May 30, 2024


Sapiens Digital

Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit (Ghost Canyon) – Review 2020

Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) mini PCs have long pioneered
making the most of small spaces. Its latest model, the NUC 9
Extreme (dubbed “Ghost Canyon” in the lead-up to its release), is the most powerful NUC to date, and
the first one aimed at high-end gaming. It’s also the most upgradable. Not
only can you change out its CPU, but it accepts a double-slot desktop graphics card
up to 8 inches long, an incredible feat considering the entire PC is only half an inch longer than that.

None of this avant-garde miniaturization comes cheap. Intel’s
suggested price for the Core i9-based, bare-bones NUC 9 Extreme Kit unit tested here is an eye-watering $1,700, to
which you’ll need to add an operating system, memory, storage, and a graphics
card. But it makes commendably few
compromises along the way. (Our test unit rings up right around $3,000 with all the parts, in a deluxe configuration.) Highly innovative and with a lofty price its only
real impediment, the NUC 9 Extreme is the high-performance mini PC to beat. Nothing comes close at its size.

The Compute Element Takes the Stage

A key thing to know about the NUC 9 Extreme: Ultimately, the core platform will come in other forms that won’t look like this PC.

The model I’m reviewing is Intel’s reference design, which is also available to shoppers. But
Razer, for one, has already shown off its larger Tomahawk Gaming PC based on the NUC 9 Extreme platform,
and other Intel partners are expected to reveal their own. A few case makers (Cooler Master and SilverStone) have also exhibited their own PC-chassis designs for the NUC 9. So the NUC 9 platform is inspiring the interior componentry, but it will look different on the outside in other implementations.

Intel NUC 9 Extreme - Front Three Quarter

Modularity, though, is the key common theme of the NUC 9 Extreme. The two-part
kit consists of the chassis, which holds the internal power supply and the
baseboard logic board, as well as the unique Compute
. The latter is the brains of the operation, connecting to
the baseboard via a proprietary, PCI Express-like connector.

Essentially a mini
motherboard that looks a lot like a chunky graphics card, the Compute Element holds the CPU, two laptop-style SO-DIMM memory slots, and two
M.2 storage drive slots. The CPU is soldered to the board, so upgrading it
means buying a new Compute Element.

The Compute Element in our review model is NUC9i9QNB,
featuring a Core i9-9980HK processor. The eight-core, 16-thread chip is Intel’s
flagship mobile H-series CPU
that would typically see duty in high-performance
notebooks. A 45-watt thermal rating constrains its base clock to 2.4GHz, but
this powerhouse can reach 5GHz in Turbo Boost mode, and the “K” suffix on the
chip means it can be overclocked (via Intel’s Extreme Tuning Utility software) to
reach even higher.

Intel also offers the NUC 9 Extreme Kit with a quad-core,
eight-thread Core i5-9300H Compute Element (around $1,050) or a six-core, 12-thread Core i7-9750H-based one (around $1,250). A NUC 9 Pro
kit will also be available with Xeon and Core i7 vPro-enabled processors for more
of a creative and business focus. Intel notably backs the NUC 9 Extreme with a
three-year standard warranty, something that’s always nice to see on a PC at
this price.

Intel NUC 9 Extreme - Rear Three Quarter

The NUC 9 Extreme can be purchased as a bare-bones PC (NUC 9 Extreme Kit, which is
how I’m reviewing it), or as a fully configured system from an Intel partner. Intel
shipped my unit in a lavish configuration that highlights what this unit can do;
the components include 16GB of DDR4-2666 dual-channel memory (two 8GB SO-DIMMs, about
$65 online), a 380GB Intel
Optane 905p
M.2 primary drive ($499), onto which Windows 10 Home
($129) is loaded, a 1TB Kingston
M.2 drive for storage ($219), and the crème de la crème, an 8GB
Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 graphics card ($419).

The video card, in this case made by Asus, is the
most powerful GPU that can be stuffed into an 8-inch mini form factor. It’s
nonetheless a standardized design, something that’s not typically the case with
mini PCs. (A case in point, Zotac’s ZBox Magnus
fields the same basic GPU, but it’s not upgradable.)

The Little Desktop That Could

The NUC 9 Extreme is larger than Intel’s previous NUC
designs, most of which border on minuscule. But it’s still remarkably compact. The
8.5-by-3.8-by-9.4-inch case works out to a volume of just 5 liters. Several of
these could fit inside a typical mid-tower desktop (usually around 34 liters),
and it’s only half the size of a typical small-form-factor tower (about 8

Apart from the skulls printed on its mesh sides, the NUC 9
Extreme isn’t an attention-getter. Some might not even realize it’s a computer
given its diminutive dimensions. It has no dedicated lighting features; only
the illuminated power button indicates it’s turned on. Design-wise, this NUC’s only functional shortcoming is that it can only be
oriented upright, as in the photos. Laying it on its side would impede airflow.

Intel NUC 9 Extreme - Left Side

The NUC 9 Extreme has a port mixture that wouldn’t be out of place on a mini-tower. The front panel has two USB 3.1 Type-A ports, an SD card
reader, and an audio combo jack, while the back panel is home to the remainder: four USB
3.1 Type-A ports, dual Gigabit Ethernet jacks, optical audio out, an HDMI video
output, and a pair of Thunderbolt 3 (USB Type-C) ports.

Intel NUC 9 Extreme - Front

Intel NUC 9 Extreme - Rear

The Asus GeForce RTX 2070 graphics card, meanwhile, has DisplayPort,
HDMI, and DVI-D video outputs. Internally, the NUC 9 Extreme comes standard
with an Intel AX200 wireless card supporting Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) and Bluetooth

Tearing Down the NUC 9 Extreme

Disassembling mini-PCs usually just comes down to popping off an access
cover and peering inside, but the NUC 9 Extreme’s modular nature makes this a
far more interesting adventure.

It starts with the removal of the top panel,
secured by two retainer screws…

Intel NUC 9 Extreme - Top Fans

The two cooling fans in that piece are thoughtfully powered
by a contact connector, so there’s no need to worry about disconnecting any
wires. A view down the hatch shows there’s not even a millimeter to spare inside…

Intel NUC 9 Extreme - Top Removed

With the top panel removed, the sides come off in toolless

Intel NUC 9 Extreme - Right Interior

The graphics card dominates the view. Removing or installing
it requires removal of the crossbar at the top, after which you’ll need deft
fingers and a careful eye to maneuver the card into place. It’s a delicate operation
that convinced me this desktop genuinely couldn’t be any smaller. The NUC 9 Extreme can
supply up to 225 watts of power to the GPU, the upper end of what would be
demanded by an 8-inch board.

The internal nature of the 500-watt power supply (visible at
the bottom of the unit) is highly notable in a world where mini PCs commonly
resort to external, laptop-style power adapters. The power supply’s 80 Plus
Platinum rating implies it’s of very high quality.

Moving on, removing the graphics card provides a direct view
of the Compute Element. The plastic flap toward its front is there to channel
airflow, with a stern warning that it’s not to be removed…

Intel NUC 9 Extreme - Compute Element Installed

The Compute Element may look like a video card, but I found taking out the module to be a hair-raising
process. I needed to disconnect two wireless antennas and three wires along the top corners first, then release the retention lever on the slot where it
connects to the baseboard. Other wires also needed to be
disconnected, but I couldn’t get to those until I had managed to get the
Compute Element partway out of the unit. All told, it’s certainly possible to
swap it out, but I wouldn’t want to do it any more often than necessary.

Intel NUC 9 Extreme - Compute Element and GPU

Should you buy the bare-bones Kit version of the NUC 9, it isn’t necessary to
yank out the Compute Element to install memory or storage drives behind its
service door. Even so, here it is opened up outside of the chassis…

Intel NUC 9 Extreme - Compute Element Disassembled

The two M.2 SSD slots are on the left (the leftmost supports up
to 110mm M.2 drives, while the right slot supports 80mm), and the two SO-DIMM slots
are on the right. Seated between them is the copper-clad vapor-chamber heatsink
for the CPU. A laptop-like cooling fan takes care of airflow.

One note: The Compute Element does need to come out of the chassis to
access the NUC 9 Extreme’s third M.2 slot, which is located on the baseboard. Supporting up to 110mm drives, it’s
covered here by an included heatsink…

Intel NUC 9 Extreme - Bare Interior

This view also shows the PCI Express x4 slot along the front
edge, which was unused (and not accessible due to the video card installed) in our test configuration. Assuming you use a single-slot GPU, installing a PCI Express add-in card
would be possible, allowing even more versatility to be added to this mini PC.

Short of having a socketed desktop-style CPU, the NUC 9 Extreme couldn’t
get any more upgradable.

Benchmarks to the Extreme

Dollar for dollar, it’s somewhat axiomatic that the NUC 9
Extreme wouldn’t offer the same performance potential as a traditional desktop.
A Core i9-9900K
processor, a decent Z390
, plus a high-end case and power supply would come in
around four figures, and the Core i9 NUC 9 Extreme bare-bones kit would command about a 50 percent premium over that. That fatuous comparison, though, assumes that a
PC’s value is based solely on performance per dollar, which is simply not the
case in real-world shopping. The proliferation of mini PCs from Intel and
others is enough to drive that point home.

On the opposite side of the coin, the NUC 9 Extreme can be a
rosy value next to a high-end gaming notebook. The Alienware m15,
Acer’s huge Predator Helios
, and the Gigabyte Aero 15
all command north of $3,500 when equipped with the Core i9-9980HK and a GeForce
RTX 2070 or RTX 2080 graphics card. If we leave out the exotic Intel Optane SSD
in my NUC 9 Extreme, that brings my test sample to around $2,500 fully configured, leaving luxurious
headroom for a high-end monitor and peripherals. On top of that, the NUC 9
Extreme has the desktop-like advantage of upgradability, where a laptop would be limited to, at most, just the memory and storage drives.

For one last value exercise, let’s jump back to desktops. The
NUC 9 Extreme will be available as a preconfigured, ready-to-use PC from Intel
partners, so how does its pricing stack up to other pre-built desktops? Surprisingly
well, in fact. I configured a NUC 9 Extreme from Simply NUC like my review
model, but with just a single 1TB SSD, for $2,583. Compare that to an HP Omen Obelisk
small-form-factor gaming tower on HP’s site for $2,464, or the Falcon
Northwest Tiki
at $3,049. This comparison is mostly to stretch the
imagination; the NUC has a 45-watt CPU whereas those two towers have 95-watt full-desktop-strength CPUs
and “Super” versions of the GeForce RTX 2070, so it’s not a realistic 1:1 comparison. But it does lend perspective.

Now let’s do some real valuation of the NUC 9 Extreme with
our benchmark comparisons. I pitted it against some formidable mini and
small-form-factor PCs whose basic specifications are listed below.

Intel NUC 9 Extreme (Config Chart)

Intel’s previous high-performance NUC, the “Hades Canyon” NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK is the only unit here besides the NUC 9 Extreme to use
a mobile, rather than a desktop, CPU. It’s bound to be outclassed, especially
with its unusual AMD-based onboard graphics. The others are all barn burners, especially the
12-core, 24-thread Corsair One Pro i200, based on Intel’s power-user Core X-Series platform.
(Interesting enough, that tower isn’t nearly as upgradable as the NUC 9
Extreme.) Let’s go.

First up is our PCMark 10 general system assessment, which simulates web
browsing, office productivity, videoconferencing, and mild 3D tasks. The NUC 9
Extreme made a stellar 6,683-point showing, or far above our 4,000-point target
for high-performance PCs. This test stresses the CPU in spurts, not for
extended periods, so its mobile CPU was able to make liberal use of its 5GHz
Turbo Boost clock, which is what the Core i9 chips in most of the others top
out at, too.

Intel NUC 9 Extreme (PCMark)

Next up is the CPU number-cruncher Cinebench R15, which stresses all
available processor cores and threads while rendering a complex image…

Intel NUC 9 Extreme (Cinebench)

The NUC 9 Extreme scored very well here. It wasn’t going to
catch the Core i9-9900K in the HP or the MSI, which can maintain much higher
clocks, but its mobile Core i9 can get pretty close for short-running tests
like this.

The final test in this section is photo editing. We use an early 2018
release of Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud to apply 10 complex filters and effects
to a standard JPEG image, timing each operation and adding up the totals. This
test is not as CPU-focused as Cinebench or Handbrake, bringing the performance
of the storage subsystem, memory, and GPU into play, too.

Intel NUC 9 Extreme (Photoshop)

Practically tied for the lead, the NUC 9 Extreme again came away standing

Graphics Tests

We use two benchmark suites to gauge the gaming-performance
potential of a PC. In the first, UL’s 3DMark, we run two DirectX 11-driven
subtests, the mainstream Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which is more suited to
gaming rigs. Our other graphics benchmark is Unigine Corp.’s Superposition,
which uses a different rendering engine to produce a complex 3D scene.

Intel NUC 9 Extreme (3DMark)

Intel NUC 9 Extreme (Superposition)

The Fire Strike results show the NUC 9 Extreme in second-to-last place, but
it wasn’t an unpredictable result. In fact, its GeForce RTX 2070 scored right
as it should, with the RTX 2080-equipped MSI and HP units being about one-third
faster. That’s the normal disparity between those cards even with the CPUs
being equal, so the NUC 9 Extreme’s CPU isn’t holding it back to a degree that
matters.  The difference is a bit more
pronounced in Superposition at the 1080p High preset, but the NUC 9 Extreme
still scored well.

Last but perhaps most important, we’ll test
some real games. We use the built-in benchmarks in Far Cry 5 (at its Ultra
preset) and Rise of the Tomb Raider (at its Very High preset) at 1080p, 1440p,
and UHD/4K resolutions. Far Cry 5 uses DirectX 11, while we flip Rise of the
Tomb Raider to DirectX 12. The results are measured in frames per second (fps); we look for at
least 60fps for smooth playability.

Intel NUC 9 Extreme (Far Cry 5)

Intel NUC 9 Extreme (ROTR)

The NUC 9 Extreme’s bravado performance continues here. Its numbers, while
not in the same league as the HP and the MSI, are spot on for an RTX 2070. The
numbers for these same games were practically identical to those in our MSI GeForce RTX
2070 Armor
 card review, in which we tested the card in a “true” desktop

The NUC 9 Extreme’s only limitation regarding gaming performance is
what cards are available measuring 8 inches or less. In that size class, the GeForce RTX 2070
is the current top dog. That precludes the NUC 9 Extreme from being a knockout 4K gaming platform, as the numbers for these games are significantly below the golden 60fps target. But lowering the detail settings a notch or two should make most titles more
than playable at 4K.

Cooling Performance

The close-knit nature of the components in the NUC 9 Extreme means every
ounce of cooling power counts. But it showed no hint of being undercooled
throughout our benchmark testing. A half-hour run through Shadow of the Tomb
Raider saw the Core i9 CPU hover in the upper-80-degree C range, while the GeForce RTX 2070 GPU didn’t
stray above 70 degrees C.

And the NUC 9 Extreme, impressively, was able to do all this while not
sounding like a jet engine. The open-mesh nature of the case means fan sound
isn’t deadened, but it’s still quieter than most gaming laptops I’ve tested as
of late. It’s doubtful this desktop’s noise level would cause a bother in most

One Big Leap for Mini PCs

The NUC 9 Extreme redefines what’s possible in a mini PC. This
one’s desktop-like upgradability is second to none for a PC this size, making it
a superior long-term investment than models that take the proprietary route. The availability of future, peppier Compute Element modules, and what they will cost, remains an open question. But at the very least you can update storage via the three M.2 slots, RAM via the SO-DIMM slots, and graphics using the PCI Express x16 slot.

Intel NUC 9 Extreme - Right Side

Equally impressive is the NUC 9’s internal power supply, as it’s common for
mini PCs to use a clunky external power adapter. This machine just couldn’t be any smaller
to do what it does.

This NUC’s use of 45-watt CPUs means it’s not quite up to
full-size desktop performance levels, but it was darn close in our benchmarks and
even indistinguishable in some. There’s almost nothing that holds this little PC
back besides price. It’s not a cheap PC, by any measure, but its price premium over a prebuilt
traditional desktop is respectably modest (perhaps around a few hundred
dollars), and it’s less than an equivalent high-end gaming laptop.

All told, the NUC 9 Extreme is a mini PC that punches far
above its weight and makes a better argument for the niche than any we’ve seen. If you want maximum performance per liter, choose the right components and let it rip.

Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit (Ghost Canyon) Specs

Desktop Class Small Form Factor (SFF)
Processor Intel Core i9-9980HK
Processor Speed 2.4 GHz
RAM (as Tested) 16 GB
Boot Drive Type SSD
Boot Drive Capacity (as Tested) 380 GB
Secondary Drive Type SSD
Secondary Drive Capacity (as Tested) 1 TB
Graphics Card Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070
Operating System Windows 10 Home

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