The quest for a cheap but stable NUC: GMK NucBox S

This was not an easy task

Update 2022.08: the GMK NucBox lasted less than a year, running OK until it became unusable because of freezes, onWindows or Linux. The SSD is fine, I’m now using it as a portable device, it may have been a faulty memory… So I won’t recommend buying this very cheap hardware. I went for a Minisforum UM350 that is (for now) more reliable. To be continued…

Original story: a few month ago, I decided to get rid of my ASUS Rog 2014 laptop. Mostly because of its weight and defective battery, thought it could run any GNU/Linux distro quite smoothly (as any old hardware can). I wanted to try something new for my small home desk, one of my objective being to keep cable and wires to the bare minimum — bluetooth keyboard and mouse, no battery adapter etc — and go for a low power consumption device.

For three years I’ve been running GNU/Linux OS as my daily drivers, and frequently played with RaspberryPis. I would have loved to use a RPi4 or 400 as my daily driver, but these machines can’t provide a decent Web-browsing experience for now.

So after a month scrolling the Web, reading tests and feedbacks I got myself a GMK NucBox S, a cheap NUC produced by the Chinese company GMKtec. This barebone computer comes with decent hardware for desktop computing (not gaming, that is not our point here), HDMI output and 2 USB3 ports. I went for the 512GB SSD for comfort, and it costed me 170€. Quite affordable for what I wanted to become my main desktop computer.

GMK specifications, typo included (‘Cerelon’, srsly?…)

The unit comes with Windows 10 preinstalled: I just wiped the disk.

From there began a complicated journey to the right GNU/Linux distro. I installed 10 distributions (full system install + 1 week of tests) in order to find the most stable, snappy and fully hardware compatible’s environment.

Here’s the path I followed:

Ubuntu/Debian based

  • Ubuntu 21.04: not snappy enough
  • Ubuntu Budgie : fast, but the DE cannot be considered finished yet
  • Xubuntu: bluetooth failure during install, keyboard unavailable!
  • KDE Neon: bluetooth unavailable :(
  • Linux Mint Cinnamon : perfect in the beginning (and I love its pixel perfect desktop) but get so slow after a few days of use! Note that may have been caused by the BTRFS partitions I opt for during install.
  • MX Linux: fantastic distro but so many UI bugs in its XFCE flagship edition! And I’m speaking of my DE of choice. Hopefully the MX 21 edition shipping the last XFCE version will put everyhting in order.

Fedora

  • Fedora 34: not convinced by Gnome 40, wake up issues, HDMI detection issues

Arch Linux

  • Manjaro: the fastest distro of all, best boot time and snappy DEs. I tried 3 flavours: KDE (fantastic DE but mediocre font rendering) , XFCE (feeling at home), and Cinnamon almost perfect as is.

I settled up for Manjaro Cinnamon, it is my daily driver for a month now and it runs quite smoothly for browsing, coding, image editing, and basic desktop/office activities.

Update: after patiently testing every Linux kernels, it seems that 5.4 LTS is the most stable for GMK NucBox hardware: no more suspend / bluetooth issues. Headphones with microphones remain undetected though.

Second update:

Here’s a link to a technical review of NucBox S, with a wide range of testings.

First try with XFCE desktop on Manjaro / Light and fast
Final desktop choice: Gnome 40. No customization except for the icon theme.

You’ll find the details & dotfiles of my DE setup in Gitlab as usual.

In conclusion I’m quite satisfied with this tiny computer. I’m now curious to test the stability of its hardware in time.

And a little warning, despite all my researches though, I can’t seems to resolve two major flaws:

  1. Recurrent HDMI display issues after suspend or when switching between video sources unless you rollback to kernel 5.4
  2. Headphones with integrated microphone are not detected when plugged in the jack input. Bluetooth works fine.

Have fun,
R.

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Rphl-Mstl

Rphl-Mstl

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OS explorer, UI & UX passionate, Voxels crafter, code lover, Video Games player, Podcasts listener, Music amateur // Digital Publishing professional