Log The portaNUC - turning a NUC into a UMPC handheld system

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A while back I first heard about the LattePanda Alpha and it's an interesting little SoC machine that can be gaming-capable and is actually in reach for many potential buyers. While the prospect of eGPU is very interesting (some even pairing up with a Titan to truly test its bottlenecks), I find more interest adapting it into a handheld form factor.

The LP Alpha is more out of my budget, so I want to see what I can accomplish under $400, with similar performance. I chose a 6th generation Intel NUC with Iris graphics. I wouldn't be the first to make a portable system out of a NUC- that was done already with Project Scout, and it serves as one of my inspirations.

This budget should include the computer itself, additional hardware, case, and power management. The form factor is going to be roughly the size of a 7-to-8 inch netbook, or like the mini gaming PCs that seem to be getting more popular. That will probably be the biggest driving factor to how much I will need to DIY for the design.

To make it a UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC), it needs the following:
  • Built-in controls
  • Screen
  • Batteries
A ton of handheld Pi-based systems already exist but rarely do I see ones based on a NUC so I think that would be a nice challenge to do.

Here's a render of what you can expect for the parts layout to be like inside its case.





It can support Windows 10 but maybe I don't always want to use Windows. This handheld would serve both as a light Linux handheld/desktop to play less-demanding games natively, and play the more-demanding games with Steam Link. It's no Ryzen APU, but the GPU should manage fine for 1024x600.

The enclosure design, though it should be simple in the exterior, I also want it to be well-thought out. Some have paired their LP with Nintendo Joy-Cons but those are rather pricey and also I don't care much for the look and feel of them as my hands cramp easily using them for extended periods of time. That's why I am going with the PG-9038S joystick. I prefer a "Xbox-like" look and grip, plus they look more adaptable, being a third party controller for tablets.
 
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thewizzard1

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There are some very nice "HUD" style displays from companies in China, sold via Ebay - 4-7" 1080p and greater resolution, connectivity via HDMI and DP.

I picked up a 3.5" 1440x1440 display for a Game Boy mod last year.
 

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There are some very nice "HUD" style displays from companies in China, sold via Ebay - 4-7" 1080p and greater resolution, connectivity via HDMI and DP.

I picked up a 3.5" 1440x1440 display for a Game Boy mod last year.
Know of any brands with those HD displays at that size? All I could find on AliExpress for 4-7" are displays made for Raspberry Pi and go up to 1024x600.
 

Gilles3000

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Just wondering, why not go for a wired controller? Should have lower latency and you wouldn't have to worry about charging it.

I think the GameSir X2 is currently considered to be the best affordable one (About $60)
 

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The GameSir X2 does look like a nice controller. I just hope I can make the whole enclosure under 167mm long, as that's the maximum length that the controller allows.

The LattePanda screen is 180mm long, bezel included. A benefit of going with that screen over the third-party screens is that it uses its own ribbon connectors so you don't have to consume additional USB or HDMI ports on the board. A third-party screen can be potentially smaller. Its tradeoff is that it will need to use up a HDMI and/or USB type C connector (maybe a second one for power).
 

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So looks like the Delta does not have the power connector needed for li-po batteries and the Alpha is still a bit too much for my budget for this project. Looks like I'm going to go towards a more traditional desktop PC route and make that into a handheld system.

A few things to be certain- I won't be using a tablet. Not a lot of connectivity in those and a bit too "plain" for a DIY project.
Gonna be sticking to X86 chips for the most desktop gaming compatibility.

Other options I have found appealing are the Chuwi Larkbox and GMK NucBox. They are very similar in looks and specs right down to the same ports. Probably use the same OEM to make them. The downside is that they have fewer expansion ports (but still have m.2 and microSD for storage not to mention the eMMC).

Going by their external dimensions, the inner boards are around 60 x 60mm. They can be laid out flat (as ribbon cables connect them both) for an area of 120 x 60mm. This is a pretty small footprint which leaves a lot of open space for more components under the screen, and keep the profile very slim :)
 

Gilles3000

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The GameSir X2 does look like a nice controller. I just hope I can make the whole enclosure under 167mm long, as that's the maximum length that the controller allows.

The LattePanda screen is 180mm long, bezel included. A benefit of going with that screen over the third-party screens is that it uses its own ribbon connectors so you don't have to consume additional USB or HDMI ports on the board. A third-party screen can be potentially smaller. Its tradeoff is that it will need to use up a HDMI and/or USB type C connector (maybe a second one for power).
I believe the 2021 version can stretch to 173mm, might help a bit.

I'd probably go with one of 6 inch 1440p displays that come with a driver board. that should give you the high res you need in windows and allows you to drop to 720p with 1 to 4 scaling in games, which should still look pretty good.(If you go with one of these, make sure to get one with full colour and a backlight!)
 
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I believe the 2021 version can stretch to 173mm, might help a bit.

I'd probably go with one of 6 inch 1440p displays that come with a driver board. that should give you the high res you need in windows and allows you to drop to 720p with 1 to 4 scaling in games, which should still look pretty good.(If you go with one of these, make sure to get one with full colour and a backlight!)

Sounds good. I was thinking I would go with a 7-inch display, but if I can buy one with full HD resolution, 6 inch would be fine too. The 2-to-1 scaling would be perfect.

Something like this panel I suppose? Just too bad it's not a touch display, which would be really nice for a handheld system. A challenge would be figuring out where to stuff the control board without making the casing too bulky. But it's not my first time doing this- I did a LCD upgrade for my Thinkpad laptop a while back.

I also think I settled on a mini PC to source the board from. It will come from a Intel NUC6i5SYK. Rather old chipset now, but a Skylake i5 should be at least as good as a Celeron N4100. More importantly it boasts Iris Graphics with twice as many GPU cores as their next best iGPU offering.

This to me is the best affordable option I could go with, as I cannot buy a AMD-based mini PC outside of backing a product on Kickstarter or IndieGogo. I prefer something that is easily available on the market.

So the next step is to buy the NUC and simply test the system out for gaming and benchmarks, and also for power consumption. Battery power is something to be considered but that is further down the line.
 
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This to me is the best affordable option I could go with, as I cannot buy a AMD-based mini PC outside of backing a product on Kickstarter or IndieGogo. I prefer something that is easily available on the market.

Think the NUC should be good choice for your project. You could also have a look to the mini PCs from Minisforum. They even have some NUC sized versions with AMD. Another option would be Beelink.

 
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Think the NUC should be good choice for your project. You could also have a look to the mini PCs from Minisforum. They even have some NUC sized versions with AMD. Another option would be Beelink.


That's one of the crowdfunded brands I was thinking about. Didn't know they have their own store for many different PCs now! My current desktop uses a modest Asus Prime A320 ITX with 2200G. But the UM300 looks like a great deal. I have already committed to the NUC (it was under $190) but this would be a nice upgrade for the handheld PC in the future.
 
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Great, looking forward how your project turns out, especially since I had a similar idea for a NUC based handheld some time ago. Didn't follow up though and got a GPD WIN2 instead. 😅
 

thewizzard1

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@thewizzard1 Thanks for the links. And the Wii U mod looks very nice. (forgot how big that screen bezel is compared to the Switch). I see it's using a m5 which is a reasonably more power efficient CPU than the U series of CPUs (which can go from 15w to over 30w in extended use). That's impressive he got a Wii U emu running on that.

However after some consideration I will more likely go with this 7 inch touch display originally made for Raspberry Pi. The dimensions are spot on for the NUC board, probably the biggest I can go with a good balance of screen area in relation to the board. Plus it has the built in touch and speakers. The native resolution is much lower but I probably won't mind it much for actual gaming where framerate is important.

While I'm figuring out what the total case dimensions might be, I'll have to be as space efficient as possible to hook up the display to the NUC. I might have to pick up some ultra slim ribbon cables like these ones and breakout connectors for the tight fit.
 
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I got my NUC two days ago and started doing some test runs. This is probably the smallest desktop computer I've owned, as I don't buy a lot of single-board computers. The aluminum case makes it feel heavy for its size.



Its power supply is also by FSP.



I went out to the nearest computer store to buy a DDR4 laptop DIMM in a pinch because I didn't have any. The cheapest RAM is some brand I don't recognize, Neo Forza, and the ram modules are by GoldKey. I actually took a gamble with this RAM because it's not on Intel's certified vendor list, but it did boot up properly.



First I booted with Kubuntu 20 on live USB, and quickly ran some Unigine benchmarks. Heaven is more taxing on the iGPU than Valley but I am satisfied with how well it ran on 1280x720, one of the resolutions I'm targeting. And that is just with single-channel RAM. More details on benchmarks when I can use RAM in dual channel.

For now, I think the next step is how to add battery power. Either I could go with Li-ion or Li-polymer cells. This NUC can take in a wide voltage input of 12V to 19V, so that makes power setup a bit easier.

I will go over power settings on the BIOS to see how I can make the PC more energy efficient, but in stock settings the benchmarks draw up to 35W at the wall. A 3000 mAh pack at 14.8V- a typical voltage for cell in 4-series- can theoretically last up to 44.4 watt-hours (not counting loss of efficiency). 3500 mAh would net around 50. Alternatively, I could use a lower-voltage cell and a step up converter.
 
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REVOCCASES

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NUC can take in a wide voltage input of 12V to 19V, so that makes power setup a bit easier.

Intel still allows a +/- 5% tolerance within these specs so you can safely run your NUC from 11.4V to 19.9V. Mine would even boot fine with just 10.8V. Maybe this wide voltage range would help to further simplify things for your battery setup and you could run it w/o boost converter.:)
 
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Intel still allows a +/- 5% tolerance within these specs so you can safely run your NUC from 11.4V to 19.9V. Mine would even boot fine with just 10.8V. Maybe this wide voltage range would help to further simplify things for your battery setup and you could run it w/o boost converter.:)

That's interesting to know. If I used 3 cells in series instead of 4, that would make the total voltage 11.1V and for me that's still cutting it too close. Plus I'd only have 75% of the total watt-hours as I would with 4.

I'm thinking of moving forward with buying four of these Samsung 3500mAh batteries (does Samsung make good batteries? Don't know my 18650 battery brands lol) and wiring them up to a 4S BMS from Amazon. The goal here is to make a DIY un-interruptable power supply (maybe even add a LED battery gauge if there is room left for one) following this straightforward tutorial with a 4S pack.


This looks simpler than I thought it would be, and it's mainly a matter of daisy-chaining a barrel jack for the charging input with another (I guess optional) jack that connects a USB-C adapter to the load. However, my project won't need USB-C for power because there isn't a port for one, so this step will be replaced with directly soldering a cable with a barrel plug that connects to the NUC.

The UPS part comes with being able to recharge with a power source and disconnecting it so it runs on battery while the barrel plug to the NUC stays connected. It's still possible to bypass the battery circuit completely to make the NUC use its own power supply as normal, though this requires turning off the unit.
 

Gilles3000

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Yikes at $30 for that PD adapter you'd be better off getting a laptop-grade powerbank anyway. Those usually have some more nice to have features like fast charging and extra ports as well.
 

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Yikes at $30 for that PD adapter you'd be better off getting a laptop-grade powerbank anyway. Those usually have some more nice to have features like fast charging and extra ports as well.
The challenge there is finding one in that budget that is small enough to fit within my size constraints, AND still deliver at least 40W peak output. I want the power management component to be about 2/3 the area of the motherboard, and they should be placed side by side. Placing it above or below the motherboard is a no-go since that would make the enclosure too thick.

Edit: The first thing I found that could fit my specs is this 12 rechargeable battery pack. No volt conversion required, the dimensions are right, and has the barrel plug I need. Would this work? I could even use the extra USB port to power a small monitor. Capacity is on the lower side though, and with that voltage I hope to find something around 4000mAh. Also, I see that these cheaper packs only have one barrel jack. Is it possible to connect a splitter so you could charge and use the PC at the same time, so it can function like a UPS?
 
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Some case design brainstorming here:

The current thickness of the enclosure I can see happening with the NUC as stock is 30mm, and that doesn't take the screen into account. But, the 10mm tall heatsink cooler takes up most of that volume, and if I can somehow offset the cooler, I can bring that thickness down to 20mm!

Then I can allow an extra 10mm thickness for the screen (which should be a generous amount) and I can get the total back to 30mm including the screen. My T430 is exactly 30mm in height with the lid closed, so this is fine for me.

Possible caveats: heatsink might not cool the CPU as well in its offset position. And it will require a different placement for the battery.

I will make some diagrams later to make this easier to show.