With Dawson Canyon, Intel Introduces a Worthy Successor to its Maple Canyon Commercial NUC.

It’s been a long time coming, but the successor to Maple Canyon, code named Dawson Canyon is finally here. (And no, it’s not a TV show about twenty-somethings finding love in a small town). Dawson Canyon takes the concept of the commercial NUC and runs with it.  In just about every way, it improves on Maple Canyon and moves even more toward a commercial design. Let’s take a look.

I’ve enjoyed my Maple Canyon NUC for years now. It’s the commercial NUC, designed for the business user, rather than the consumer.  Years ago Intel realized they had an opportunity to make a variation of the NUC that would appeal less to cord-cutters and enthusiasts, and more to companies looking for a “no-frills” mini PC. Where the consumer NUC had built-in IR and multiple display options, the Maple Canyon did away with that in favor of simplicity (two mini DisplayPort ports as opposed to one mini HDMI and one mini DisplayPort) and expansion options that appealed to work-ability (the blank on the back that allowed you to add a serial, display, or network port).  Where the consumer NUCs are a theme park of fun features, the commercial NUCs are all about getting to work.

Over the years, I’ve offered my opinion on where commercial NUCs should head. While I loved the Maple Canyon, there were still changes I thought could improve it; a more rugged finish on the lid, even more expansion options, ditching the mini DisplayPort (or mini-anything ports, for that matter), etc.  What you need in a business/industrial NUC is easy to figure out by looking at it’s potential usages:

  • Imagine a NUC running multiple digital displays in a store.  It would need multiple display connections (duh), preferably HDMI, since that’s what most TVs use these days. It would need to be powerful enough to run them without lagging.  It wouldn’t need IR, a headphone jack, or a microphone.
  • What if you wanted your NUC to run a vending machine? Similar needs. What good would IR, headphone jacks, or microphones be inside the machine? You’d also want to be able to tie it directly in to a power source if possible.
  • Let’s say you were setting up workstations in an office? Would you want your employees to be able to use Cortana to find the lyrics to “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, or would you prefer they get to work? You’d probably enjoy remote management, and a higher level of security.
  • Building a smart router? You’d probably want an option to add a second internal gigabit ethernet port. You most likely wouldn’t care about a fast-charging USB port for your phone.

Specifications

Let’s start with the specs. The complete list can be found here. Some key updates from the Maple Canyon version are:

  • TDP: 15W
  • DC Input Voltage Supported: 12-24 VDC
  • Processor Included: Intel® Core™ i5-7300U Processor (3M Cache, up to 3.50 GHz)
  • Max Memory Size: (dependent on memory type)32 GB
  • Memory Types: DDR4-2133 1.2V SO-DIMM
  • Graphics Output: Dual HDMI 2.0a
  • USB 3.0 Configuration: (External + Internal)2B 2F +1
  • Serial Port via Internal Header: Yes
  • Integrated Wireless: Intel® Wireless-AC 8265 vPro (IEEE 802.11ac 2×2)
  • Integrated Bluetooth: Yes
  • Additional Headers: Front_panel (PWR, RST, 5V, 5Vsby, 3.3Vsby); HDMI_CEC;
  • Internal 2×2 power connector
  • Intel® Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O (VT-d): Yes
  • Intel® vPro™ Technology: Yes
  • Intel® ME Firmware Version: v11.7
  • TPM: Yes
  • TPM Version: 2.0
  • Intel® Rapid Storage Technology: Yes
  • Intel® Virtualization Technology (VT-x): Yes

Out of the Box

The unit in front of me is the NUC7i5DNHE, aka the “tall” i5 kit.  It’s a commercial NUC, so it doesn’t come in the pretty, shiny retail packaging. The box, like the NUC, is all business. Plain cardboard.  The accessories (mounting plate, screws, etc.) are the same as the consumer models.

nuc7i5dnhe-front-face
Doesn’t get much simpler than this.

As with all NUCs, it’s got a beautiful dark grey finish on it. The first thing I noticed when un-boxing the Dawson Canyon was the lid.  In place of Maple Canyon’s glossy, scratch-prone finish, the Dawson sports a matte finish lid that looks like it’d hold up to quite a bit of abuse.  I’ve been asking for a matte lid for the last few generations, and Intel finally came through!  As much as I like the look of the glossy lids, I wanted something that would last and not look like it’d been dragged across broken glass after a few months. This new lid is exactly that, and it doesn’t take away from the aesthetics at all. It’s perfect. And it looks an awful lot like the lid I plasti-dipped back in the day.  As with all current models, the Dawson’s lid is replaceable.

IMG_20171231_110221763
My Plasti-Dip lid is on the left. Seriously, I think somebody owes me a beer.

Looking around the outside, the front has some obvious streamlining. It doesn’t have a headphone/microphone jack on the front or back. If you want audio, you’re getting it through HDMI (or Bluetooth).  No built-in microphones either.  In fact, other than the power button, the two USB 3.0 ports are all that are on the front. Both ports are blue, indicating there’s no rapid charge port. There’s also no built-in IR, which isn’t obvious. Also absent from the front is the LED ring common on the consumer models. No fancy flashing ring here, just a power button with an LED.  Again, no frills.

nuc7i5dnhe-back
Just look at that blank…look at it!

Flipping it over, the next big thing is that instead of the dual mini DisplayPort configuration on the Maple Canyon, Dawson Canyon sports dual full-sized HDMI 2.0a ports. This is a welcome change for many, as it eliminates the need for any adapters or special cables. Just plug in an HDMI cable (or two) and you’re good to go. This also simplifies setting up a dual display configuration. I’m told the ports can handled dual 4k displays simultaneously with no problems. I don’t have two 4k displays, so I’ll have to take Intel’s word for that.

IMG_20171231_110240328
I have to say, I’m liking the clean look!

The back sports another two USB 3.0 ports as well. And of course there’s a gigabit ethernet port. What you won’t find are USB C, mini DisplayPort, Thunderbolt, any audio ports…pretty much anything else. Just the meat & ‘taters, as they say.

The Maple Canyon sported a blank that allowed for the addition of an extra internal port, and so does the Dawson Canyon. But it’s blank is easily three times the size. Just imagine what you could do with all that extra space.

So outside it’s an attractive, clean design. It’s a NUC in every sense of he word. Nothing to complain about there.  Let’s take a look inside.

Under the Hood

The case design is the same as all other NUCs, so loosening four screws releases the back-plate. After removing the back-plate, I noticed the one thing I’m not crazy about with the Dawson Canyon…In the Maple Canyon, the power and data cables for the drive cage (this is the “H” unit, which accommodates a 2.5″ drive) allowed for the cage to be set to the side without disconnecting it.  On the Dawson Canyon, the cable is shorter and the power connector is centered on the board, so there’s no way to work inside the NUC without disconnecting the power and data cables and removing them entirely. As someone who spends a lot of time under the hood on my NUCs, I’d have appreciated a longer pair of cables to avoid the need to disconnect them every time I opened it up. Not a huge deal, but still a bit less convenient than it should be. Every time I take the cover off, I’m reminded of the good old days, when I could work in my NUC without disconnecting the cage.

IMG_20171231_110353717
This is as far as it opens without disconnecting the cables.

Once the cage is out of the way, you can see the similarities and differences between this board and its predecessor. Like the Maple Canyon, this one includes two m.2 slots; an 80mm (for storage) and 30mm (for WiFi). Unlike its predecessor, however, if you buy the kit version, this has the 30mm slot populated with an Intel 8265 WiFi card (if you buy the bare board, you’ll have to fill it yourself).  That’s a nice improvement. I wondered when I first saw Maple Canyon why WiFi wasn’t included. It seemed to me at the time that regardless of the use for any NUC, WiFi was a no-brainer. Not to mention how much of a pain it is to get the antennas connected. Heck, I’d have paid more for a Maple Canyon just so I didn’t have to mess around with the antenna leads.

I neglected to mention before that the leftmost HDMI port has CEC functionality built-in. The right one doesn’t, but the main board does include a connector to add it, should you need it on both HDMI ports.

One of the bigger changes, for me at least, is that while Dawson Canyon still includes USB 2.0 headers on the board, it now also sports a USB 3.0 header. That’s going to be huge, especially when combined with a replaceable lid.  You may recall not too long ago I reviewed GoRite’s single and dual HDMI lids.  They were great, but also somewhat limited because they were tied into a USB 2.0 connection.  Adding a USB 3.0 connector means those lids can take full advantage of the higher throughput and provide much improved performance.

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Also on the board are an eDP connector for attaching directly to a display panel, a front panel header should you want to put the board in a different case and an RS232 header for adding a serial port (taking advantage of the blank on the back).

Fill in the “Blank”

When I first saw that elongated blank I thought “kinda overdoing it, aren’t we?” But then I started thinking about the possibilities. There’s easily enough room there for three ports, and the NUC’s internal headers can accommodate that many.  So you end up with tons of potential combinations. Multiple video ports, multiple ethernet ports, combinations, etc.  Can’t decide between an extra HDMI, ethernet, or serial port? Why not add all three?  How about THREE extra ethernet ports? Turn this baby into the world’s coolest enterprise router. Or maybe a bunch of USB ports?  I’m thinking you could fit 2 USB 3.0 and 4 USB 2.0 ports in there. That would mean a total of TEN USB ports on the NUC. The more you think about it, the more it makes sense. This is, after all, an “industrial” NUC. So the ability to add multiple internal ports is an excellent option to have.

GoRite

I took a look on GoRite’s site, and they already have a page devoted to Dawson Canyon.  They’ve got a close relationship with the NUC team, so they usually offer add-ons for new NUCs right away. They’ve got feature lids, a shiny replacement lid (though why you’d get rid of the matte finish is beyond me), and even the serial port header cable for the the blank. I don’t see anything else to “fill in the blank” but I’m sure they’ve got a few ideas.  I also see that dual HDMI lid I tested before, and wouldn’t you know it, they’ve already sent me the cables to test it with this unit. I’ll be posting my results on that in a bit.

Power Options

As with most NUCs, Dawson Canyon can handle anywhere between 12 and 24 volts via the internal or external connector.  That means plenty of flexibility when it comes to power. Interestingly, this model doesn’t come with a wall wart, but with a 65w laptop style brick like the NUCs of old. I’m not sure why this change was made, and I’m not sure it matters. I’ve used NUCs with both styles and either works just fine. With the wall wart, you have to change the plug on it for different countries. With this style, you replace the cable. Either way gets it done.

Security & Management

The i5 version of Dawson’s Canyon includes both TPM (for hardware-based security) and vPro (for remote management). Why these aren’t included on the i3 is something puzzling to me, but if you need either, you’ll want to go with the i5.

Update: I just heard back from Intel that this is due to these features only being available on the i5 CPU.

Final Thoughts

Dawson Canyon is a substantial update to Intel’s commercial NUC, making for a more durable, expandable, and business-friendly product.  The blank on the back promises some great expansion options down the road, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with to fill that space.  The need to disconnect the drive cage to access the internals is a bit annoying, but that’s easily solved with a slightly longer cable. The addition of an internal USB 3.0 header should be a hit, allowing for improved performance from add-ons that can take advantage of it. My favorite change? The rugged matte finish on the lid. It looks great, and you can tell it means business.

Intel keeps improving and refining the NUC design, and offering an excellent feature set for varying needs.

2 comments

  1. I would add that the use of a removable M.2 WLAN solution, rather than a soldered-down solution, was also in response to feedback received through the Intel Communities site. In secured environments, the presence of a WLAN solution is often prohibited (and disabling in BIOS is not considered a sufficient alternative). By providing a removable solution, the economies of scale optimize the bundled cost yet support removal where required.

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