Intel NUC 12 Extreme review: Alder Lake is an expensive portable powerhouse

Zoom / The NUC 12 Extreme Kit from Intel.

Andrew Cunningham

It’s always been hard to recommend Intel’s NUC Extreme mini PC kits. True, it’s much smaller than even the smallest ITX mini PC cases; It’s impossible to put that much performance into less space if you’re using general purpose PC hardware components. But they were also expensive, weren’t as fast as standard desktops, and had limited upgradeability. These three things basically defeat the purpose of building a desktop or workstation computer.

The latest version of the NUC Extreme Kit, codenamed “Dragon Canyon,” helps solve the last two problems by switching to physical desktop processors instead of soldered laptop versions. It’s still an expensive box — you’ll pay about $1,150 for a Core i7 version without RAM, SSD, GPU, or OS and $1,450 for the Core i9 version we tested — but it now performs a lot closer to that of a typical desktop.

NUC Extreme still isn’t for everyone, but if money isn’t your thing and you want the smallest desktop you can get, the 12th generation NUC Extreme is less than compromised by its previous versions.

Design and Upgradability

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

Andrew Cunningham

The exterior design of the NUC 12 Extreme case, which uses 12th generation Alder Lake processors but is a 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 system LEDs can be customized or disabled entirely with Intel NUC Software Studio App). The only change from the 11th generation NUC Extreme is that one of the USB-A ports on the front has been replaced with a USB-C port.

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The 8-liter case size compares favorably with notable ITX mini cases such as The second generation of NZXT H1 (15.6 liters) SSUPD MECHLICHUS (14.7 L), and Color Master NR200P (18.5 liters). The downside is that you can’t use a standard motherboard or CPU cooler in the NUC, although it does seem to use a normal 650W SFX power supply which should be easy to replace if it breaks down or if you need to replace it with a higher power model electrical. 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 cards with dual slots. We tested it with a file Asus Dual GeForce RTX 3060 GPU installedAnd while larger cards can fit, you certainly won’t be able to cram most Radeon RX 6900 XT or RTX 3080 models in them.

You'll be limited to 12
Zoom / You’ll be limited to 12″ dual-slot GPUs in the NUC enclosure.

Andrew Cunningham

The interior of the 12th-generation model is also similar to the previous model, so much so that you can upgrade the previous case with the newer Compute Element board if you buy it separately. Both the Intel Compute Element board and your GPU are attached to the motherboard at the bottom of the case, allowing both to sit parallel to each other without the need for flimsy or tough PCIe cables.

One welcome internal change for the NUC is that it now uses socket desktop processors that can be pulled out and replaced, while the 11th generation model used a soldered-in laptop CPU. Presumably this is because Intel has finally moved its desktop chips to the more efficient 10nm manufacturing process; The NUC’s small size and limited cooling capacity were a poor fit for hot and power-hungry 11th-generation 14nm desktop chips, so Intel opted for an 11th-generation 10nm laptop CPU with power limits emerging instead. A physical CPU socket will be especially useful if Intel’s 13th generation processors continue to be compatible with the LGA1700 socket and 600 series chipset.

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NUC has a lot of ports for a computer its size.
Zoom / NUC has a lot of ports for a computer its size.

Andrew Cunningham

For a computer this size, the NUC Extreme has plenty of ports, including an SD card reader and a USB-A port. Up front, there is one USB-C port; On the back, it has six USB-A ports, an HDMI port, a 2.5Gbps and 10Gbps Ethernet port, and two Thunderbolt 4 ports. Two Thunderbolt and HDMI ports can be used to power 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 tight use case, but being able to connect half a dozen monitors to a computer this size makes it a very flexible workstation.

Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.2 are integrated on board, courtesy of Intel AX211 Wi-Fi chipset, the NUC contains two slots for PCIe 4.0 NVMe SSDs and a pair of DDR4 SODIMM slots for user-replaceable RAM. We could ask NUC to use 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 becomes cheaper, faster, and more abundant. But for now, using DDR4 instead is the most practical decision.

The NUC Extreme Compute Element places the CPU, SSD, RAM, and Wi-Fi card on a unit that attaches to the motherboard.
Zoom / The NUC Extreme Compute Element places the CPU, SSD, RAM, and Wi-Fi card on a unit that attaches to the motherboard.

Andrew Cunningham

The case can be completely disassembled using a Phillips screwdriver. To get to the interior, you turn off the back panel, slide off the side panels, and carefully lift the top panel (it has fans in it, so it doesn’t completely separate from the rest of the case without extra effort). Since desktops are so tiny, they’re easy to work with, if only because the case doesn’t allow you to install large, complex coolers or a bunch of fans and LED cables.

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