The Intel NUC has been around for a while and considered as one of the best kit to build an HTPC. Before models with Brasswell and Sky Lake chipsets however, I always considered it as a big investment because you would need to grab one with i3, i5, or i7 processors to be sure it would be able to handle all media formats. Plus you probably need to make some additional spending on Windows 8/10 for the operating system.
That perception have now changed with the HEVC hardware accelerated encoding support in the newer chipset generations. Plus the release of Plex Media Player* last year with Embedded Platform app.
* Plex Media Player is currently only available for Plex Pass users.
UPDATE November 30, 2016: Plex Media Player is now available for all Plex users
UPDATE October 21, 2017: Intel has released a newer generation of NUC series (identifier: NUC7XXXXX). They no longer support booting from (micro) SD card, as shared by one of the readers. Read Brian’s notes here.
A little background
For over a year, I had been using Minix Neo Z64 running Plex Home Theater as client to browse and play media library from my Plex Media Server on my TV. It had served its primary purpose well but I started to find some limitations from it:
- It could only be installed with 32-bit version of Windows (or any other x64 based operating system) due to limited BIOS and drivers support. This means, I couldn’t install the next generation Plex Media Player which unfortunately required 64-bit MacOS or Windows.
- No hardware accelerated for HEVC (H.265) video format. Its Quad Core Intel Atom processor were choking to handle 1080p H.265 encoded videos.
- Even though it had built-in IR receiver, there was no Windows driver for it. I had to use Flirc USB to control it from my Logitech Harmony remote.
- No gigabit ethernet port, only 100 Mbps.
- No HD Audio (Dolby TrueHD and DTS-MA) passthrough when using PHT on Windows.
So the search was on to find a hardware that would be able to fill those gaps. There is one extra requirement though: it needed to be in the sub $200 budget because I only wanted it as Plex client, not server.
The hardware: Intel NUC5CPYH
A few options came into consideration, including NVIDIA SHIELD TV and AsRock BEEBOX N3150, but I finally decided to go with Intel NUC NUC5CPYH. Primarily because of the price point, at less than $130 (barebone, no RAM, no drive) it was still quite an amazing price. While some people might doubt its processing power because it is still running on Celeron processor, but it’s already based on Braswell chipset and Braswell comes with HEVC hardware acceleration support.
Here’s the list of components to get it up and running:
- Intel NUC5CPYH Barebone Kit – $128 [link]
- Kingston HyperX Impact Black 4GB 1600MHz DDR3L SODIMM – $25 [link]
- SanDisk Ultra Fit 32GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive – $10 [link]
You could go with SDXC or even hard drive/SSD instead of using USB flash drive, that one is completely up to your preference. For me, the SanDisk Ultra Fit just offered the best bang for the buck.
In addition, you also need a spare USB drive with around 1GB of storage and USB keyboard to copy and install the Plex Media Player for embedded platform image.
Plex Media Player for Embedded Platforms installation
To download Plex Media Player (PMP) for the Intel NUC, just follow these steps:
- Go to Plex Downloads page
- Click on Get an App button
- Make sure Plex Pass Downloads is checked on
- Under Choose your app, select Plex Media Player > Embedded Platforms
- Click on Download button, then select Intel 64-bit
Next step is to create the disk image for the USB stick by following the official tutorial.
After plugging both USB sticks (one with the disk image and another that will act as the computer’s drive) and keyboard to the Intel NUC, turn it on. The NUC should try to detect a bootable drive, in this case the USB stick with PMP disk image. Then you need to follow the on-screen installation process and select the other USB stick as the destination drive to where app will be installed.
After the installation is complete, you can unplug the disk image stick and reboot the NUC. It should load PMP and you can start using it immediately.
Setting DTS-MA and Dolby TrueHD passthrough
Plex Media Player’s Audio Configuration Guide is a little bit vague in explaining how to enable HD audio passthrough. But for Intel NUC, the key is to select the right Device type and Device under Settings > Audio panel.
- Device type: HDMI
- Channels: 7.1 (depending on your audio receiver’s input/output capability)
- Device: HDA Intel PCH, HDMI 0/HDMI Audio Out
- Normalize Downmixed Volume: No
- Show Advanced Settings: Yes
- Dolby Digital (AC3): Yes
- DTS (DCA): Yes
- Dolby Digital Plus (EAC3): Yes
- DTS-HD Master Audio: Yes
- Dolby TrueHD: Yes
Maximizing control from Logitech Harmony
If you own a Logitech Harmony IR remote*, Intel NUC5CPYH already has its own profile on MyHarmony application. Just add a new device and put these values:
- Manufacturer: Intel
- Device Model Number: NUC5CPYH
* Logitech remotes based on Harmony Smart Control hub such as Harmony Elite or using RF signal may require different configuration.
You should already be able to use the remote for basic commands. However if you really want to have more control, you need to create your own inputmap. To save you the trouble of capturing each of the Button Name from the default NUC5CPYH profile, you can refer to my notes below from my Harmony One remote.
Button Name Harmony Button
KEY_SLEEP Power Toggle
Now that you know which buttons are recognized as which by PMP, all you need to do is to create a custom inputmap file to your preference and upload it using SSH/SFTP to the NUC under /storage/.local/share/plexmediaplayer/inputmaps/ directory. By the way, the remote is recognized as LIRC.
Here is how I set mine:
"name": "LIRC IR",
"KEY_FASTFORWARD" : "seek_forward",
Once you done that, restart PMP. The final step is to reflect the changes on your Harmony devices and activities settings. You probably want to change the labels on the screen buttons.
This tiny device works like a charm! Thanks to hardware acceleration available on Braswell and newer chipsets, the NUC handles all video format I have been throwing at it like a boss.
It has no problems in handling 1080p HEVC (8-bit) videos. Over a dozen videos, only one which had one dropped frames occasion, but I think that was caused by network hiccup and not because the CPU/GPU was out of breath. Since this is an embedded app, I could not measure the hardware usage. What I can tell is the NUC never gets hot, or even warm, so it is certainly not stressed when decoding those movies.
The NUC Blog says that it should be able to handle 4k HEVC videos. My TV is not 4k yet, so not something I wanted to try, but good to know that it has some future-proofing.
Audio passthrough is perfect also. I can finally see the HDSUR. icon showing up on my Yamaha YSP-2500 Soundbar.
Mission accomplished. The Intel NUC5CPYH is a wonderful upgrade from Minix Z64 for a small budget dedicated HTPC.
Reader’s tip: Stuttering Issue
In case you are seeing stuttering with during video playback, and not related to audio output configuration, you may want to try enabling Allow Display Mode Switching under Settings > Video. Thanks for the note, Joe!