For the past few years, some of the most exciting developments in the PC gaming world have been around small form factor PCs. These compact machines are a fraction of the size of traditional gaming PC towers, but still manage to pack in cutting edge components, including the bulkier high-end graphics cards necessary for modern gaming. Some are even as small as the gaming PC’s arch nemesis, the gaming console. You could easily use one of these computers in an entertainment stack or just have it sit on top of your desk.
But actually building and owning a gaming-grade small form factor PC requires a level of expertise and patience that can make many enthusiasts question whether it’s worth it all. Small PCs are notorious for being difficult to work in, having limited options when it comes to compatible components, and having poor thermal performance because of their small cases and restricted airflow.
Intel’s new NUC 9 Extreme (also known as Ghost Canyon) is the company’s answer to those problems. The latest version of Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) mini PCs, the NUC 9 is an exceptionally compact computer that packs enough power to run the latest AAA games at high resolutions and high frame rates. It’s also easy to assemble, easy to work in, and has a surprisingly effective cooling system.
The NUC 9 Extreme is Intel’s answer to small form factor gaming PCs
Of course, Intel hasn’t been able to figure everything out, and there are some significant caveats with this system. The first is the price: Right now, Intel sells the NUC 9 as barebone kits, which start at just under $1,000 for a model with a Core i5 processor and stretch to over $1,600 with a Core i9 chip. Those kits do not include memory, storage, operating systems, or graphics cards – which means a top of the line system with a modern GPU, adequate storage for games, fast RAM, and Windows 10 will tally up to well over $2,000.
The other caveat is that Intel’s not exactly using standard parts here. The NUC 9’s main brains are found in a cartridge that plugs into a PCi Express port on the tiny board inside the case. This cartridge is where up to two storage drives, laptop-size RAM, a laptop-class processor, and most of the computer’s I/O live. It has a blower-style fan and a heatsink built into it, as well as Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth radios. Next to the CPU cartridge is where you can plug in a desktop-grade graphics card – though it has to be a “mini” size card, as you only have eight inches of clearance to work with. Finally, the main board has one more M.2 NVMe slot, bringing the total supported storage drives to three. Below all of this is a 500 watt custom Flex ATX power supply.
Those limitations mean you can’t just grab whatever parts you want and jam them into the NUC 9 case and be done – you will be working within a set of finite constraints, much like any other mini PC. But at the end of the day, Intel has managed to make a system that is shockingly small, surprisingly easy to live with, and as powerful as a modern gaming PC.
It’s hard to overstate just how compact the NUC 9 is, given its capabilities. At roughly 5 liters of volume, it’s smaller than virtually every other small form factor PC that has a discrete GPU. It’s even smaller than a PlayStation 4. This is a computer you can easily put in a backpack and take with you and still have plenty of room inside the bag. Unlike most gaming PCs, which are so large they must be kept under a desk or sitting on the floor, the NUC 9’s natural home is on top of your desk.
Despite its compact size, working in the NUC 9 is very simple and straightforward, especially compared to other mini PCs. Disassembling the computer entirely can be done in less than 15 minutes, even if you have little experience building PCs. Since Intel is currently selling the NUC 9 only in barebone kits, you’ll have to take it apart to install storage, RAM, and the graphics card. But it’s such a simple procedure that anyone even interested in this computer should have no trouble with it. Eventually, Intel and its retail partners will likely offer complete systems that are just plug-in-and-go, but for now, this computer requires a light level of DIY work.
There are other clever design bits through the NUC 9’s frame. The sides are all mesh, which helps keep the powerful components cool without the use of a liquid cooling system. The top panel comes off with just two screws and houses two small 80mm fans. There are no wires connecting those fans — the panel has metal contacts on the end of it that meet with contacts in the case frame to provide power to them, much like the components inside of Apple’s new Mac Pro.
Perhaps my only gripe with the NUC 9’s design is it has tacky-looking skulls screen printed on the side panels. At least they don’t light up and there are no other gaudy gaming PC tropes – the NUC 9 is a sleek black box that can work in an office as easily as at home.
The NUC 9 has more I/O than many computers three or four times its size
The back of the computer is littered with I/O, including four USB 3.2 Gen 2 (USB-A) ports, two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, HDMI, 3.5mm optical audio, and two gigabit Ethernet jacks. Around front are two more USB-A 3.2 Gen 2 ports, ideal for mouse and keyboard dongles, a combo headphone / mic jack, and a full-size UHS-II SD card slot. All of that is before you get to the video outputs that are on whatever graphics card you install – my review unit’s card has DisplayPort, HDMI, and DVI options. That adds up to more I/O than you’ll find on many computers three or four times the size of this little box, and makes the NUC 9 a compelling option for video editors and content creators that would make use of the Thunderbolt 3 ports and SD card slot.
For this review, Intel sent a top-line NUC9i9QNX model, which comes with a 9th Gen eight-core Core i9-9980HK processor. This is similar to the chip you might find in high-end gaming laptops or a specced-out MacBook Pro, and has a max turbo peak speed of 5GHz with a base clock of 2.4GHz and a 45W TDP. Compared to desktop-class Core i9, this chip consumes much less power and produces much less heat. On the flip side, a desktop chip can maintain boost speeds for longer periods because it can draw more power. In the NUC 9, this chip can be overclocked, but I tested it using its out of box configuration. This is the best chip you can get for the NUC 9 right now – Intel has not said if or when 10th Gen chips, which are now arriving in gaming laptops, will be available for the platform.
In addition, this machine has 16GB of 2666MHz DDR4 RAM, two storage drives totaling almost a terabyte and a half (a 380GB Intel Optane drive and a 1TB Kingston NVMe drive), and an Asus RTX2070 Dual Mini card with 8GB of GDDR6 video memory and two fans. Were you to build a similar spec NUC 9, complete with a Windows 10 license, it would cost you just under $3,000, which is arguably a very steep price for this level of performance. It’s no secret that you could build or buy an equivalent gaming PC for much less money, but it certainly won’t be as small and compact as the NUC 9. (You could also opt for less expensive components within this build – that 380GB Intel Optane SSD rings up for over $500 on its own.)
This unique combination of a laptop-grade processor and full desktop-level graphics card packs a punch. I was able to run modern AAA games at 1440p resolution and ultra graphics settings and still maintain well above 60 frames per second. Games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider managed 70 frames per second with DLSS enabled, while Forza Horizons 4 was able to average 93 frames per second in its benchmark tool with all graphical settings turned to the max. Star Wars: Battlefront II ranged between 60 and 80 frames per second, depending on how many players were on screen, while Red Dead Redemption II hovered around 39 frames per second with all of its graphical goodies enabled.
Should you be playing at 1080p resolution, as the vast majority of gamers still are today, you can expect all of those frame rates to be even higher. The NUC 9 hits near enough to the performance of a full-size gaming PC with a desktop processor and similar-spec graphics card that I’d say the use of the laptop processor here is of little consequence to performance.
What the laptop chip does have an effect on is the system’s thermals and cooling requirements. Since the 9980HK consumes less than half the power of the 9900K desktop equivalent, Intel didn’t equip the NUC 9 with a liquid cooling system. Instead, it manages to keep the system running at peak performance with just those three small fans. In testing, the CPU would range between the high 70s and low 80s degrees Celsius while under load, and hovered in the mid 40s when being used for light productivity work. Those temps aren’t high enough to cause significant thermal throttling, and are lower than most gaming laptops with the same processor can manage.
The NUC 9’s fans are also surprisingly quiet while under load. When I was playing a game and wearing headphones or using a competent set of speakers, they didn’t bother me at all. The system is significantly quieter than a typical gaming laptop, which has much worse airflow properties and has to run its fans faster and louder to compensate.
I did notice the NUC 9’s fans when I was doing basic productivity work, though. Since this box is designed to sit on top of your desk, it’s never more than a couple feet away from your ears, and its fans routinely turn on and off even while doing basic web browsing. I don’t wear headphones or play music when I’m working, so I found it easy to be distracted or irritated by the NUC 9’s fans. It’s not much different than any other fan-cooled PC, but since those are mostly stored under your desk, the noise is more noticeable here.
Thanks to its powerful components and generous I/O, the NUC 9 might also appeal to video editors and content creators. In my basic video export test, the NUC 9 with my test configuration was able to render a five and a half minute 4K video in Adobe Premiere in about 10 minutes. That’s not as fast as larger desktop rigs, but it’s on par with high-end laptops that have this same processor.
Intel’s past NUC computers have prioritized size and power consumption over everything else, which made them impressively tiny machines that could be installed in a variety of unique applications – even mounted behind a TV or monitor. The NUC 9 is not that – this is what you get when Intel goes for broke on performance and it’s not a direct replacement for the older NUC systems.
What it is, though, is a very impressive little box, with a lot of clever ideas on how to make PCs smaller, without giving up their performance or ability to upgrade components. As it stands right now, it’s trivial to upgrade the storage and RAM, while options are a bit more limited on what GPUs will fit in this small case.
The future of the NUC’s unique platform is the biggest uncertainty
But the bigger question is on whether or not Intel will follow through on supporting the CPU cartridge idea and release new versions with upgraded CPUs in the future. If it does, then the optimist in me says this could be a very compelling and practical platform for those that don’t care to go fully into the world of custom PC building, but also want a powerful computer that can be easily upgraded in the future.
That last point remains unknown, though, so the realist take is that the NUC 9 Extreme remains a very interesting and capable, albeit extremely expensive, mini PC.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge
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