Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit "Ghost Canyon" Rating: All possibilities
"Intel's NUC 9 Extreme Kit is a unique vision of computing, but far from perfect."
Modular structure with upgrade potential
Excellent connectivity, including Thunderbolt 3
Upgrades are more difficult than expected
I built a plywood computer case earlier this year. With a height of 9 inches and a depth of 5.5 inches, it is an extremely small system. I spent a good thirty hours researching, designing, and optimizing the case that now houses my main desktop PC. It was an enjoyable and rewarding project.
But I could have just waited for the Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit.
The NUC 9 Extreme Kit I received for review had an Intel Core i9-9980HK processor, 16 GB RAM, an Nvidia RTX 2070 graphics card from Asus and two solid-state hard drives: One Kingston 2 TB Drive paired with a 380 GB Intel Optane ride. Note that the NUC 9 Extreme Kit usually does not contain memory, memory, or a graphics card.
With these components, it is way ahead of my personal desktop, which has a Ryzen 5 3500 processor and the GTX 1650 Super from Nvidia. However, the Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit ($ 1,700) is slightly smaller. It's a couple of tenths of an inch less deep and tall, and almost two inches narrower.
No system I've reviewed offers more performance per square inch. The latest NUC is a fascinating, unique and ultimately flawed experiment in compact gaming PCs.
Design and connections
Oddly enough, the Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit basically looks like a NUC. I find this strange because I expected a more drastic redesign given the performance gap. Nevertheless, it has the same square, round appearance as previous NUC devices.
NUC fans may be surprised by its mass, which is many times higher than that of any previous device in the NUC series. However, most people will think the system is tiny. Its volume is approximately 5 liters. In comparison, Dell's XPS Special Edition desktop – our top desktop for most people – takes up almost 25 liters of space.
Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit (left) and home-made plywood desktop (right) Matthew Smith / Digital Trends
That's a big difference. Though larger than in the past, the NUC 9 is small enough to be stowed almost anywhere you want. Place it on your desktop, on a shelf, or even in a closet (if you can guarantee adequate airflow). It is important that it remains small enough to be easily used as a home theater PC.
The NUC 9 has an industrial appearance that does not communicate its unique approach. Apart from the skull logo that is used on other game-oriented NUC devices, nothing on this PC indicates performance. Personally, I don't mind. I will do the job every day of the week.
The excellent selection of ports speaks for the dual approach of the NUC 9.
And it works. At the front, the NUC 9 offers two USB-A 3.1 connections, a combined headphone / microphone connection and an SDXC card reader. On the back you will find four more USB-A 3.1 ports, two Gigabit LAN ports, DisplayPort, HDMI 2.0 and DVI. There are also two Thunderbolt 3 ports, a rare thing that is still unusual on PC desktops.
It is an excellent selection of ports that speak for the dual purpose of the NUC 9. It can hold a graphics card for games, but can also serve as a small workstation for a videographer, photographer, streamer or other creator. The wired connectivity is rounded off by the support of Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.
Internals and upgrades
The NUC 9 Extreme Kit would be fascinating if it were “just” a powerful, pint-sized PC, but there's more to it than that. It contains the Intel Compute Element, which is a working PC that is pressed onto a PCI Express card that is smaller than most graphics cards. The compute element houses the processor, memory and hard drive – although the NUC 9 Extreme Kit is only supplied with the processor. You must purchase the storage and hard drive separately.
Intel's focus for the compute element is on upgradeability and customization. In theory, this step offers NUC 9 owners an excellent upgrade path. The processor, RAM, hard drive, graphics card and power supply can be replaced.
I could even say it's better than a regular desktop because you don't have to worry about replacing the motherboard. By exchanging the computing element, you can also update your port selection, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
That is the pitch. Does it work in practice?
Working with these connections is cumbersome Matthew Smith / Digital Trends
I was disappointed to find that the modular structure of the NUC 9 was difficult. Opening the case is easy enough. Simply remove two screws and slide the top back. However, the adapted compute element is decorated with numerous connections at unfavorable angles. These must be carefully removed.
In my experience, players who want to upgrade a rig are afraid because they don't want to break an expensive PC. The NUC 9 does not solve this problem.
Computing element (closed) Matthew Smith / Digital Trends
As soon as the connections are removed and one last screw is loosened, the Compute Element slides freely like any other PCI Express card. The element is a plastic cover on a circuit board that contains the processor, memory (in the form of two SODIMMs) and solid-state memory.
The processor cannot be removed while memory and memory can be replaced. It is a mobile chip that, like other NUC devices, is permanently connected. That is why the compute element is important. You can't replace the processor without them. This means that at least a processor upgrade is possible.
Calculate item (open) Matthew Smith / Digital Trends
What computer elements will be available and how much will they cost? Intel's roadmap is not precise. However, the company has promised that future compute elements will be backward compatible. Intel plans new Compute Element models for 2021 and 2022. Partner companies will also sell standalone Compute Element upgrades.
Personally, I tend to believe Intel's plan. The company has supported the NUC line for years, although it only makes up part of its overall business.
I expect processor options to be limited compared to a standard desktop, but it might make sense to swap flexibility for simplicity and size. The subtle differences between processors are not relevant to most people, including most enthusiasts. If Intel (or partners) can simply offer a Core i5, i7 and i9 computing element for every future generation of mobile processors, I think that's appropriate. And I'm convinced that Intel will do it.
As mentioned earlier, the Intel NUC 9 Extreme kit I received had an Intel Core i9-9980HK processor, 16 GB of memory, and an Nusidia RTX 2070 graphics card built by Asus. The Core i9-9980HK is not the most modern processor since it was launched almost a year ago. Still, it's a top-notch option in the Intel mobile chip lineup that offers eight cores, 16 threads, and a maximum turbo boost frequency of 5 GHz.
The i9-9980HK ran as expected. Geekbench 5 achieved a single-core score of 1,232 and a multi-core score of 7,312. These numbers are standard in the Core i9-9980HK laptops we tested. The Apple MacBook Pro 16 was a bit slower and the Acer ConceptD 9 a little faster. Remember that while the NUC 9 is a desktop, its processor is a mobile component.
While the i9-9980HK performs well in Geekbench 5, the latest AMD components express it. We recently tested the Asus Zephyrus G14 with the new Ryzen 9 4900HS from AMD. It was competitive with the NUC 9 in the single core and won in the multi core. This is not good for the Intel i9-9980HK. The Asus Zephyrus G14 is a small gaming notebook. So you wouldn't expect the NUC 9 to beat it, but its victory is clear.
Other benchmarks tell a similar story. Our handbrake benchmark, which uses the popular video coding software to transcode a 4K movie trailer, was completed on the NUC 9 in 114 seconds. That is hardly in front of the Acer ConceptD 9, but behind the Asus Zephyrus G14. The Core i9-9980HK also falls behind the Intel Core i9-9900K, a processor for desktops.
I saw a Cinebench R20 of 3,348 from the NUC 9. This is also slightly above most laptops with the same chip, but not at the top of the class.
I don't think this processor performance will lower it in 2020 – not at a retail price of $ 1,700.
It's worth noting that the Core i9-9980HK isn't a problem despite these mixed results. It easily defeats the currently available mobile processors of the Intel Core i7 H series. It also easily defeats previous NUC desktops. This is a fast processor capable of handling heavy workloads like 4K content creation or high resolution photo editing. It will shame the majority of laptops and keep up with some mid-tower desktops.
However, I don't think this processor performance will affect them in 2020 – not at a retail price of $ 1,700 without RAM, hard drive, and graphics card that aren't included in the kit.
As already mentioned, the Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit does not contain a graphics card. You have to get one yourself so that your mileage varies depending on the graphics card you bought. The NUC 9 can be used for dual-wide graphics cards with a length of up to 20 cm. My test device came with an Asus RTX 2070 that fits in the NUC 9, so I tried it out.
I started with 3DMark, where the NUC 9 had a fire strike score of 17,932 and a time spy score of 8,350. This is exactly what I would expect from a desktop package that packs Nvidia's RTX 2070. The RTX 2070 Super is slightly faster and scores 10,136 points in a desktop test package with an Intel Core i9-9900K. The desktop-class RTX 2070 of the NUC 9, however, easily defeats any laptop incarnation of the RTX 2070 we tested.
Fortnite was a breeze. An average of 141 frames per second with a resolution of 1080p and epic details as well as 90 frames per second with a resolution of 1440p and epic details were generated. These numbers are not surprising for a desktop that packs Nvidia's RTX 2070, but they easily outperform laptops with RTX 2070 hardware. The Razer Blade 15 with Nvidia RTX 2070 Max-Q only reaches 72 frames per second under the same conditions. The small size of the NUC 9 clearly doesn't hold it back.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey, our most demanding game benchmark, slowed down the NUC 9 – but only with a resolution of 1440p.
Civilization VI performed exceptionally well. It averaged 120 fps at 1080p and Ultra Detail with 2x MSAA turned on and still 100 fps at 1440p and the same settings. These numbers place a large gap between the NUC 9 and laptops with Nvidia RTX 2070 hardware.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey, our most demanding game benchmark, slowed down the NUC 9 – but only with a resolution of 1440p. The NUC 9 averaged a very respectable 57 fps at 1080p and ultra high details, but only reached 47 fps at 1440p and ultra high. While the NUC 9 laptops with RTX 2070 hardware beats again, with an RTX 2060 Super, which reached an average of 51 fps at 1440p and Ultra High, it falls slightly behind our testbed desktop.
Since the Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit does not ship with a GPU, the main question is: does the CPU hold the system in any way? I think the answer is definitely "no". The Core i9-9980HK is a powerful processor with a strong balance between single-core and multi-core performance. However, it is not the new sharpness and is currently surpassed by newer processors that have just been launched by Intel and AMD.
Heat and fan noise
The NUC 9 Extreme Kit has a lot to offer, but its performance is not without consequences. Packing a lot of hardware in a small space can make cooling difficult, and the NUC 9 encounters this problem.
Matthew Smith / Digital Trends
Fan noise is the real problem. The NUC 9 has several small fans, including those in the power supply and in the processor itself. These fans sometimes have to spin quickly, which inevitably makes a racket. Even worse, the mesh side panels of the NUC 9 do not isolate the sound.
This results in a loud little desktop. The fans of the NUC 9 often race in action and sound ready at maximum speed to drown out your robot vacuum. The fans are unpredictable and hard and bounce back and forth between high and low speed states.
Price and availability
The NUC 9 Extreme Kit is expected to be retailable for $ 1,700 when it arrives at Intel's channel partners next month. Intel also has retail Core i5 and i7 models for $ 1,050 and $ 1,250, respectively. These will arrive within three months.
The Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit is an experiment that looks promising but doesn't quite work. The compute element is a fascinating way to give a very small desktop updatability. Unfortunately, it's not as intuitive as I hoped.
The NUC 9 Extreme Kit is also held up by its sky-high retail price of $ 1,700 – without memory, memory, or a graphics card, all of which must be purchased separately.
Is there a better alternative?
It depends on what you are looking for.
The unique modular design of the NUC 9 Extreme Kit leaves it out without direct competitors. However, you can also combine it with other small PCs such as the Apple Mac Mini or smaller incarnations of the Lenovo ThinkCentre and the HP Z Workstations. The Intel NUC 9 could be a compelling little workstation due to its excellent port selection and promises of future upgrades, although I'm not sure whether its processor performance is competitively priced. It's a great mobile chip, but in some systems you can find standard desktop components for a comparable price.
The NUC 9 is simply too expensive as a gaming desktop. A system configured like the one I tested would set you back between $ 2,400 and $ 2,800 depending on the exact components you purchase and the sales you may be able to make. That is simply too much for the service offered. With an RTX 2070 Super, you can easily grab a desktop for that price, and it doesn't have to be much bigger. The Origin Chronos and Falcon Northwest Tiki are less well known alternatives.
How long it will take?
Like most high-performance desktops, the Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit remains useful for many years. It will easily take a decade or more, although it will obviously fade after a few years compared to new hardware.
Intel grants a 3-year standard warranty on NUC hardware. That's unusual. Most competitors only give a 1 year warranty.
Should you buy one?
No. The Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit, as it exists today, works better as a thought experiment than an everyday desktop.