Intel NUC 12 Extreme review: Alder Lake makes for an expensive, portable powerhouse | GeekComparison

Intel's NUC 12 Extreme kit.
enlarge Intel’s NUC 12 Extreme kit.

Andrew Cunningham

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

The latest version of the NUC Extreme Kit, codenamed “Dragon Canyon”, helps solve the latter two problems by switching to socketed desktop processors instead of soldered-in laptop versions. It’s still an expensive box – you’ll pay around $1,150 for a Core i7 version with no RAM, SSD, GPU, or OS and $1,450 for the Core i9 version we tested – but performance is now much closer to that of a typical desktop.

The NUC Extreme still isn’t for everyone, but if money isn’t an issue and you want the smallest desktop you can get, the 12th Gen NUC Extreme is less of a compromise than previous versions.

Design and upgradability

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

Andrew Cunningham

The external design of the NUC 12 Extreme case, which uses 12th generation Alder Lake CPUs but is third generation NUC Extreme hardware, is nearly identical to the previous version. It’s a tall, 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 fully customized or turned off using Intel’s NUC Software Studio app). The only change from the 11th gen NUC Extreme is that one of the front USB-A ports has been swapped out for a USB-C port.

The volume of the 8-litre case compares favorably with notable mini ITX cases such as 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, although it does seem to use a regular 650W SFX power supply which should be easy to replace if it breaks or you need to replace it with a higher one – wattage model. Your GPU options will also be relatively limited: Intel’s NUC case can carry cards up to 12 inches in length, but you’re limited to two-slot cards. We tested ours with an Asus Dual GeForce RTX 3060 GPU installed, and while larger cards can fit, you certainly won’t be able to cram in most Radeon RX 6900 XT or RTX 3080 models.

You're limited to dual-slot, 12-inch-long GPUs in the NUC's case.
enlarge You’re limited to dual-slot, 12-inch-long GPUs in the NUC’s case.

Andrew Cunningham

The internal design of the 12th-generation model is also similar to that of the previous model, so much so that you could upgrade the previous case with the newer Compute Element board if you bought it separately. Intel’s Compute Element board and your GPU both connect to a daughter board on the underside of the case, so they can both sit parallel to each other without the need for thin or finicky PCIe riser cables.

A welcome internal change to the NUC is that it now uses desktop processors with sockets that can be pulled out and replaced, while the 11th-generation model used a soldered-in laptop CPU. This is probably because Intel has finally moved its desktop chips to the more efficient 10nm manufacturing process; The NUC’s small size and limited cooling capacity wouldn’t have suited the hot and power-hungry 14nm 11th-gen desktop chips, so Intel opted to use a 10nm 11th-gen laptop CPU with the power limits up instead. . A true CPU socket is especially useful if 13th Gen Intel CPUs remain compatible with the LGA1700 socket and 600 series chipsets.

The NUC has enough ports for a PC of its size.
enlarge The NUC has enough ports for a PC of its size.

Andrew Cunningham

For a computer of this size, the NUC Extreme has many ports, including an SD card reader and a 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 connect displays to both the integrated GPU and the dedicated GPU. This is a narrow use case, but the ability to connect half a dozen monitors to a PC of 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 use the NUC for DDR4 instead of DDR5, but DDR5 is still much more expensive and much less available than DDR4, while offering only marginal speed advantages. This will change over time as DDR5 becomes cheaper, faster and more abundant. But for now, the more practical decision is to go with DDR4.

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

Andrew Cunningham

The whole housing can be disassembled with a Phillips screwdriver. To access the inside, flip the back panel off, slide off the side panels and gently lift the top panel (it has fans inside so it doesn’t come off completely from the rest of the case without extra effort). As super-small desktop PCs go, it’s easy to work on, if only because you can’t install big, complicated coolers or a rat’s nest of fan and LED cables inside the case.

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