Don’t Believe The Hype – The Intel NUC 9 Is Probably NOT For You!
This article was supposed to be done at CES, but that really didn’t happen because Dmitry, Mike and I wanted to spend a little bit more time processing the information regarding the new Intel NUC 9 Extreme or what they’re calling the Ghost Canyon. Honestly, a lot of the information is positive, and there are a lot of cool things happening with the NUC 9. However, it also kind of left our heads scratching a bit with regards to what the heck Intel was even thinking with the design, the pricing, and the strategy. Most importantly, who is this thing even targeted towards? We have spent quite a while thinking about it, and here’s our thoughts about Intel’s latest creation.
All The Pieces
Let’s beginning the top and explain a bit about the new NUC ecosystem. Starting off with a quick list of components, every NUC – regardless of whether it fits from Intel or one of their partners – will come with a NUC Compute Element card, a daughterboard, a power supply, and all of this will be installed into a compatible chassis. Those will be combined into either barebone or pre-built systems. With that being said, the cornerstone of all of this is the NUC Compute Element card. This is basically a motherboard with a CPU soldered onto it, so no you can’t buy them separately. The entire thing interfaces with the rest of the system via a PCIe Gen3 x16 slot, and it’s powered by a single 8-pin EPS connector. It also has all the necessary I/O connectors on the back, including HDMI 2.0 and Thunderbolt 3. Inside there’s an integrated Wi-Fi 6 card, two SODIMM memory slots, and a pair of M.2 NVMe connectors.
However, here’s the first issue. NUC stands for Next Unit of Computing, which usually showcases Intel’s upcoming processors and their newest features. However, the NUC 9 almost feels like last gen tech because instead of using their newest Comet Lake processors, Intel is using the old 9th generation Coffee Lake mobile CPUs. I think they’re doing this to reduce temperatures and lower power consumption, but it’s a really odd move. There will be Compute Element boards with an 8-core/16-thread unlocked i9-9980HK that can be overclocked through Intel’s XTU. There is also going to be another model with the i7-9750H, like what’s found on my Razer Blade 15, and also an i5-9300H option. These aren’t slow CPUs, but they drastically underperform the more capable AMD and Intel CPUs that can be installed into an ITX system these days.
The Element itself can’t be used alone, and that’s where the Ghost Canyon or NUC 9 Extreme comes into play. Intel actually plans on selling this as a complete barebone system through retailers or selling it directly to companies. It comes with the Skull-branded 5 liter case, one of the Compute Elements pre-installed, and a 500W SFX power supply. This is a barebone system that just needs storage, an operating system, and SODIMM memory to make it a fully functioning PC. Getting access to those items is pretty easy, you just need to remove some screws, pop the top open, and everything’s right there.
Intel says pricing still hasn’t been settled, but just the other day the Compute Elements were listed on Intel’s site. For just the i5-9300H Element, we’re looking at around $652 USD, and the i7-9750H will go for $813 USD. But what about that unlocked i9-9980HK? Well that will be $1,242 USD… which is Intel being ridiculous again. You see according to Intel’s site, the i9-9980HK’s recommended price is $583 USD, so it’s pretty mind boggling to think that they would sell the NUC Element card for a little over $1,200 given that perfectly good motherboards don’t cost more than $250.
And what about the NUC 9 Extreme barebones kit? The complete kit with the chassis, but without a GPU, memory, and storage? Well check out these prices. They literally are as much as an entire gaming PC, GPU, and all of that stuff. And remember that retailers usually price these a lot higher.
Inside The Case
Moving onto the interior, and we can see all of the components that I talked about earlier and how they interact with one another. There’s one Compute Element and it’s mounted on a small PCB, which has two PCIe x16 slots and an M.2 drive. One of those PCIe slots is used for an optional discrete graphics card while the other one is used for the Element. On the Intel-branded NUC that GPU can be dual-slot and up to 8 inches long. Another interesting thing is that the daughterboard has a custom 10-pin connector that brings auxiliary power to the Element board, discrete graphics card, and the daughterboard. Supposedly there will be adapters to convert a standard ATX 24-pin connector into a compatible 10-pin.
NUC 9 Alternatives
Other than making this NUC available as a barebones kit Intel will be selling the Element card and the daughterboard to companies who are willing to create an ultra-compact small form factor system. We have already looked at the Razer Tomahawk, which seemed pretty interesting, and Cooler Master also has something called the NC100. Even iBUYPOWER is getting into the game with be Revolt GT3.
Let’s look at that Cooler Master case for a second, since it represents a different strategy for the NUC ecosystem. Intel might end up selling the Element cards directly through retailers, while other companies would sell cases with the daughtercard and a power supply pre-installed. Supposedly the NC100 with those components would cost around $200 USD, and you would be responsible for buying everything else. That give people a lot more flexibility to outfit their systems with different components.
But there’s a bunch of problems there as well, let’s start with that daughterboard. You see this thing looks like its designer didn’t talk to the person engineering the Elements cooling solution… or neither realized what kind of spacing was needed for discrete graphics cards to allow for proper airflow. Right now every Element system we have seen has the GPU choking out the CPU since there’s zero space between the back of the graphics card and front of the Element card. Another problem is size. I will give Intel some credit here for the NUC 9’s super small footprint, at just 5 liters it is tiny. However, the systems we saw from Cooler Master and Razer are using enclosures in the 7 to 10 liter range in order to make room for larger GPUs. This is an issue because honestly there are some kickass SFF ITX cases in that size. Therefore, other than the simple modular approach to the Compute Element, there’s really nothing here that you can’t already do with much less expensive components.
So who is this thing actually for? Well it’s certainly not for everyone reading this article. If you look at the DIY gaming community, it almost feels like Intel is trying to physically limit your upgrade path to a modular system that is based off of a very expensive Element card. Not only that, but you’re buying into an ecosystem that is using a very old mobile 9th Gen CPU that doesn’t even support PCIe Gen4. What about productivity? While the combination of Intel’s QuickSync and a discrete graphics card is awesome in some programs, the lack of PCIe Gen4 SSD compatibility and no USB 3.2 could make it a hard sell in 2020.
I do think that the NUC 9 or whatever some partners call it might end up being appealing for companies who are looking for a compact, efficient, workstation PC, that can receive a simple drop-in upgrade sometime down the line. IT centers could love this because they just have to simply upgrade a module instead of buying an entire system. Gaming cafes could also see it as a great option, because it’s a very efficient way to cut down electricity costs. Most of all, when I look at the Compute Element, I worry about what Intel has planned for the PC market as a whole. Modularity is certainly interesting, but with the motherboard, CPU, and soon the GPU all in Intel’s control it could lead to a very closed ecosystem and that’s really concerning because it will drive costs up. It’s all just a poor value in my opinion, because if you think about it when you add things like memory, storage, and the operating system, imagine what you can actually build for that same price. I’ve even heard some people say that this might be the future of small form factor PCs, but I really hope that isn’t true. I can see the NUC Element eventually being an interesting option for businesses, but right now it might be a very hard sell for many gamers. I might be proven wrong, but we will just have to wait and see when this thing eventually launches in March.