The Intel NUC 9 system could be the first step in reinventing the desktop PC. Patrick explains what a NUC is, what innovations it brings and what stumbling blocks are still on the way.
The trend towards putting computers in ever smaller and fancier cases has been observable for a number of years. The first Mac Mini, for example, was introduced 15 years ago, and numerous other manufacturers have been offering similar devices for several years. I am thinking of the ThinkCentre computers from Lenovo and the Veriton range from Acer, for example.
Even in the do-it-yourself segment, computers have become more and more compact in recent years. ITX systems with mini housings and small mainboards are very popular with many users and are even comparatively modular. However, they do not achieve the compactness of a Mac Mini or a game console.
Intel is shrinking the desktop PC
Intel is now facing the challenge of combining compactness and modularity in one PC with its new NUC 9 Extreme and the compute element it contains. The device was presented at the beginning of the year at the CES in Las Vegas, and it will go on sale in the course of the summer.
The abbreviation NUC stands for “Next Unit of Computing” and already formulates the demands that Intel has on its new product. Intel itself offers a preconfigured system called NUC 9 Extreme Ghost Canyon, which, with its dimensions of 238 x 216 x 96 millimeters, is even more compact than a PlayStation 4 Pro. However, it can be equipped with significantly more powerful technology and is fully modular on top of that. This design is made possible because Intel is offering a completely new component with the NUC Compute Element, which represents a small revolution for computers.
The NUC compute element: mini mainboard with processor
The Compute Element is perhaps the most exciting product Intel has delivered in years. With it, the manufacturer merges two PC components that are usually inseparable in practice anyway: processor and mainboard. Intel has accommodated both in the form of a PCI Express card, which looks almost like a small graphics card.
Depending on the model, an Intel Core i5-9300H, i7-9750H or i9-9980HK sit on the Compute Element. All of them are notebook processors that consume less power than their desktop counterparts, of course offer a little less performance, but accordingly also generate less waste heat. This is not insignificant for a compact design.
The processor sits under a small heat shield on the Compute Element. All other ports and interfaces that users expect from a modern mainboard can be found to the right and left. For example, there are two M.2 slots for SSD that transfer data over PCIe 3.0. There are also two RAM slots available for a maximum of 64 GB DDR4 RAM. The usual ports for fans, front panel and sound can also be found on the Compute Element.
The Compute Element offers four USB 3.1 ports and two Thunderbolt 3 ports as well as two Ethernet ports and one HDMI and audio output each. The connections are located under an inconspicuous plastic cover, in which there is also a small fan to cool the CPU.
The bottom line is that this results in an extremely small mainboard including CPU and CPU cooler, which is inserted into a compatible housing via its PCIe X16 port. The housing must have a so-called baseboard for this. This is a small circuit board with one or more PCIe-X16 slots to accommodate a compute element and possibly a graphics card and other components.
A high-end PC the size of a console
In our test system, a Cooler Master Mastercase NC100 with a capacity of just 7.5 liters, there was space for an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti graphics card in addition to the element and a 650 watt power supply. The result is a really strong gaming package that every current console and most of the larger PCs can easily put in your pocket.
With 60 frames per second at 4K resolution are quite feasible with the graphics card used for most titles. This is not a new finding, but remarkable, as an RTX 2080 Ti would normally be found in a much larger PC. Thanks to the new NUC system from Intel, it is now possible to press one of the largest graphics cards ever into a 7.5 liter case and still keep a fully modular system.
Within the gaming universe, a PC based on the Intel Compute Element can best be compared with a console or a gaming laptop. These devices also contain a lot of gaming power in a comparatively small housing, but the design is usually not modular. And the GPU in particular is often clocked lower than in cases that offer sufficient cooling performance. It is possible that the NUC system will succeed in breaking these previous restrictions. The chances are better than ever.
The compactness has its price
There are still a few sticking points with Intel’s new Compute Element: So far, only mobile processors have been offered in the first generation and only 9th generation chips. In contrast, the 10th generation is already at the start in notebooks and classic desktop systems. So you currently get neither the fastest nor the newest Intel processors.
In the case of the Cooler Master case, which we had available for testing the Compute Element, the extreme compactness also had a negative impact. I’ve never seen such a cramped and uncomfortable PC case. I usually enjoy tinkering with a PC, but the main thing I was annoyed with was the Mastercase NC100. During the test, I had to move, push or turn almost every component with several modifications. I would have preferred a slightly larger case with a little more space for building and screwing.
If you feel like building your next PC around a Compute Element from Intel, you should take a look at the prices. The brand new technology is currently quite expensive. As of mid-June 2020, the manufacturer has not yet revealed any prices for the stand-alone versions of its compute element. In combination with the in-house NUC-9-Extreme-Case, however, more than 1,500 euros are due for the Core i9 variant, and RAM, memory and graphics card then come on top.
Intel NUC 9 Conclusion: the PC of the future?
When testing the Intel Compute Element, one question kept coming up to me: Why didn’t someone do this before? If you want to build a PC today, you have to get the processor and mainboard separately. It was like this ten years ago and 20 years ago too. That may really make sense at times. But in most cases, when upgrading to a new CPU, a new board is necessary anyway, as boards are rarely compatible with the latest processors after a few years. The concept of offering the processor and mainboard as a combined module that can be exchanged in a few simple steps therefore seems logical to me.
However, this concept is still too expensive to take the market by storm. I hope that Intel will stick with it and introduce more Compute Elements in the coming years, which can also be priced a little more moderately. At the same time, I hope that case manufacturers such as Cooler Master will continue to invest in this system in order to be able to offer alternatives to a classic PC structure in the future.
The concept that Intel is pursuing with the NUC system has great potential. It could easily be adapted from other manufacturers. Why, for example, should companies like Gigabyte and Asus not offer their own Compute Elements in the future, in which they can demonstrate their strengths as mainboard manufacturers? Why shouldn’t AMD take Intel’s approach? Why shouldn’t a manufacturer at some point construct a PC that relies entirely on modules and largely dispenses with cables?
From my point of view, the core idea of the Intel NUC system is: Things don’t have to stay as they are. Some ideas have the potential to change an industry in the long term. This does not mean that there will be no more classic desktop PCs with ATX mainboards in the future. But maybe in a few years they will no longer be the optimal solution for all users.