Intel's NUC Compute Elements hopes to make laptops modular

Will Intel's NUC Compute Elements revolutionize modular laptops or it doomed to repeat the failure of Compute Cards?

Intel NUC Compute Elements
Gordon Mah Ung/IDG

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Stop us if you've heard this one before: Imagine buying an ultrabook laptop or all-in-one PC that could one day easily have its guts swapped out for a faster CPU, faster RAM, and faster SSD.

If that sounds faintly like Intel's failed Compute Card imitative from 2017, it is kinda. But when we talked to Intel officials recently at Computex in Taipei, they claimed to have thought about what made Compute Card fizzle and addressed it.

While the previous version was limited to 5-watt Y-class CPUs, the new NUC Compute Elements can run 15-watt U-class chips. Part of that is helped by the design of the NUC Compute Elements, which uses the backside as a giant heat sink. Inside you'll get an 8th-gen U-class CPU, SSD, RAM and wireless modules.

Intel NUC Compute Elements Gordon Mah Ung

The top of the NUC Compute Elements will essentially function as on big heat spreader for the CPU, chipset, SSD and RAM underneath.

One big departure from the Compute Card is the use of an edge connector on the NUC Compute Elements rather than a custom port style. The Compute Cards were designed to be slid into and out of a larger chassis to make upgrades as easy as possible, or even become portable computing devices you could carry around and slide into a custom dock.

The edge connector also has far more functionality exposed, Intel said. The original Compute Card featured a proprietary connector that offered up to a single 4K display, single 1080p display, four USB ports, and two PCIe lanes. With the Intel NUC Compute Elements, just about all of the modern connectivity in a laptop is offered through the pins.

u cpu map Intel

Intel's new NUC Compute Elements should offer far more connectivity than the failed Compute Card.

In a way, you can almost think of the NUC Compute Elements as the guts of a motherboard in a module that can be put into a slot. Intel believes this new take will allow computer makers to use a single uniform chassis for multiple configurations.

While it is technically possible for a consumer to buy a modular laptop and crack it open and upgrade to a newer module down the road, Intel isn't pushing end-user upgrades as the purpose of the NUC Compute Elements. Instead, it's for smaller PC vendors. While a large computer maker has the resources to spin up designs for, say, a 10th-gen CPU quickly, far smaller PC vendors can't do so. The NUC Compute Elements could help them push new models to customers far more quickly. So maybe this time, Intel's tiny computer has a better chance

Intel NUC Compute Elements Gordon Mah Ung

The NUC Compute Elements is about the size of a business card.

Big OEM resistance

And yes, if you're wondering what the advantage would be for a larger PC vendor to use a technology that essentially levels the playing field with much smaller PC vendors—there isn't. Intel, in fact, freely admits that large OEMs might pass on Intel Compute Elements in favor of their own tailored designs. 

Intel NUC Compute Elements Gordon Mah Ung
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