WHEN you think of a gaming desktop computer, you’re probably thinking of a tower, right? Big thing, takes up a lot of space, probably has some RGB lighting?
That’s certainly the most common form of the design, but they don’t have to be that way – as the Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC) project proves.
Intel have been working on the NUC project for a while now and it’s traditionally been a business/educational offering (ie, word processing, general internetting, not gaming) featuring very small form factor chassis which could fit into a cargo pants pocket or large handbag.
The latest addition to the family, the NUC 11 Extreme, gives serious gaming credibility to Intel’s small form factor computing lineup, although not quite with the pocket sizing of earlier systems in the range.
What the NUC 11 Extreme basically does is reduce a gaming PC to its main elements, compressing it into a small package measuring 189mm high, 357mm wide and 120mm deep.
The NUC set-up for retail is bare-bones indeed – it’s BYO graphics card (good luck with that right now though), RAM, SSD and OS (so yes, you can put Linux on it if you want to be a hipster – although that will severely limit your gaming options).
The system does, however, include some other features – notably a CPU (the review model was the i9-11900KB processor version; there are others available including an i7), six USB-A 3.1 ports, two Thunderbolt 4 ports, Wi-Fi 6E connectivity, a 2.5-gigabit ethernet port, and a 650w internal power supply.
There’s four M.2 slots inside for mounting SSDs, and the system can handle up to 64MB of dual-channel RAM too. Cooling is provided by three 92mm fans, and there’s also under-chassis and front logo RGB lighting too, for people who like that sort of thing. The front of the unit features two USB-A 3.1 ports and an SDXC card reader, along with a headphone jack too.
The review unit was fitted with an RTX 3060Ti, 16GB RAM, a 500GB SSD and a copy of Windows 10, which was a pretty good reflection of a respectable gaming system and what most people users will likely be installing in it.
It did very well indeed from a gaming perspective – I had it connected to an Acer Predator CG437K 4K monitor and it didn’t miss a beat, running Borderlands 3 and Control at around 90fps on high settings.
The 3DMark scores were also very good, returning a noteworthy score of 11,254. Bear in mind this was the as-supplied review unit with a standard Asus Nvidia RTX3060 card in it and 16GB RAM, running at 4K – more RAM and different cards/screen resolutions would return different results.
For someone with limited space, this would be a game-changer. You’ve got all the advantages of a decent gaming system in a compact space, and it’s also portable too if you want to carry the box somewhere else.
Given pretty much any 4K TV is at least a passable gaming monitor, being able to cart the Beast Canyon NUC around is a lot more useful than it first appears, even if physical LAN parties haven’t really been a thing since around 2010 or so.
From a space perspective, the NUC 11 Extreme is in the same cricket pitch as the Xbox Series X and smaller in some ways than the PlayStation 5. Pair it with a decent 4K TV and you’ve got an all-in-one PC entertainment system which also has access to all the current-gen Xbox games, and can be used for work and productivity stuff too.
The Beast Canyon NUC won’t be suitable for ultra high-end performance tuning gamers, though – the sort of people who run expensive water cooling systems, fiddle with CPU and GPU voltages, and are looking to squeeze every single drop out of their system.
Don’t be mistaken: This is a powerful system, but it’s mostly air-cooled (the CPU appears to have a vapour chamber type setup similar to a laptop or console, however) so there’s simply a limit to how much overclocking can be done with it. The tech specs for the unit also note the operating temperature is from 0c to 35c, which means it’s not going to be idealto people living in un-airconditioned houses in Queensland or the NT or the northern parts of SA and WA during the summer.
Despite the bare-bones nature of the NUC 11, I think it’s biggest appeal is going to be for people who go “Cool, an i9 processor; I’ll just add a decent graphics card, some RAM, and an SSD and then I’m set” – which is, if we’re being honest, probably the majority of gaming enthusiasts.
It’s a good halfway point between “building your own system from scratch” (which is quite daunting for a lot of people, PC Master Race gatekeeping be damned) and “buying a prebuilt system”, which can be expensive and lack the component flexibility enthusiasts seek.
With that in mind, one of the major advantages (and attractive elements) of the NUC 11 Extreme system is that it mounts a full-size, twin-slot GPU. Obviously an absolute monster of a third-party card might pose some space issues, but a regular size one (12in, drawing up to 350w) will fit in there nicely.
The modular design of the NUC 11 Extreme further adds to its practicality – as SSDs and RAM get larger and cheaper, you can simply swap them out to keep the unit updated, and provided future graphics cards don’t universally turn into behemoths you’ll be able to replace those too. It also comes in a wooden hexagonal storage case with an end that slides out to reveal the unit, which is pretty neat too.
They are currently on track for sale launching from September, and while local pricing is still being finalised, the review unit is expected to sell for about USD$1350 (AUD$1850) in the US, so hopefully our price won’t be too far off that.
The NUC 11 Extreme has shown itself to be an extremely capable gaming system base, so whether you are playing AAA games, streaming, content creation or work/study, the unit has you covered – there is a lot to love here and I’m happy to recommend it as a result.