Humiliate your console with Intel's NUC 9 Extreme, a next-gen system for right now

This tiny, ray tracing-capable gaming PC throws down with systems three times its size and doesn't look like a popped collar. It's insane if you have $3,000.

There are gaming PCs. You know the kind: monstrous RGB towers large enough for a baby to crawl inside of. And then there's the Intel NUC 9 Extreme Ghost Canyon, a gaming PC with an RTX 2070 inside that's the size of a baby.

Maybe you already know this about me: I'm a huge sucker for tiny, powerful devices and the Intel NUC 9 definitely qualifies as one. Call me anti-American for thumbing my nose at big cars and big gadgets. I literally don't have room for space-hogging devices.

That's why I love Intel's NUC 9 desktop gaming computer — it's so small, so unassuming, so out of my way. PCs — gaming or not — of the super tiny variety usually skimp on graphics. But not the NUC 9 — it’s packing ray tracing without the footprint of a gargantuan tower.

I'm also endlessly fascinated by its modular "Compute Element," which combines the CPU, RAM, storage, and ports into one swappable component. The concept is controversial (not to mention pricier than a more expandable PC), but damn it if Intel doesn't deserve credit for attempting something bold in the stale world of desktop PCs.

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Hello cutie

Most desktop PCs are a mid-sized ATX with a 45-liter average volume. A roomy box with space for an ample power supply, motherboard with plenty of RAM slots, cooling, full-sized GPU, storage, etc.

The Intel NUC 9 is only 5 liters. It's smaller than a mini-ITX PC, which is usually about 10 to 15 liters, and more compact than an Xbox One and PlayStation 4 Pro. I love it. I can't stand big computer stations and I’ll always be on the side of technology that takes up less physical space in my home. Intel could have made the NUC 9 even smaller had it made the 500-watt power supply external like its previous “Hades Canyon" NUC, but then you’d have a brick dangling mid-cable, which I didn’t like.

The NUC 9 measures 9.37 x 8.5 x 3.78". Smaller than a mini-ITX PC and an Xbox One.Raymond Wong / Input

On the Hades Canyon NUC, Intel opted for a faceplate with a skull that had customizable RGB lighting. After all, gamers love RGB, even if it's a little. That's gone on the NUC 9; the perforated fascia side panels still have a skull, but the lighting is gone. I don't miss the RGB.

The front is plain (a power button with white LED ring around it, two USB-A ports, SD card slot, and a headphone jack) and I'm fine with that. I’m 100 percent onboard with the minimalist look. You’d never guess this little black box does ray tracing.

Just look at how tiny it is.Raymond Wong / Input

Monster power

Seasoned PC builders will argue with me about the drawbacks of the NUC 9. That its Intel Core i9-9980HK processor, which is a CPU designed for high-end laptops, isn’t as fast or capable as a desktop variant.

Here’s my response: I don’t care.

Not because I don’t want more cores and threading and all the wonderful stuff that comes with overclocking a processor, but simply because I’ve long stopped obsessing about the tick-tock single and multi-core performance of CPUs. For my daily needs, the i9-9980HK is more than powerful enough.

The test rig Intel lent me came stuffed with the below specs:

  • 2.4GHz Intel Core i9-9980HK CPU
  • 16GB of DDR4-2666MHz RAM
  • Asus Dual-RTX2070-8G-Mini GPU
  • Intel 905p 380GB SSD
  • Kingston KC2000 1TB SSD

I’ve been using the NUC 9 for the past few months with a daily workflow that consists of throwing between 20-30 Chrome tabs at it, editing RAW photos in Lightroom and Photoshop, transcoding short video clips in Handbrake, streaming Spotify and YouTube, sending messages in Slack and Signal, recording podcasts with Audacity, and making tons of Zoom and Skype video calls. I’ve yet to see the tiny PC slow to an unusable state.

If you want a more powerful processor for your PC, there are rabbit holes on the internet to go down with all the benchmarks you could wish for. The NUC 9 emphasizes balance — a delicate equilibrium between size, thermal design, and performance — and in this regard, it really doesn’t have much competition.

The RTX 2070 mini, Intel Compute Element, and the 5-liter chassis.Raymond Wong / Input

The NUC 9 is even more impressive when you tap into the RTX 2070 GPU. The one supplied in my review unit is an Asus RTX 2070 mini with dual fans. Coming up from a GTX 1060, there’s a sizable leap in graphic performance. I bought the 1060 as a cheap way to set up an Oculus Rift and HTC Vive way back in 2017 and it’s served me well for VR. But the 1060 has been inadequate for playing new games; it barely cuts it playing games on 1080p on max settings and it wasn’t made for 4K gaming.

The RTX 2070 isn’t a 4K beast, either (that’s the RTX 2080). Still, it’s more than capable of running games at 1440p and even better at 1080p. Your mileage is going to vary depending on the game, resolution, graphics settings, and other extras like anti-aliasing, display syncing (i.e. V-sync). This isn’t a review of the RTX 2070 or glossary on PC gaming terminology. There are literally dozens of variables that you can adjust to tune for your gaming performance.

The NUC 9 emphasizes balance — a delicate equilibrium between size, thermal design, and performance.

This also isn’t an exhaustive frame rate comparison, only a sampling of the kind of performance from games I played in 1080p at the highest settings. I clocked about 140 fps in Fortnite, 90 fps in Grand Theft Auto V; 115 fps in Civilization VI; 200 fps in Overwatch; 90 fps in Shadow of the Tomb Raider; and 120 fps in Battlefield V. Gamers with a GTX 1080 will balk at the nearly on-par performance, but if you’re stepping up from a weaker GPU like I am, it’s like a whole new world.

The latter two games support ray tracing, which if you don’t already know simulates lighting, reflections, and shadows with eye-popping realism. Just search YouTube for videos with and without ray tracing and I guarantee you’ll gush if you’re a graphics nerd like me. Admittedly, the list of games with ray tracing isn’t very long right now, but that’s going to change over the next few years. And when more games get the new shiny coating, the NUC 9 is going to be able to handle it.

Consoles with ray tracing like the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 will be here by the end of the year. But if you want ray tracing now, the NUC 9 supports it.

Oh yeah, gimme that sweet ray tracing.Raymond Wong / Input

I’ve also been using my Oculus Quest hooked up to the NUC 9 in Oculus Link mode to play Half-Life: Alyx and ho-ho-ho, it’s pretty sick a tiny box like this can smoothly run arguably one of the best VR games of the year (if not of all time).

Randomly gets loud — I expected the NUC 9’s fans to spin up to keep the GPU and CPU from thermal overload, but I didn’t expect them to switch on so randomly. I’ll literally be paused in the middle of something for a few minutes after typing (not touching my keyboard or mouse) and the fans will kick up. The noise fluctuates randomly with different tasks. Sometimes it’s loud when I’m doing nothing, silent when I’m throwing heavy Lightroom workflows at it, or a relative hum when gaming or streaming Spotify. Other times it’s the complete opposite for the same tasks.

It’s really strange and says a lot about the unusual way Intel essentially split the system between two core components: the GPU and the modular “Compute Element.”

Cloudy upgrade path

Without opening the NUC 9 or knowing anything about it, you might think it’s just a regular desktop PC, only a lot smaller. But you’d be wrong. Busting open the NUC 9 reveals the GPU and the Compute Element. This plug-and-play PCIe module houses the CPU, RAM slots, M.2 SSD storage slots, vapor chamber and fan, ports, and wireless networking. There’s a third M.2 SSD slot, but that’s outside of the Compute Element and has its own heatsink.

The idea with the Compute Element is that you could essentially buy a new Compute Element come upgrade time in the future and within a few minutes have a brand new system without needing to perform major surgery. Like many attempts to simplify computer modding, the Compute Element sounds great on paper. Hurray for simplicity and modularity! But at the end of the day, it may be little more than a beautiful dream.

Because the CPU is permanently soldered inside of the Compute Element, you can’t replace it without buying a whole new Compute Element with new RAM and storage slots, ports, etc. You can probably see where I’m going with this: things get expensive. The reason the typical desktop PC design has prevailed for so many decades is because you’re not throwing away most of the computer; you upgrade only the parts you need.

I love the tiny size. But the Compute Element isn't quite plug and play.Raymond Wong / Input

I’m all for plug-and-play and — boom — new computer in less time than it takes to cook dinner. But forcing users to pay again for cooling, ports, and wireless networking is silly. It makes some sense if you’re getting brand new I/O or faster ones (i.e. USB 4 down the road) or faster wireless networking (i.e. new versions of Wi-Fi or Bluetooth), but I’m not convinced that would be enough to get many people to pay more for a whole new Compute Element instead of only the individual parts they want to replace.

The environmentalist in me is already concerned about the amount of e-waste Compute Elements introduce. Modular designs have the ability to reduce e-waste, but only when it’s made up of many replaceable parts. Unfortunately, a large chunk of the Compute Element isn’t.

I also wouldn’t say the Compute Element is super easy to access. To get to it, I still needed to pull out a handful of screws, detach a whole bunch of cables and then carefully squeeze the module out. Taking apart the NUC 9 made me really appreciate Intel’s engineering feat — everything is crammed in with virtually no space wasted — but it also revealed its fragility. If I wasn’t careful, I’m sure I would have broken something.

There's also no guarantee Intel's Compute Element initiative will go very far. For example, the Compute Card was a similar idea that packed a CPU, RAM, storage, and wireless networking into a package a little larger than a credit card. But Intel abandoned the product last year. The Compute Element's silver lining is that Intel has wrangled PC makers into making their own modular systems that support it. At CES, we saw Razer's Tomahawk, which is larger than the NUC 9, but more plug and play. Cooler Master's NC100 is another compact gaming PC that's compatible with Compute Elements.

Paying for size

The NUC 9 is tiny, but it's not lacking in ports.Raymond Wong / Input

The recent unveiling of the PlayStation 5 and its enormous Barclays Center-looking chassis made me even more appreciative of the NUC 9’s size. Next-gen gaming graphics and performance doesn’t have to come at the expense of compactness. In many ways, the NUC 9 is kind of what I wish the Mac mini was (if Apple cared about gaming).

The physical space savings don’t come cheap, though. The barebones NUC 9 box with a Core i5 CPU in the Compute Element starts at $1,094. My kitted out Core i9 review unit starts at $1,639. The rest of the computer like the GPU, RAM, and storage, and Windows 10, are sold separately. In total, my review unit costs about $3,000. That’s the price you pay for a powerful gaming PC that’s so tiny. Intel never said the NUC 9 was affordable. Innovative and compact, sure, but not cheap.

No doubt, the NUC 9 is not for everyone. You could for sure build out a comparable and more future-configurable mini-ITX gaming PC with an RTX 2070 for half as much. But it’s going to be twice or three times the size. However, if you have the money to spend, the NUC 9 Extreme Ghost Canyon is such a sick gaming machine. It's small, weirdly architectured inside, and screams. PC miniaturization is a beautiful thing. I just wish pricing for it could shrink faster, too.

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