A short time ago, we had the opportunity sit down with some of the people at Intel discuss PC building, innovations in CPU technology, and their passion project: NUC. Standing for “Next Unit of Computing”, NUC represents an interesting niche in the computer market. One might simply call NUC a minicomputer, but the range of products within the NUC name extends to a series of laptops, minicomputers and computing modules.
What is its purpose? The goal of the NUC is to provide powerful performance and processing in a portable package. That sounds impressive, but how well does it work in practice?
We got our hands on one of the latest iterations of the Intel NUC Enthusiast edition to put it through its paces. Let’s take a look at what’s under the hood and see how far we can push the NUC.
- Store price: $1180 to $1350
- Processor: 12th Generation Intel Core i7-12700H
- Graphics: Intel Arc A770M with 16 GB GDDR6 VRAM
- Memory: Supports up to 64 GB dual-channel DDR4-3200 MHz SODIMMs (2x slots)
- Storage: 2x M.2 PCIe x4 Gen4 NVMe SSD, 1x M.2 PCIe x4 Gen3 NVMe or SATA3 SSD
- Wireless: Intel Killer Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.3
- Ethernet: 2.5 Gbps
- 2x Thunderbolt 4 / USB4 Type-C ports
- 6x USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A ports
- 2x DisplayPort 2.0
- HDMI 2.1
- 7.1 Multichannel digital audio
- SDXC slot with UHS-II support
- 1x 3.5mm headphone jack (front)
- 1x 3.5mm stereo output jack / TOSLINK combo jack
- Power: 330W power supply
- Dimensions: 230 mm x 180 mm x 60 mm (9.1″ x 7.1″ x 2.4″)
At first glance, it would be easy to mistake the NUC for a router or external hard drive, but beneath its understated exterior lies some pretty powerful hardware. Codenamed Serpent Canyon, the NUC 12 Enthusiast edition pairs 12th Generation CPU technologies with Intel’s Ark Alchemist GPU architecture in a mini PC form factor.
If that last note piques your interest, good! We’re just starting to see hands-on experiences with Intel’s Arc GPUs from other outlets, but this is our first exposure to the newest contender in the mid-range GPU market. We’ll talk at length about performance in a bit and you might be surprised – if Arc hasn’t been on your radar.
The NUC 12 Enthusiast uses Intel’s Arc Alchemist A770M GPU with 16 GB of GDDR6 VRAM. The GPU supports video via Thunderbolt 4, HDMI and DisplayPort. Working together with the Arc A770M is Intel’s Core i7 12700H, a mobile version of the 12th Generation, or Alder Lake CPU, family.
In case you missed coverage of Alder Lake or Raptor Lake, this processor uses a hybrid micro-architecture consisting of Efficiency cores (P cores) and Efficient cores (E cores). The Core i7-12700H is equipped with 6 P-cores and 8 E-cores, giving it a total of 20 threads to work with. Did I also mention that the CPU has a boost clock of 4.7GHz? Not too bad for a mobile chip!
Sticking with the mobile theme, the NUC 12 Enthusiast uses SODIMMs for system memory to keep the profile slim. While Alder Lake CPUs support both DDR4 and DDR5, Intel chose to use DDR4 inside the NUC. For storage, the NUC 12 has two PCIe 4.0×4 M.2 NVMe slots as well as a shared bus path for SSD PCIe 3.0 or SATA3 storage.
In terms of external connectivity, the NUC 12 Enthusiast has just about every connection type you might need for gaming on the go. For images, the NUC 12 has an HDMI 2.1 port that supports 4K at 60 Hz and two DisplayPort 2.0 ports as well. USB connections are in plentiful supply with six USB 3.2 ports (2x front, 4x rear), and two Thunderbolt 4 / USB4 Type-C (1x front, 1x rear). For network connections, users have the choice of a 2.5 Gb Ethernet port or WiFi 6E. The NUC 12 Enthusiast is Bluetooth-equipped with Bluetooth 5.2, 1x 3.5mm stereo headphone jack (front), 1x 3.5mm stereo headphone jack / TOSLINK jack (rear), and an SDXC slot on the front of the unit.
The SKU we received for review was equipped with 16GB of DDR4-3200 MHz RAM and an NVMe drive with Windows 11 pre-installed. If you’re more of a DIY person, the NUC 12 Enthusiast kit can be purchased without RAM and storage and it supports a number of Linux distributions – if Linux is your thing!
From a build quality point of view, the NUC is solid – and it certainly weighs around 15lbs too. with all its packaging! However, don’t let its heavy weight fool you, its design is modest, but not unremarkable. When powered down, the NUC 12 Enthusiast mini PC blends into most office settings. However, once powered up, the Serpent Canyon NUC excels. Able to be equipped with fun illuminated inputs when powered up, this NUC has some addressable RGB lighting to work with. So, you know, it has lights, so it must be for gaming…
But how does do you do at gaming? Let’s find out.
Putting the NUC 12 Enthusiast minicomputer through was an interesting endeavor – it’s a mobile unit that works like a desktop computer. While we’re looking at overall performance, this is our first look at an Intel Arc GPU. So we put the NUC 12 through a series of gaming benchmarks to see how well it would perform in repeatable environments and with a mix of resolutions. By doing this, we have a spread of data that shows varying degrees of CPU- and GPU-bound tasks.
Here’s what we discovered:
In most of our gaming tests, the NUC 12 gave us a decent overall display at 1080p. Each of our benchmarks used the highest in-game graphics settings while disabling any features that could artificially improve performance – except for Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, we ran the benchmark with and without XESS – Intel’s answer to NVIDIA’s DLSS (Deep Learning Super Sampling) or AMD’s FSR (FidelityFX Super Resolution). With XeSS enabled, we saw a performance increase of 18% at 1080p, 36.9% at 1440p, and 67.5% at 4K! While XeSS is in its infancy and adoption isn’t terribly high just yet, this benchmark gave us a pretty amazing picture of what it could be capable of as the technology finds a better footing. This is great news for the future of the Arc GPU!
In Metro Exit, the A770M did struggle, but it squeaked across the 60 FPS line at 1080p with little difference between our passes with ray tracing and those without. This is no mean feat, but it’s also something we’ve seen AMD and NVIDIA achieve with both their previous generation of GPUs.
Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker gave us a good show with frame rates averaging over 100 frames per second. Fate effects and animations during the benchmark were incredibly smooth, even at higher resolutions. As is typical of the benchmarks, Wolfenstein: Youngbloods pushed out high numbers at every resolution while Far Cry 5 (an AMD favorite) drug their feet outside of 1080p tests.
Outside of these charts, I took the NUC 12 for a nostalgic trip to Northrend in World of Warcraft Classic like the Wrath of the Lich King servers made the transition from Burning Crusade. Even at 4K, the NUC 12 held smooth frame rates over 100 FPS as I searched around the frozen north.
My experiences with Destiny 2, however, were not so good. The frame rate was very inconsistent, leading me to believe that there is some more maturing with game drivers to be done as more and more developers start to adopt Intel’s GPU technology.
Thermal Efficiency and Power
While I was recording gameplay, I was also monitoring the thermal performance of the CPU as well as the power through the system. After all, Alder Lake was an incredibly powerful platform. Seeing it at work in mobile form is a bit of a different story though.
Overall, CPU power remained quite low compared to the i7-12700H’s desktop counterparts while the Arc A770 consumed a touch more. This seems to fit Intel’s vision for the Arc GPUs – mid-range performance with mid-range power requirements. During our testing, the total power for the NUC 12 Enthusiast mini-computer remained below 220W in most cases.
In terms of thermal performance, I expected the NUC to be a little toaster – and I was mostly wrong.
CPU temperatures stayed within a decent range, considering the family of processors, and the internal fans kept the NUC’s chassis cool to the touch while venting heat from the back of the system. That said, should you find yourself in need of a hand warmer, it can double as well.
“So, who is the NUC for?”
I’m not going to lie: I was pretty excited to try the NUC. I’ve always been a fan of the potential that exists with modular computers, so getting to actually play with one was great. However, this question is one that keeps coming up in conversation.
Is it a necessity for the average, everyday user? Certainly not, although it could serve as a primary system if your rig is on a workbench. In my summary, the Intel NUC 12 Enthusiast mini PC has a variety of use cases.
It’s for the laptop for the gamer who needs a rugged, reliable setup while traveling without having to damage someone else’s computer. It’s for the person with limited desktop space who doesn’t want to be tied to a portable screen and keyboard. It’s for the content creator who wants to take their content on the go and edit videos or photos from a hotel room. It’s for the tinkerer who needs something more powerful than a Raspberry Pi to power their latest machines.
Is the NUC for you? Only you can answer that.
When I look at the landscape of pre-built PCs and laptops in the $1500 range, the Intel NUC Enthusiast mini PC offers an interesting value proposition to compete in the space it’s priced at. Starting at $1180 – according to Intel’s press release at the time of writing this review, Intel’s NUC 12 Enthusiast mini-computer is aimed squarely at mid-range performance on a mid-range budget.
That’s not a slam against the NUC, it’s actually a compliment for what Intel was able to achieve with it. Will it outperform a full-sized, modern desktop? No, but you’re not going to throw that in a backpack and take it with you. Does it have all the built-in features of a laptop? No, but it offers more I/O options than most while remaining portable.
If you’ve been wondering about the options within the laptop market, feast your eyes on Intel’s NUC line. Intel did tease their NUC 13 Extreme at TwitchConbut that’s a whole different animal!
For now, Serpent Canyon delivered an experience that we would feel confident on the road with us.
The product discussed in this review was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes.