I love tiny gaming PCs. They’re great conversation starters, not to mention space savers, and you can get close to or the same amount of performance out of them compared to a larger build, depending on the specs. Airflow does become more of a concern, not to mention it’s harder to squeeze your hands into the small spaces, but Intel’s new NUC 9 Extreme Kit (aka Ghost Canyon) makes it so easy to build a pint-sized PC while keeping the components inside nice and cool that I don’t mind a slightly slower system.
NUCs (Intel’s abbreviation for Next Unit of Computing) are a small barebone computer kits. You provide your own storage, memory, GPU, and operating system and the NUC provides a tiny package with a CPU, motherboard, and power supply built-in. They’ve been around for nine years, and typically rely on mobile CPUs in a desktop package, but this is the first NUC kit from Intel that is compatible with a desktop graphics card and its the first to include NUC compute element—basically a card with the CPU on it. That means you can actually take out the processor and upgrade it down the line. (The one I received came stacked with everything needed to run it right out of the box.)
At a glance, the NUC CPU card kind of looks like a graphics card, too, since it connects via a PCIe x16 slot. But it’s the entire brain of the PC encased inside an air-cooled cartridge. A discrete GPU connects right next to it, and ours came with a dual fan Asus RTX 2070 8GB Mini. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to fit any GPU longer than 8-inches into this NUC kit, but for what you might trade off in a small decrease in performance you gain in portability, convenience, and style.
Same thing goes for the Intel Core i9-9980HK laptop CPU inside; there’s a trade off in processing power at base clock, but the i9-9980HK consumes only 45W of power, compared to the i9-9900K desktop CPU’s 95W. And that’s just base power consumption. Intel’s high-end desktop processors can easily suck up 200W if overclocked high enough. That’s probably too much for the Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit, which comes with only a 495W power supply.
Sans a graphics card, Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit starts at a reasonable $1,640, too, although depending on your choice of storage, memory, GPU, and OS you will easily spend over $2,000, which is in-line with what other mini gaming PCs costs. Some direct competitors to the NUC 9 Extreme Kit are the Asus ROG Huracan G21 and MSI Trident X both in price and specs. (Corsair’s One series, while nice, is in a totally differently price league.) However, the ROG Huracan ditches a PSU for two bulky power adapters, and you probably won’t find a Trident X with an i9 processor and RTX 2070 for under $2,000. You can pick up the same GPU that we received with this NUC kit for around $415. Or if you want to save money, go with a RTX 2060 Super mini for around $300, which has near-identical performance and lower power consumption for less out of your wallet.
The Core i9-9980HK inside is overclockable (up to 5.0 GHz like its desktop version), but you want to be mindful of how much you do overclock, since the NUC is only air-cooled and gaming can easily push the CPU (and the GPU, too) temperature into the high 70s (degrees Celsius). But for a no-muss, no-fuss mini gaming rig, this Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit has more than enough power. Does it get noisy when under load? Absolutely. It’s hard to get any quieter than something like Corsair’s One i165, but if you game with headphones on, it won’t be an issue.
And speaking of games, it—unsurprisingly—handled everything we threw it at beautifully, only dipping as low as 46 fps on Far Cry 5 at 4K on ultra. The sweet spot for this machine is 1440p on ultra; that’s where you get the best resolution, the best graphics, and the best framerate. Although you could easily shoot up into the 100s at 1080p, even with graphics on the highest setting. We managed to do just that in both Far Cry 5 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider. The little fans inside might sound like they’re rotating fast enough for the NUC kit to take flight, but there didn’t feel like there was a risk of it overheating; hold your hand over the top and you can feel the fans doing their job to expel all the hot air out efficiently.
If I’m going to complain about anything it’s the small primary SSD storage that came with the review unit we received; 380GB is tiny for this caliber of a PC, especially if you’re using it for gaming, content creation, or both. The Intel Optane 905p 380GB is a pretty expensive piece of storage, too, costing as much as $500, and when included in the overall price of the NUC kit it seems like a bargain, but a lot of games these days take up 50GB, 85GB, even 100GB of space.
There is a 2TB HDD secondary storage, but if you’re looking for fast read/write speeds because you are using the PC to render video or create in 3D, not only will you run of out storage space fast, but you’re not going to get the same speeds from the HDD. However, since you provide your own storage, there are two M.2 SSD slots for you to take advantage of.
And that’s really the beauty of this NUC kit; it’s the best of both worlds. Unlike a pure pre-built machine, you get to customize this PC while not worrying about cable management or other time-consuming aspects of building your own rig. You can pick the components that really matter and get to gaming a lot faster. Intel really came through with its NUC 9 Extreme Kit, and if you don’t like the case it comes in, you can buy the compute unit separate and put it in a different case. Just bring your own components.
- There’s a total of eight USB ports: Six USB 3.1 Gen2, two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C.
- SDXC card slot and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
- The total volume is only five liters.
- Proof that your PC doesn’t need RGB to be badass.