Intel Beast Canyon NUC 11 Extreme in the test: A real mini gaming PC
RRP $ 1,180.00
"The NUC 11 Extreme is too expensive, but that still doesn't hold it back."
Solid processor performance
Full-size graphics card support
Larger than previous NUCs
On my desk, where my gaming PC used to live, is an empty space that is now occupied by Intel's NUC 11 Extreme, also known as Beast Canyon. It's a barebones kit with welcome tradeoffs that balances desktop-like performance with a form factor smaller than a current game console.
It's too expensive, awkward compared to a full-size device, and a little too weak compared to a desktop chip. But I can't stop using the NUC 11 Extreme. It is an intelligently designed PC that only makes concessions when needed and exists in its own category.
That doesn't mean Beast Canyon is for everyone. It caters to a very specific market – those with an affinity for crafting who don't mind paying for interesting designs. That said, if you don't mind getting your hands dirty (and you have a spare graphics card) the NUC 11 Extreme is excellent.
In 2012, Intel presented the concept of NUC or Next Unit of Computing for the first time. a graphics card). The heart of the PC is the compute element, which you can unplug like a graphics card.
The new NUC 11 Extreme is a tiny PC, but not as small as previous versions. The 8 liter chassis is 14.1 inches long, 7.1 inches high and 4.7 inches wide. The NUC 9 Extreme is larger at 8.5 inches, but much shorter and a little less wide. It also doesn't support full size graphics cards like Beast Canyon.
That is the compromise with Beast Canyon. It's larger than previous NUCs and other mini-PCs, but it supports a full-length graphics card. You can't have and eat your cake, and I'm pleased with the compromises Intel has made. As I will learn in the next few sections, the NUC 11 Extreme still beats its weight class despite its slightly larger size.
This becomes clear when you compare it to other small form factor options. The Cooler Master MasterBox NR200P is one of the smaller Mini-ITX cases that supports a full-size GPU and is still 10 liters larger than the NUC 11 Extreme. There are smaller NUC cases like the Razer Tomahawk, but this device has an older computing element and is more expensive than the NUC 11 Extreme.
The star of the show is a massive RGB skull on the front of the NUC 11 that connects to ambient RGB strips that illuminate the bottom of the case. Fortunately, you can tweak the LEDs and turn them off if you want. With the included NUC Software Studio you can control the skull and the front, right and left LEDs independently of each other.
It's a decent suite that lets you set a solid color or set standard RGB modes like strobe or breathing. You can also use the NUC Software Studio to monitor system temperature and usage, change your fan curve, and switch between processor performance modes.
While the NUC Software Studio offers a decent list of options, it's a little flawed. The software is easy to bounce around, but it would constantly get stuck for a second or two after I changed a setting. It's not a deal breaker, but the NUC Software Studio doesn't feel good.
For my tests, I stayed in balanced fan mode to see the curve Intel intended. There are a trio of 92mm fans under the top to keep everything cool, and they never got loud enough to bother me while testing (even on a Cinebench R23 loop). They make noise, but the NUC 11 Extreme is remarkably quiet given its size. The NUC 11 Extreme was silent when answering emails or hanging out online.
Intel could have reduced the number of ports on the NUC 11 Extreme, but didn't. As with many aspects of the kit, you give up surprisingly little when compared to a full-sized desktop. You are spoiled for port options with the NUC 11 Extreme, and in some ways it goes beyond some full-size PCs.
On the front you have quick access to two USB 3.1 ports, a headphone / microphone combo jack and an SDXC card slot. This turned out to be sufficient in my tests, although I missed a USB-C port on the front. I often use an external Samsung T5 SSD to swap games between PCs and it would have been nice to just toss it in front of the case.
Instead, I had to plug it in at the back, but that wasn't a problem. Even in this small size, Intel manages to accommodate six USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports, 2.5G Ethernet and two Thunderbolt 4 ports on the back of the case. The motherboard also has an HDMI 2.0b output in case you want to use the integrated graphics.
Of course, HDMI out isn't all you have access to when you plug in a graphics card. It's only there to provide the built-in graphics option. So when you add a graphics card, you also have access to the ports it has. In the case of the RTX 3060 in my test device, this included a single HDMI and three DisplayPort outputs.
Compared to the NUC 9 Extreme, this device adds two more USB ports on the back and upgrades the Thunderbolt ports from Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 4. Even if you run out of ports – which is unlikely given the eight USB ports surrounding the case – you can always throw a Thunderbolt dock into the equation to further expand your connectivity.
For wireless connectivity, the NUC 11 Extreme contains Intel's AX201 chip, which offers dual-band Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.2.
Intel offers the NUC in two configurations: either with a Core i7-11700B or a Core i9-11900KB. As with all NUCs, you will need to bring your own graphics card, SSD, RAM, and operating system. Everything else you need is already in the compute element or in the housing. This includes a 650W 80+ Gold power supply and an Intel AX201 chip.
|Central processor||Intel Core i9-11900KB or Intel Core i7-11700B|
|GPU||Support for full-size dual-slot GPU or Intel UHD 750|
|Storage||Up to 64 GB dual-channel SO-DIMM DDR4|
|storage||Up to two PCIe 4.0 M.2 SSDs, up to two PCIe 3.0 M.2 SSDs|
|Power supply||650W 80+ gold|
|USB ports||Up to 12, including eight|
|Thunderbolt ports||Two Thunderbolt 4|
|Networking||2.5G Ethernet, dual band WiFi 6|
|Ports||Headphone / microphone connection, SDXC reader, HDMI 2.0b|
My test device was equipped with the Core i9-11900KB computing element, a souped-up laptop chip that is part of the 10 nm Tiger Lake family. In short, it should not be confused with the desktop Core i9-11900K, which is built by Intel using the 14 nm process and requires more than twice the performance.
The Core i9-11900KB is a 65W chip, but it is still equipped with eight cores and 16 threads and can accelerate up to 4.9 GHz based on Intel specifications. My chip never reached this speed during the test, but it got close at just over 4.8 GHz. The slightly cheaper Core i7-11700B still comes with eight cores and 16 threads, but with a slightly lower clock rate.
Both chips come with integrated graphics, but I was disappointed to find that they use Intel UHD graphics, not Iris Xe like many Tiger Lake mobile chips. As I'll get into in a moment, if you're going to get any decent gaming performance out of Beast Canyon, you need a discrete GPU.
Otherwise, the NUC 11 Extreme supports whatever you can get it to do. This includes up to 64 GB of dual-channel DDR4 laptop memory (SO-DIMM), a dual-slot graphics card and up to four M.2 SSDs, one of which you have to install in the computing element.
Opening everything is a breeze. There's some nice attention to detail here from Intel, including the tiny captive screws on the backplate, a handy door to unlock the compute element, and an SSD slot on the bottom so you can quickly upgrade your storage.
Once you've removed the side panels, the NUC 11 Extreme opens and offers unprecedented access in this small form. The top cover with three fans can be folded up so that you have all parts of the case free. And there's not much going on inside.
Most of the PC is in the compute element, so you have a small specially designed motherboard, power supply, compute element, and GPU if you have one installed. The NUC 11 Extreme has exactly what it needs, reducing the fat that often comes with small builds.
It's not without its problems, however. The latch for the PCIe slot of the graphics card can hardly be reached when the card is installed. I had to slide the back end of a screwdriver between the GPU and the computing element to open it, and you need to remove the GPU before you can get to the computing element.
Support for full-size graphics cards should also be marked with a large asterisk. It's true that you can plug a full-length dual-slot GPU into the NUC 11 Extreme, but that's about it. That doesn't take into account the additional modular power cables that have to share the space with the rear end of the GPU.
The NUC 11 Extreme has exactly what it needs, reducing the fat that often comes with small builds.
However, dual slot is the limit. If your cooler protrudes even slightly beyond the dual-slot mark, it will not fit into the NUC 11 Extreme. Nvidia Founder's Edition cards could also be a problem. The RTX 3080, for example, has a fan on both sides. In this case, a fan would sit directly on the back of the power supply unit.
Overall, though, this is the most enjoyable small form factor experience I've ever had. I have a few minor issues with the graphics card slot and the extra cables, but these are easy to miss with Intel's clear focus on the building experience. The NUC 11 Extreme is still an argument for barebones, small PCs.
The most disappointing part of the NUC 11 Extreme is that you can't buy it all. Adding RAM, SSD, and Windows is easy, but Beast Canyon really shines with an installed GPU. And adding the price of an expensive graphics card to the NUC 11 Extreme's already high price tag is a tough sell.
But the premium makes sense. Something like the NUC 11 Extreme cannot be built with off-the-shelf parts. However, if you're willing to shop around and have a mini-ITX graphics card, there are options like the Velka 3 that are actually smaller than the NUC 11 Extreme.
To get back to the raw power of Beast Canyon, it's more powerful than I expected. The Core i9-11900KB isn't quite on par with a full desktop piece, but it doesn't have to be in such a small package. There's a little compromise, but it's much smaller than it should be given the size of Beast Canyon.
I started testing with PCMark 10, which gives a good overview of performance on a long list of tasks. The NUC 11 Extreme achieved an overall score of 7,520, which is just below the MSI Aegis RS 10 – a mid-tower desktop with a full-size Core i9-10900K. He also beat the flagship Tiger Lake in the HP Elite Dragonfly Max with almost 3,000 more points.
PCMark 10 is also demanding. The processor reached a maximum temperature of 93 degrees Celsius during the benchmark, but never clocked down. Even when it was struck, my i9-11900KB continued to climb slightly above 4.8 GHz.
Next up was Cinebench R23, which pushes processors to their limits by forcing them to render a complex 3D image. Here the Core i9-11900KB achieved a single-core score of 1,636 and a multi-core score of 11,424. The multi-core score is in the upper range, but a desktop Core i9-10900K can still beat it by around 30%. Every other Tiger Lake chip doesn't even come close, however.
The Core i9-11900KB even beats the desktop Core i9-10900K by around 23% in the single-core test. While Cinebench performed strongly, it did reveal some weaknesses in Intel's design. According to HWiNFO64, the Core i9-11900KB reached its maximum operating temperature of 100 degrees Celsius before it clocked down to 3.4 GHz. Even with a solid cooling solution, the NUC 11 Extreme is prone to throttling when it's pushed to the limit.
GeekBench 5 is nowhere near as demanding and the NUC 11 Extreme has once again proven its strengths. Similar to PCMark 10, the Core i9-11900KB beats the desktop Core i9-10900K in the single-core test and takes just under second place in the multi-core test. It also shot way ahead of the NUC 9 Extreme, beating the older device by about 23%.
It's a competent counterpoint to a desktop chip and outperforms all of the other Tiger Lake offerings available.
Handbrake told a similar story. The NUC 11 Extreme reduced our coding time of the Elysium trailer by 13 seconds compared to the NUC 9 Extreme. However, Handbrake showed that the Core i9-11900KB is still essentially a mobile part. Compared to the desktop Core i9-10900K, the chip was a full 30 seconds slower.
Finally, I reached out to PugetBench for Premiere Pro to see how the NUC 11 Extreme would handle video editing. This type of machine seems perfect for the job and my results confirm it. Overall, it scores above a desktop Core i9-10900K, which is configured with an RTX 3060 and 32 GB of RAM. However, this is mainly due to the smooth playback performance, as the NUC 11 Extreme lagged behind the desktop in terms of export and GPU values.
With the NUC 11 Extreme you don't get the full performance of a desktop chip, but with less than half the wattage, that shouldn't come as a surprise. It's a competent counterpoint to a desktop chip and outperforms all of the other Tiger Lake offerings available. Heat was an issue in Cinebench, but this benchmark is a bit of a stress test. There should be no throttling for most tasks.
I only did a few gaming tests with the NUC 11 Extreme as it doesn't actually come with a graphics card. Your performance will depend on what you put into it. Nevertheless, I wanted to get an overview of how the RTX 3060 would behave in my test device compared to one in a full desktop. And good for Intel, there is practically no difference.
The NUC 11 Extreme averaged exactly the same frame rate in Fortnite at 1080p Epic settings as a desktop configured with a Core i9-10900K and RTX 3060. Up to 1440p, only three frames separated the NUC 11 Extreme from the desktop, with the NUC averaging 83 fps (frames per second) and the desktop averaging 86 fps.
That was also the case in Civilization VI, where the NUC averaged 141 fps at 1080p Ultra and the desktop 143 fps. At 1440p with the same settings, the two machines were within a frame of each other. The NUC 11 Extreme's side panel gives the GPU a lot of headroom, and based on my limited testing, cards should work about as well as they would in a desktop.
When you order a NUC, you won't get this performance without adding a graphics card. The UHD graphics in the Core i9-11900KB are pitifully slow for games. They are available, but a bit not an option. In fact, I couldn't complete my 1440p tests because the built-in graphics just wouldn't hold up.
3DMark Time Spy showed how big the difference is. With the RTX 3060 installed, the NUC 11 Extreme achieved a total of 8,953 points. Without a GPU, the device only scored 828 points, less than a tenth of what the RTX 3060 could achieve. Even in Fortnite, I couldn't go over the 1080p High settings as the integrated GPU only averaged 15 fps.
Civilization VI was slightly better at 1080p with medium settings, but even then the UHD graphics only averaged 23 fps. The built-in graphics are not suitable for gaming unless you are ready to shut down to 720p and run on low settings, and even then, some games may have problems.
You should clearly add a GPU to the NUC 11 Extreme. The built-in graphics aren't very good, but the good news is that between a full-sized desktop and the NUC 11, you're practically not giving up when it comes to GPU performance. The design of the chassis allows a lot of air inside, so most cards should hold up.
The NUC 11 Extreme is excellent – as long as you can handle its high price. The kit starts at $ 1,150 for the i7-11700B, and that doesn't include an operating system, RAM, an SSD, or, more critically, a graphics card. Add those in and you're looking at a machine that easily costs over $ 2,000 without a high-end GPU.
It's way too expensive, but that's the point. You already know if the NUC 11 Extreme is right for you. It is not a machine trying to get a certain price or offer a certain value. Instead, it offers an excellent, small form factor design, a unique way to design a computer, and performance that even full-size desktops are a race for their money.
If you've looked at the NUC jealously, it will meet your expectations – provided you have a graphics card to plug in.
Are there alternatives?
There are other mini PCs out there, but nothing compares to the NUC 11 Extreme. Unless you're looking for a boutique case and configuring your own rig, there is no other machine that packs as much power as the NUC 11 Extreme in this small case. Most Mini-ITX cases are not only larger, but also more difficult to use.
That said, you can save some money by building your own machine if you're okay with a slightly larger case or if you can settle for a mini-ITX GPU.
How long it will take?
The whole point of a NUC is that you can upgrade it with a new computing element over time. Assuming Intel continues to ship them, you can use the NUC 11 Extreme until the power supply fails.
Should you buy it?
Yes, as long as you know what you're getting yourself into. The NUC 11 Extreme is not just a mini PC. So, if you're looking for something to set up and forget, a machine like the M1 Mac Mini is probably better.