Anyone who wants a very compact PC, even more compact than what you can achieve with a mini-ITX board, has been able to turn to Intel’s NUC systems since 2012. These are built around a small motherboard of 10x10cm with relatively economical Intel CPUs. For the first few generations, Intel used its most economical CPUs, but later there were also models with 28W and 45W CPUs and last year even with the 65W and 100W chips with Vega graphics. What you couldn’t get with a NUC until now was a CPU with more than four cores, or a separate video card: serious computing power. Intel is now changing that with the NUC 9 Extreme generation, which was officially announced at CES and is quite different from the old NUC concept.
These new NUCs consist of something Intel calls a Compute Element. That is actually a complete computer in the form of a PCI-e plug-in card. The Compute Element is plugged into a small baseboard to which other things can be connected, such as a separate video card or extra storage. The mainboard has a mobile Intel CPU and two m2 slots, and there is room for two DDR4 SO-DIMMs. Bluetooth 5 and WiFi 6 support are built-in for wireless connections. On the back you will find two gigabit Ethernet, four USB-A, HDMI 2.0a, two Thunderbolt 3 and an audio output. Intel will deliver the Element with three different CPUs: an i5-9300H, i7-9750H and i9-9980HK. Users can opt for a separate Element, or for the whole kit with chassis.
|CPU||Intel Core i5-9300H||Intel Core i7-9750H||Intel Core i9-9980HK|
|GPU||Intel UHD Graphics 630||Intel UHD Graphics 630||Intel UHD Graphics 630|
|GPU base clock||350MHz||350MHz||350MHz|
|GPU Max clock||1.05GHz||1.15GHz||1.25GHz|
|Expected price (kit)||$1050||$1250||$1700|
Intel is not the only manufacturer that will build systems around the Compute Element. The company makes the card available to third parties who can then design their own housing for it. At CES, CoolerMaster and Razer, among others, already showed their own variations on a NUC 9 Extreme housing. At Intel itself, we got a close look at the extreme NUC, also known by the codename Ghost Canyon. In addition, one of Intel’s engineers was kind enough to disassemble the system and answer our questions.
Disassembling that is something that most buyers will have to do anyway, because like most of the current NUCs, this new version will also be delivered without memory or storage medium. Fortunately, disassembly is fairly easy. To begin with, the side panels and top of the cabinet must be removed so that you can access the interior and thus the Compute Element. After you have disconnected a number of cables from their headers, the Element can be easily detached, just as you would with a video card. It is covered with a plastic plate that can be easily removed after loosening two screws, so that you have access to the Element’s interior. There is room for two M2 SSDs and two DDR4 SO-DIMMs.
If you wait a while and look further under the hood, you will see the cooling system. The CPU is cooled by a vapor chamber that extends towards the chipset, which, together with the VRMs, is covered by a large heat sink. According to Intel, this configuration is capable of dissipating 65 watts of heat, which convinces the company that even the most powerful NUC 9 with i9 CPU has the room to perform at its maximum.
Buyers of a NUC 9 Extreme will not only add memory and storage themselves, but most likely also a separate video card. After all, that’s why you’d want this NUC. The Intel chassis offers space for video cards of up to 202mm, which are partly separated from the Compute Element by a small partition. This is to ensure that the fan of the Element does not suck the hot air from the video card. The power supply of Intel’s box is a 500W model, but manufacturers are of course free to use a more powerful power supply for their own housings.
There is also a PCI-e-x4 slot on the baseboard, intended for a capture card, for example. There is also an extra slot for an NVME SSD. In principle, Intel offers the design for the baseboard to partners as a reference design, but also gives these partners room to design their own baseboard. We can imagine that a variant with sata headers or more x16 slots could be useful, or a smaller one that omits the x4 slot. When asked whether Intel also leaves room for other types of cooling, such as water cooling, the reaction was less enthusiastic. The Compute Element is really meant to be used out of the box, although Intel wouldn’t forbid it either.
The NUC 9 Compute Elements and kits will go on sale this month, with partner kits expected later this year. Intel does not sell them directly, but through retailers and therefore does not determine the final price. Based on cost, the manufacturer expects the three models to cost $1050, $1250 and $1700 respectively. For that money you get the Ghost Canyon chassis with the Compute Element, but no storage, RAM or separate video card.
When we raised our eyebrows slightly when we heard those prices, the Intel employee immediately responded by admitting that the system is indeed well priced. For that hefty additional cost compared to a self-build desktop, you get compactness in return. So if you think it’s important that a system doesn’t take up much space or has to move his or her system often for whatever reason, the new NUC 9 Extreme is a godsend. Because never before have we seen so much computing power in such a small system.
To take advantage of this, you must not only be prepared to pay the top price, but also accept that the upgrade options are limited. The video card, memory and SSDs are interchangeable, but the motherboard and CPU come in one package and must therefore be replaced together. No matter how beautiful the system is and how impressive the technical performance is, with the current prices these new NUCs are probably only interesting for a small target group.