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Intel NUC 12 Extreme review: Alder Lake makes for a pricey, portable powerhouse

Intel's NUC 12 Extreme kit.
Enlarge / Intel’s NUC 12 Extreme kit.

Andrew Cunningham

Intel’s NUC Extreme mini PC kits have always been hard to recommend. It’s true that they’re considerably smaller than even the smallest mini ITX PC cases; it’s impossible to fit this much performance into less space if you’re using general-purpose PC components. But they’re also expensive, they haven’t been as fast as standard desktop PCs, and their upgradability has been limited. Those three things essentially defeat the purpose of building a beefy desktop gaming PC or workstation.

Codenamed “Dragon Canyon,” the newest version of the NUC Extreme Kit helps to fix the latter two problems by switching to actual socketed desktop processors rather than soldered-in laptop versions. It’s still an expensive box—you’ll pay about $1,150 for a Core i7 version with no RAM, SSD, GPU, or operating system and $1,450 for the Core i9 version we tested—but its performance now comes much closer to that of a typical desktop.

The NUC Extreme still isn’t for everyone, but if money is no object and you want the smallest desktop you can get, the 12th-gen NUC Extreme is less of a compromise than the previous versions were.

Design and upgradability

The NUC 12 Extreme uses socketed desktop CPUs, which should provide a better upgrade path than past versions of the system.
Enlarge / The NUC 12 Extreme uses socketed desktop CPUs, which should provide a better upgrade path than past versions of the system.

Andrew Cunningham

The external design of the NUC 12 Extreme case, which uses 12th-gen Alder Lake CPUs but is the third generation of NUC Extreme hardware, is nearly identical to the previous version. It’s a long, narrow computer with mesh panels for ventilation on the top and sides and a neon skull LED on the front (all of the system’s LEDs can be customized or disabled entirely with Intel’s NUC Software Studio app). The only change from the 11th-gen NUC Extreme is that one of the USB-A ports on the front has been exchanged for a USB-C port.

The 8-liter enclosure’s volume compares favorably to notable mini ITX cases like the second-generation NZXT H1 (15.6L), the SSUPD Meshlicious (14.7L), and the Cooler Master NR200P (18.5L). The downside is that you can’t use a standard motherboard or CPU cooler in the NUC, though it does appear to use a normal 650W SFX power supply that should be easy to replace if it breaks or if you need to replace it with a higher-wattage model. Your GPU options will also be relatively limited—Intel’s NUC case can take cards up to 12 inches long, but you’ll be limited to dual-slot cards. We tested ours with an Asus Dual GeForce RTX 3060 GPU installed, and while larger cards can fit, you definitely won’t be able to cram most Radeon RX 6900 XT or RTX 3080 models into it.

You'll be limited to dual-slot, 12-inch-long GPUs in the NUC's enclosure.
Enlarge / You’ll be limited to dual-slot, 12-inch-long GPUs in the NUC’s enclosure.

Andrew Cunningham

The 12th-gen model’s internal design is also similar to the previous model’s, so much so that you could upgrade the previous enclosure with the newer Compute Element board if you bought it separately. Intel’s Compute Element board and your GPU both plug in to a daughterboard at the bottom of the case, allowing them both to sit parallel to one another without requiring the use of flimsy or finicky PCIe riser cables.

One welcome internal change to the NUC is that it now uses socketed desktop processors that can be pulled out and replaced, whereas the 11th-gen model used a soldered-down laptop CPU. This is presumably because Intel has finally moved its desktop chips to its more efficient 10 nm manufacturing process; the NUC’s small size and limited cooling capacity would have been a bad fit for the hot and power-hungry 14 nm 11th-gen desktop chips, so Intel opted to use a 10 nm 11th-gen laptop CPU with the power limits turned up instead. An actual CPU socket will be particularly handy if 13th-gen Intel CPUs continue to be compatible with the LGA1700 socket and 600-series chipsets.

The NUC has plenty of ports for a PC its size.
Enlarge / The NUC has plenty of ports for a PC its size.

Andrew Cunningham

For a computer this size, the NUC Extreme has plenty of ports, including an SD card reader and one USB-A port. On the front, it has one USB-C port; on the back, it has six USB-A ports, one HDMI port, 2.5Gbps and 10Gbps Ethernet ports, and two Thunderbolt 4 ports. The Thunderbolt and HDMI ports can be used to drive displays if you don’t have a GPU installed or if you want to hook displays to both the integrated GPU and the dedicated GPU. This is a narrow use case, but being able to connect half a dozen monitors to a PC this size makes it a pretty flexible workstation.

Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.2 are integrated on the board, courtesy of Intel’s AX211 Wi-Fi chipset, and the NUC has two slots for PCIe 4.0 NVMe SSDs and a pair of DDR4 SODIMM slots for user-replaceable RAM. We could ding the NUC for going with DDR4 instead of DDR5, but DDR5 is still much more expensive and much less available than DDR4 while offering only marginal speed benefits. This will change over time as DDR5 gets cheaper, faster, and more plentiful. But for now, going with DDR4 instead is the more practical decision.

The NUC Extreme Compute Element puts the CPU, SSD, RAM, and Wi-Fi card on a module that plugs into a daughterboard.
Enlarge / The NUC Extreme Compute Element puts the CPU, SSD, RAM, and Wi-Fi card on a module that plugs into a daughterboard.

Andrew Cunningham

The whole enclosure can be disassembled with a Phillips-head screwdriver. To access the internals, you pop the back panel off, slide off the side panels, and carefully lift the top panel up (it has fans in it, so it doesn’t totally disconnect from the rest of the case without additional effort). As super-small desktop PCs go, it’s easy to work on, if only because the enclosure doesn’t let you install big, complicated coolers or a rat’s nest of fan and LED cables.

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