120 off  by using the code Techradar120$OFF at its site. Keep in mind though that this code will only be available for one week and will be apply to the first 21 devices purchased. Finally GMK is also offering TechRadar readers in the US another $40 coupon when they use the special code 7M89QSTX on its site.     

MicroSD Card Slot

(Image credit: Future)

Design

The GMK doesn’t differ much from the competition, present or past. It is made up almost entirely of plastic with a glossy top and dual-tone colour scheme on the side. At 110 x 125 x 50mm for a weight of 426g, it is a cuboid small enough to fit unnoticed behind a monitor (it comes with VESA brackets as well).

Rear I/O

(Image credit: Future)

There’s four rubber feet and a fan grill underneath. At the back are a barrel-type power connector, fed by a tiny 65W power adapter, two HDMI 2.0 ports, two full size USB ports and a Gigabit Ethernet port. 

Front I/O

(Image credit: Future)

The front houses the on/off button, a headphone jack, a USB Type-C connector and another pair of USB ports. Note that you should be able to power another extra monitor using the Type-C input but we haven’t tried it.

Rubber Feet

(Image credit: Future)

All in all, it is a solidly built mini PC and the interior can be easily accessed - for upgrades - by removing the screws located under the rubber feet.

Hardware

Spec Sheet

Here are the full specs of the GMK NucBox2:

CPU: Intel Core i5-8259U

Graphics: Iris Plus 655

RAM: 8GB DDR4-2666

Storage: 256GB PCIe NVMe SSD

Ports:  4 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB-C, 2 x HDMI 2.0, 1x Audio Jack, 1 x Gigabit Ethernet

Connectivity: Intel 7265, 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5, Bluetooth 4.2

Weight: 426g

Size: 110 x 125 x 50mm (H x W x D)

We were initially puzzled by the choice of processor. GMK opted for an Intel Core i5-8259U CPU, a quad-core, 8-thread processor. It turned out to be an astute choice as it is paired with an Iris Plus Graphics 655, one of Intel’s better graphics subsystems, and has a very high base frequency (2.3GHz) which makes it a great fit for resource heavy applications.

Completing the team are a single 8GB DDR4-2666 memory module (upgradable to dual channel) and a 256GB PCIe NVMe solid state drive (Netac SED PCIe 4X S930E8). There is a spare 2.5-inch bay should you want to add a SATA drive for extra storage.

The rest of the specifications include a microSD card slot, Wi-Fi 5, Bluetooth 4.2 and a dual heat pipe plus a 55mm fan to cool down the 28W processor. GMK claims that the system is almost silent at rest, hitting only 19dB on a sound level meter.

Top of Device

(Image credit: Future)

In use and performance

Benchmarks

Here’s how the GMK NucBox2 performed in our suite of benchmark tests:

CPU-Z: 431 (single-thread); 1883 (multi-thread)

Geekbench: 960 (single-core); 3148 (multi-core); 6913 (compute)

CrystalDiskMark: 2267MBps (read); 1310MBps (write)

Cinebench CPU: 1405

Novabench: 1508

PCMark: 4010

3DMark:1751 (Firestrike); 7587 (Nightraid); 7125 (Skydiver)

Passmark: 3736 (Overall); 9724 (CPU); 1576 (GPU 3D)

Atto: 2140MBps (read, 256mb); 1230MBps (write, 256mb)

Windows Experience Index: 8.1

The 8259U proved to be a surprising hit when compared to one of its more popular replacements, the 10210U. It tends to lose out marginally in single thread tasks but catches up in multi-threaded ones (which tend to be more popular nowadays anyway).

It is however, the video subsystem that makes it a proper winner; despite its age (three year old in 2021), the Iris Plus Graphics 655 still holds its own. Elsewhere, the storage subsystem numbers are average for an NVMe drive; we’ve seen better numbers but that should be enough for most day-to-day applications given how much faster the bundle SSD is compared to hard drives and SATA-based alternatives. It was not too loud under load and remained mildly hot during use.

The competition

At the time of writing, Gateway has the most compelling rival to the NucBox 2 and as ridiculous as it sounds, it is a laptop. This Walmart exclusive, the GWTN156-1BL, costs only $439 and, being a laptop, comes with a full HD screen, a battery, a fingerprint scanner and 16GB of RAM, twice that of the NucBox 2. On the other hand, it has fewer ports and the processor that powers it, an Intel Core i5-1035G1, is slightly slower. Not as small but far, far more versatile.

The Pavilion Desktop TP01-1055m runs on an AMD Ryzen 3 4300G APU which is about a third faster than the Core i5-8259U. At $450, it comes with an extra 1TB hard disk drive and offers the sort of after sales support and peace of mind that only global brands can offer. On the other hand, its microtower chassis is significantly chunkier and it lacks a second HDMI connector. Dell and Lenovo also have similar models. 

If you’re looking for a similar pint-sized workstation PC, then the only other competitor in the same price range comes from Beelink. The SEI8 has the same configuration as the NucBox 2 but costs a staggering $80 extra with the added disadvantage of shipping from Asia, rather than via Amazon.

Final verdict

At just under $400, this mini workstation PC is quite a performer, bearing in mind how prices have fluctuated over the past year due to the ongoing chip shortage and global shipping variations. We had doubts about the processor but it proved us wrong and overall GMK has managed, with the NucBox 2 to deliver a balanced solution. The ability to potentially drive three monitors is an alluring proposal, especially at this price point and easy upgradability earns it some extra cookie points.

The biggest issue remains how competitive the market is at the entry level as exemplified by the list of competitors. Sure they are more expensive than the NucBox 2 but only marginally; however if space is a premium and you want a discreet compute solution, then the NucBox 2 has no real competition.

That doesn’t mean that it is perfect; we’d love to have a dual-channel configuration in the future to improve performance with Bluetooth 5.0 and Wi-Fi 6. Oh and do get rid of the dust magnet that is the top facia.

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