The desktop PC market has been subject to many challenges over the last few years. However, the miniaturization trend (including the introduction of the ultra-compact form factor - UCFF - NUCs) has provided some bright spots. The recent introduction of the mini-STX (5x5) form factor has provided yet another option between the NUC and the mITX form factor for PC builders. The ECS LIVA One was one of the first mini-STX PCs to come to the market. MSI also quickly followed with the introduction of the Cubi 2 Plus models. The consumer-focused Cubi 2 Plus is complemented by the business-focused Cubi 2 Plus vPro.

Introduction and Setup Impressions

MSI entered the UCFF PC market with a set of models under the Cubi brand. They were based on Broadwell processors. Earlier this year, they launched the Cubi 2 Plus mini-PCs with a slightly larger form factor. Unlike the soldered processors in the Cubi-mini PC kits, the Cubi 2 Plus models come with a LGA 1151 socket and are capable of supporting Skylake CPUs with TDPs of up to 35W (-T series).

MSI initially wanted to sample the Cubi 2 Plus vPro, but, due to some logistics issues, we ended up with a regular Cubi 2 Plus unit. I went ahead and completed our standard mini-PC evaluation routine. After I sent some feedback and questions, MSI realized that we didn't have the vPro unit in hand, and arranged for a vPro unit to replace the regular version. The first sample had a Samsung SM951 128GB NVMe card and a 8GB DDR4 SO-DIMM (SK Hynix HMA41GS6AFR8N-TF) pre-installed. The vPro one came with a HGST HTS725050A7E630 (500 GB, 7200 RPM, SATA-III) hard drive and a single 4GB DDR4 SO-DIMM (SK Hynix HMA451S6AFR8N-TF). Both configurations had Windows 10 Home pre-installed. The regular Cubi 2 Plus was processed with its original hardware configuration, but, the OS was upgraded to Windows 10 Pro x64. For the vPro model, we completely reconfigured the unit. There was no point in handicapping it with single-channel memory and a hard drive for primary storage. Therefore, we installed a Mushkin Atlas Vital 250GB M.2 SATA SSD and a 2x8GB Patriot Memory DDR4 SO-DIMM kit.

The presence of a mini-STX motherboard in the Cubi 2 Plus models makes the ECS LIVA One a valid comparison point. The Cubi 2 Plus models are thicker (155.3mm x 147.9mm x 62.2mm) compared to the ECS LIVA One (173mm x 176mm x 33mm), though this doesn't consider the 2.5" disk drive / ODD add-on for the latter. While the ECS LIVA One can be oriented horizontally or vertically, the Cubi 2 Plus models are meant to be placed horizontally. VESA mounting is possible for both of them. The bigger z-height for the Cubi 2 Plus models enable more ventilation slots compared to the ECS LIVA One. Internally, the most obvious difference is the use of DDR4 SO-DIMM slots in the Cubi 2 Plus (compared to the DDR3L slots in the ECS LIVA One).

In addition to the main unit pictured above, the Cubi 2 Plus packages contain a 90W (19V @ 4.74A) power adapter, a VESA mount with appropriate screws, a user guide and a special cable to provide SATA connectivity if the end-user opts to install a 2.5" drive in the system. The vPro sample already had this cable pre-installed along with the hard drive.

The galleries below takes us around the packaging and chassis design of the two models. Important aspects to note include the completely revamped I/O in the lower part of the chassis. While the regular model has 2x USB 2.0 ports and a SD card reader in the front, the vPro model adds a serial port, a HDMI port and another USB 2.0 port in the rear. The rest of the I/Os are summarized in the table that follows the galleries.

The internal layout of the components in both the models is similar. The gallery below presents a limited teardown of the regular model.

The specifications of the review configurations of both models are summarized in the table below. While the regular model is configured as a powerful mini-PC for home users, the vPro model targets business use-cases.

MSI Cubi 2 Plus Specifications
  Cubi 2 Plus Cubi 2 Plus vPro
CPU Intel Core i3-6100T
(2C/4T Skylake x86 @ 3.2 GHz, 14nm, 3 MB L2, 35W TDP)
Intel Core i5-6500T
(4C/4T Skylake x86 @ 2.5 GHz, 14nm, 6 MB L2, 35W TDP)
PCH Intel H110 Intel Q170
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 530 (24 EU) @ 350 MHz (Turbo 950 MHz) Intel HD Graphics 530 (24 EU) @ 350 MHz (Turbo 1.1 GHz)
Memory SK Hynix HMA41GS6AFR8N-TF DDR4
16-15-15-36 @ 2133 MHz
1x8 GB
Patriot Memory PSD48G21332S DDR4
16-15-15-36 @ 2133 MHz
2x8 GB
Storage Samsung SM951 Series MZVPV128
(128 GB; M.2 Type 2280 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe; 16nm; MLC)
Mushkin Atlas Vital MKNSSDAV250GB-D8
(250 GB; M.2 Type 2280 SATA III; MLC)
Wi-Fi Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3165
(1x1 802.11ac - 433 Mbps)
Ethernet Intel Gigabit Ethernet Connection I219-V with RJ45 connector Intel Gigabit Ethernet Connection I219-LM with RJ45 connector
Display Outputs 1x HDMI 1.4b,
1x DisplayPort 1.2
2x HDMI 1.4b,
1x DisplayPort 1.2
Audio TRRS connector for headset with microphone
Miscellaneous I/O Ports 1x USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C (5 Gbps),
2x USB 3.0 Type-A (5 Gbps),
4x USB 2.0 (including one with charging capabilities),
SD Card Reader
1x USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C (5 Gbps),
3x USB 3.0 Type-A (5 Gbps),
4x USB 2.0 (including one with charging capabilities),
SD Card Reader
Serial Port
Dimensions 155.3 x 147.9 x 58.6 (mm)
PSU External, 90 W
Pricing $210 (barebones), $496 (as configured) $270 (barebones), $683 (as configured)
Full Specifications Cubi 2 Plus Specifications Cubi 2 Plus vPro Specifications

We installed Windows 10 Pro x64 on both models. Drivers were downloaded from the product page and the setup process was uneventful. On the BIOS front, the features in the H110-based regular model were quite basic. It didn't even have a list of storage devices (SATA or M.2) attached to the system, and it also didn't report the amount of RAM installed. On the other hand, the Q170-based vPro model had a much more useful BIOS. In addition to the DRAM and storage device information, there is also support for Intel AMT (Active Management Technology) BIOS extensions. Secure boot options are available in both BIOS versions.

In the table below, we have an overview of the various systems that we are comparing the Cubi 2 Plus models against. Note that they may not belong to the same market segment. The relevant configuration details of the machines are provided so that readers have an understanding of why some benchmark numbers are skewed for or against the Cubi 2 Plus when we come to those sections.

Comparative PC Configurations
Aspect MSI Cubi 2 Plus vPro
CPU Intel Core i5-6500T Intel Core i5-6500T
GPU Intel HD Graphics 530 Intel HD Graphics 530
RAM Patriot Memory PSD48G21332S DDR4
16-15-15-36 @ 2133 MHz
2x8 GB
Patriot Memory PSD48G21332S DDR4
16-15-15-36 @ 2133 MHz
2x8 GB
Storage Mushkin Atlas Vital MKNSSDAV250GB-D8
(250 GB; M.2 Type 2280 SATA III; MLC)
Mushkin Atlas Vital MKNSSDAV250GB-D8
(250 GB; M.2 Type 2280 SATA III; MLC)
Wi-Fi Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3165
(1x1 802.11ac - 433 Mbps)
Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3165
(1x1 802.11ac - 433 Mbps)
Price (in USD, when built) $683 $683
Platform Analysis and vPro Capabilities
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  • ganeshts - Wednesday, April 27, 2016 - link

    Yes, but I have seen that type of behavior (load power higher than PSU rating) in some of the other mini-PCs that we have evaluated before.
  • KateH - Wednesday, April 27, 2016 - link

    The 90W rating is on the DC side; the draw from the wall will always be higher than the system consumption due to heat losses in the power supply. The 102W reading on the AC side means the system is probably consuming around 80-85W DC.
  • BrokenCrayons - Thursday, April 28, 2016 - link

    Thanks both of you. I'd neglected to take into account inefficiencies in the PSU. Still, that is cutting things a bit close. An inexpensive PSU running at 80-90% of its max rated output might not last very long under adverse conditions like say, sitting under a desk in a hot room on top of a shaggy carpet.
  • ganeshts - Thursday, April 28, 2016 - link

    Well, I suspect no one is going to run Prime 95 + Furmark 24x7 on their PC :) It is just a check for how much the max. power consumption of the unit is going to be.
  • HomeworldFound - Wednesday, April 27, 2016 - link

    All of these devices are a let down to me, I want one yet it fails to meet my expectation every time. So many different Intel configurations exist that the market is flooded by products that barely differ outside of the case. Why do none of these manufacturers team up and offer a better alternative to the Intel GPU even in the larger more accommodating products?

    I guess what I have to ask is if I want something like this with the ability to game, is AMD really ahead of the competition or will they be with an improved CPU/GPU combo?
  • abufrejoval - Saturday, April 30, 2016 - link

    I guess the biggest issue is about what you consider "game ready". To you it may mean the equivalent of a GTX 980 ti or even a dual AMD Fury or about 300 Watts of TDP.

    Others are happy enough with the on-board GPU or would love to see an AMD Nano (175 Watts) matched to this form factor.

    This large range of TDP cannot be solved with a single physical design in this form factor and the result is loss of economy of scale, which is what these systems are mostly about: Selling large volumes.

    And that unfortunately means that the TDP is pretty much set in stone and either excludes an external GPU or uses one so weak, it doesn't do any better than what an APU or Intel HD graphics can deliver by themselves.

    AMD is ahead only in terms of the openness of their platform, of where they could go theoretically as proven out by the PS4 and Xbox 2 designs.

    In that theory someone could go and have AMD design a custom SoC a couple of notches above the likes of a PS4, using either 16 GB GDDR5 for OS and graphics or even 16GB of HBM2, 8 juicy CPU cores (4GHz class) and Fury class graphics with a combined TDP of 200 Watts and cooled by something really massive and slow moving.

    At the space and weight equivalent of a gallon of milk you could have a gaming PC, that's even portable (thanks to the handle on that milk bottle) from room to room or party to party.

    Better yet, I'd like to be able to stack two, four (or eight?) of these together, to build an even larger NUMA/SLI rig.

    PCs are still designed far too CPU centric, even if GPUs have long since taken over a much larger part of the silicon real-estate and the value creation.

    Let's move what's left of the PC onto the GPU board (or SoC) and turn the motherboard into a passive backplane with slot form factor sockets for additional (2-4/8) APUs.

    And make the memory system GPU centric with the CPU being allowed to use some of that to bootstrap the games (or even run Excel/SAP during business hours).

    AMD could execute that vision, if somebody were to provide the required cash up front. The result would be an open PC, which unfortunately means that recovering the invest could be much more difficult than it already is on locked-in systems like the PS4 or the Xbox.
  • RayRoy - Thursday, April 28, 2016 - link

    Will there be a Skylake U model in the original Cubi size?
  • ganeshts - Thursday, April 28, 2016 - link

    I have pinged MSI, but they have neither confirmed nor denied plans for a Skylake Cubi-mini. We will probably know more at Computex. If it is not shown at Computex, I think it will not be coming.
  • potf - Thursday, April 28, 2016 - link

    Sorry, only thing missing imho in the article photos is where is the hdd if you want to put one ?

    I would guess on the bottom as there seems to be room for it.

    Asus competition the vc65 / VC65R has at least 2 2.5 hdd slots , 4 in some VC65R versions, and an optical drive (but have no M2)

    MSI cubi broadwell small factors had the option to have msata plus 2.5 drive, and it seems to me that the bottom would be removable in the 2 plus version also, in order to choose between a smaller form factor and more ports, but now it only seems that is a differentator between normal and pro version.

    Otherwise, still waiting to see how MSI will sell them in europe : for now only ref is MSI Cubi 2 Plus-B3610T4GXXDXX Intel Core i3-6100T 2x 3.20 GHz, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD, no OS and I do not know whether the ssd is in M2 factor or 2.5. Street price is around 500 euros vat included (400 USD equivalent).

    The nice thing with selling them barebones is the flexibility, the less nice one is that T processors are less easy to find than standard cpus (55-65W).
  • ganeshts - Thursday, April 28, 2016 - link

    It is is one of the teardown gallery photos, where the removable bottom part is shown separately, and there is a rectangular 'hole' corresponding to where the 2.5" drive is mounted. The 'proprietary' cable to connect the drive to the main board on the bigger segment is supplied along with the unit (you can see it in the package photo on the right side)

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