The future of the desktop is headed to the palm of your hand with the Gigabyte BRIX Pro, and just because it’s pint size doesn’t mean that it lacks a serious punch, because under the hood of this baby we’ve got Intel’s latest and greatest graphics technology in the form Intel IRIS Pro graphics. What’s interesting about this machine is that it’s actually barebone device, meaning you need to add in your own system memory and a standard hard drive, or SSD if you’re feeling pimp. What this also means is that you can configure your BRIX exactly how you want. In an age where after purchase customization is happening less and less – RAM is soldered on in most Ultrabooks and many of today’s SSDs can’t be swapped out – it’s great to have this level of control.
The PC desktop space isn’t somewhere I have been too active, at least since the late 90s. However, the portability and compact profile of the GIGABYTE BRIX Pro has me swaying from what I thought was my true love…Mobile. The reason I’m keen to take on this particular desktop PC (as someone who has clearly been in the Ultrabook camp for so long), is that it’s small form factor allows me to look at the BRIX Pro as a portable desktop.
CES is the one the biggest shows of the year and since Mobile Geeks is big into video, we were looking at all the ways that we could maximize our productivity without bringing an impossible amount of hardware. This is where the BRIX Pro came in. It weighs a mere 1.5kg and yet packs the punch of a full size desktop tower. We hooked it up to our hotel room TV and used it to edit our 1 hour daily show wrap up.
Now that you know about why we love it and how we used it, let’s dive into the details.
BRIX Pro Hardware
The GIGABYTE BRIX Pro comes with two options for CPU. Either a 4th generation Intel Core i7-4770R 3.90 GHz or Core i5-4570R 3.20 Ghz, both with new high-end Intel IRIS PRO HD5200 graphics. We’re basically talking about Haswell on stroids, but more on this in a moment.
In terms of connectivity you’ve got mini-DisplayPort and HDMI outputs, Gigabit Ethernet, audio jack, a generous four USB 3.0 ports plus a kensington lock. Open up the BRIX Pro and you’ll see that it supports both mSATA SSD drive installation plus space for a regular 2.5″ hard drive or SSD with a reguar SATA port. This makes it possible to install your OS on a compact mSATA SSD, and also have a much larger 500GB or 1TB hard drive for general content storage.
As I mentioned above you’ll need to pop in your own DDR3 memory – and its also important to note that you will need to install DDR3L SO-DIMM modules i.e. the lower power 1.35v DDR3 which is now becoming more and more widespread and available. As well as a Gigabit Ethernet port, it’s important to note that the BRIX Pro also has an ac grade Wi-Fi plus Bluetooth 4.0 Mini-PCIe module pre-installed.
One thing that I should mention is that it does not come with an operating system so you’ll need to to install and configure your own, and possibly factor that into your budget. We had a Windows 7 professional licence on hand, so we threw that in.
The whole device measures in at approximately 4.5 inches squared and comes in your choice of red or black aluminum housing, depending on whther you opt for the Intel Core i5 (red) or i7 (black) version.
If you’re keen to find all the possible configurations for the BRIX PRO, here is a link to Gigabyte’s website. Also note that the hardware configuration we’re looking at here is the standard retail package. It’s possible some retailers may choose to bundle memory and storage, or even offer a pre-installed OS.
Intel IRIS Pro HD5200 Graphics
In an arguably unusual move, Intel showcases its latest graphics technology on a series of suped-up mobile Core i7 and i5 processor models. Codenamed Crystalwell, these processors are available in 45w and 65w skus. While there are a handful of devices on the market that feature the lower 47w TDP processors – most notably the new MacBook Pro and Asus ZenBook Infinity – the BRIX Pro is actually one the first devices to feature the meatier 65w Core i7 4770R and Core i5 4670R processors.
So what will Intel IRIS graphics give you in terms of actual performance, and what specifically has Intel done to create this new high-performance platform? Well in terms of regular CPU grunt, the 65w i7 4770R is a quad core (eight visible in task manager due to HyperThreading) with a standard 3.2GHz clock, turbo boosting to 3.9GHz when needed, plus a substantial L3 6MB cache.
But for sure the real magic is that these Intel IRIS branded processors also feature 128MB of eDRAM integrated on the actual CPU package. By having access to what amounts a very substantial level 4 cache on the CPU die, IRIS Prp enabled CPUs suffer virtually no bandwidth limitations, allowing for improved throughput and lower latency. In layman’s terms this means a nice substatial boost in graphics performance compared to standard Haswell models.
It’s fair to say that IRIS Pro Graphics are similar in class to a mid-range discrete graphics card. For a realistic comparison, we’re looking at a mid range graphics card like the Nvidia GeForce GT640. Check out these benchmarks. With Haswell, Intel enables full OpenCL 1.2 support in addition to DirectX 11.1 and OpenGL 4.0. If you’re keen on knowing how the HD5200 benchmarked, here are our results:
The Where & When
If you’re looking for a living room or bedroom PC, this is the ticket. It’s stylish and it’s quiet. The only time I heard a cooling fan kick in was when I was doing something graphically intensive like rendering video or during the gaming portion of this review. And when it did kick in, it wasn’t a howl, it was a purr.
During our trip to CES in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, we saw the GIGABYTE BRIX Pro in its element. We spend a good deal of the year travelling to trade shows and every once in a while we get a sponsor that wants us to push the limits of our on-the-road tech. Intel sponsored a 1 hour daily wrap-up focused on developers and what they might find interesting from the show. While a 1 hour produced segment could be done on an Ultrabook, it would mean being cool waiting 4-5 hours for it to render. With the BRIX PRO our export time was cut in half, we saw a one hour video get exported in 2:03min. To give a decent comparison, the same file rendered on a Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro with a Core i5 processor clocked in at 4:22.
We only set the Brix Pro up in our hotel room and to a single monitor while at the office, but it is capable of a lot more. The mini DisplayPort and HDMI port should be able to drive displays of up to 3840×2160 at 60Hz and up to 1920×1200 at 60Hz, respectively and they should work simultaneously. If you add on a DisplayPort 1.2 hub three 1080p monitors is entirely possible or even a 4K triple monitor set up since the HD5200 is actually a reltively beefy graphics card.
In short, adding in a desktop-grade CPU with integrated IRIS graphics allowed us to remain competitive. The portability of the BRIX Pro allowed us take that competitive edge on the road. Welcome to the portable desktop PC experience.
What about Linux?
The Gigabyte Brix PRO does not typically ship with an OS but it is one of the few Steam machines that is being sold and was actually regarded as one of the top Steam machines to hit the street at CES back in January. So what about other open source operating systems like Ubuntu and Mint? According to ArsTechnica the only thing that didn’t work out the box was the Realtek Wi-Fi card (Bluetooth was fine, however). If you’re looking to learn more about this issue, the Brix ships with the Realtek 8821AE chipset.
Although the BRIX PRO has no problem finding a home in the livingroom, bedroom or studio, our usage lent more towards the Digital Nomad. Having the ability to travel with a full Desktop PC has never been even close to reality for any Digital Nomad. Until today. As someone who has loved Mobile and resisted the move to Desktop, I have to admit that when you get to taste real horsepower under your fingers, you may actually stop and take a second look at the machine that gave it to you.
The main difference between the Ultrabook and Desktop, besides the screaming obvious form factor, is power draw. Mobile devices sacrifice performance to give you the thing you need most on the go, battery life. The Brix Pro is a traditional desktop, it has a desktop CPU that doesn’t really care how much power it eats to get the job done, it offers you a 65W TDP where an Ultrabook will only use 15W.
This is the first time that Intel has really been able offer graphics on par with a discrete graphics card but it’s on-chip so it eats less power while decreasing the profile as well as the weight. When it comes to a desktop PC, how much it eats will affect your power bill but who really cares about weight of a desktop unless you’re crazy like we are and plan to carry it around with you!
Currently listed on Amazon at $548 for the i5 4570R version, the BRIX Pro, like any truly ground-breaking and game changing device, is not the cheap option – especially when you factor in the other components you need to add. The Intel IRIS processors will doubtless be the most expensive component in the device, but again, the you’d expect the best graphics performance Intel has ever mustered to come at a premuim.
In short the GIGABYTE BRIX Pro is a really exciting look at where the desktop PC is headed – an excellent example of what is possible when traditional attitudes to size and performance are challenged.
If you still need more, well lucky for you we shot a very extensive review video packed with a bunch of stuff I didn’t even have time to tackle here!