Intel NUC 12 Enthusiast Mini PC review: Mighty power


Not long ago we had the opportunity to sit down with people from intel to discuss PC building, innovations in processor technology, and their passion project: NUC. Meaning “Next Unit of Computing”, NUC represents an interesting niche in the PC market. One could simply call NUC a mini PC, but the product line under the NUC designation extends to a series of laptops, mini PCs and compute modules.

What is its purpose? The goal of the NUC is to deliver powerful performance and processing in a portable package. It sounds impressive, but does it work well in practice?

We got our hands on one of the latest iterations of the Intel NUC Enthusiast Edition to put it through its paces. Let’s take a look at what’s under the hood and see how far we can push the NUC.

Features

  • Price in detail: $1180 to $1350
  • Processor: 12th Generation Intel Core i7-12700H
  • Chart: Intel Arc A770M with 16GB GDDR6 VRAM
  • Memory: Supports up to 64GB DDR4-3200MHz dual channel SODIMM (2 slots)
  • Storage: 2x M.2 PCIe x4 Gen4 NVMe SSD, 1x M.2 PCIe x4 Gen3 NVMe or SATA3 SSD
  • Wireless: Intel Killer WiFi 6E, Bluetooth 5.3
  • Ethernet: 2.5 Gbps
  • Connectivity:
    • 2x Thunderbolt 4 / USB4 Type-C ports
    • 6 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A ports
    • 2x DisplayPort 2.0
    • HDMI 2.1
    • 7.1 Multichannel Digital Audio
    • SDXC slot with UHS-II support
    • 1x 3.5mm headphone jack (front)
    • 1x 3.5mm stereo output jack / TOSLINK combo jack
  • Power: 330W power supply
  • Dimensions: 230mm x 180mm x 60mm (9.1″ x 7.1″ x 2.4″)

At first glance, it would be easy to mistake the NUC for a router or an external hard drive enclosure, but beneath its understated exterior lies some pretty powerful hardware. Dubbed Serpent Canyon, the NUC 12 Enthusiast Edition combines 12th-generation CPU technologies with Intel’s Arc Alchemist GPU architecture in a mini PC form factor.

If that last note piques your interest, great! We’re only just starting to see hands-on experiences with Intel’s Arc GPUs from other outlets, but this is our first exposure to the latest competitor in the midrange GPU market. We’ll talk a lot about performance in a bit, and you might be surprised – if Arc hasn’t been on your radar.

The NUC 12 Enthusiast uses Intel’s Arc Alchemist A770M GPU with 16GB of GDDR6 VRAM. The GPU supports video via Thunderbolt 4, HDMI, and DisplayPort. Working in tandem with the Arc A770M is Intel’s Core i7 12700H, a mobile version of the 12th generation Alder Lake processor family.

In case you missed the cover of Alder Lake Where raptor lake, this processor uses a hybrid micro-architecture composed of performance cores (P-cores) and efficient cores (E-cores). The Core i7-12700H is equipped with 6 P cores and 8 E cores, giving it a total of 20 threads to work with. Did I also mention that the CPU has a boost clock of 4.7 GHz? Not too shabby for a mobile chip!

Keeping with the mobile theme, the NUC 12 Enthusiast uses SODIMMs for system memory to keep the profile slim. While Alder Lake CPUs support both DDR4 and DDR5, Intel chose to use DDR4 in the NUC. For storage, the NUC 12 has two NVMe PCIe 4.0×4 M.2 slots as well as a shared bus lane for PCIe 3.0 or SATA3 SSD storage.

When it comes to external connectivity, the NUC 12 Enthusiast has just about every connection type you could possibly need for gaming on the go. For visuals, the NUC 12 has an HDMI 2.1 port that supports 4K at 60Hz and two DisplayPort 2.0 ports as well. USB connections are plentiful with six USB 3.2 ports (2x front, 4x rear) and two Thunderbolt 4 / USB4 Type-C (1x front, 1x rear). For network connections, users have the choice of either a 2.5Gb Ethernet or WiFi 6E port. The NUC 12 Enthusiast is Bluetooth equipped with Bluetooth 5.2, 1 x 3.5mm stereo headset jack (front), 1 x 3.5mm stereo headset / TOSLINK jack (rear), and an SDXC slot on the front of the device .

The SKU we received for review came with 16GB of DDR4-3200MHz RAM and an NVMe drive with Windows 11 pre-installed. If you’re more of a DIYer type, the NUC 12 Enthusiast Kit can be purchased without RAM or storage and it supports a number of Linux distros – if Linux is your thing!

From a build quality standpoint, the NUC is rock solid – and it certainly weighs about as much, at around 15 pounds. with all its packaging! Don’t let its heavy weight fool you though, its design is modest, but not mundane. When turned off, the NUC 12 Enthusiast Mini PC blends in with most desktop settings. However, once powered up, the Serpent Canyon NUC stands out. Able to be outfitted with fun light inserts when turned on, this NUC has addressable RGB lighting to work with. So, you know, it has lights so it must be for games…

But how Is does it do in the game? Let’s find out.

System performance

Putting the NUC 12 Enthusiast Mini PC through its paces was an interesting undertaking – it’s a mobile unit that doubles as a desktop PC. As we take a look at overall performance, this is our first look at an Intel Arc GPU. So we put the NUC 12 through a series of gaming benchmarks to see how well it would perform in repeatable environments and at a mix of resolutions. Doing this, we have a data breakdown that shows varying degrees of CPU and GPU related tasks.

Here is what we discovered:

In most of our gaming tests, the NUC 12 gave us decent overall performance at 1080p. Each of our benchmarks used the highest graphics settings in the game while disabling all features that could artificially boost performance – with the exception of Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, we ran the benchmark with and without XeSS – Intel’s answer to NVIDIA’s DLSS (Deep Learning Super Sampling) or AMD’s FSR (FidelityFX Super Resolution). With XeSS enabled, we saw a performance increase of 18% at 1080p, 36.9% at 1440p, and 67.5% at 4K! While XeSS is in its infancy and adoption isn’t very high, this benchmark gave us a pretty startling picture of what it could be capable of as the technology finds better footing. This is great news for the future of the Arc GPU!

In Metro Exodus, the A770M struggled, but it creaked on the 60 FPS line at 1080p with little difference between our runs with ray tracing and those without. It’s not a bad feat, but it’s also something we’ve seen AMD and NVIDIA achieve with their two previous generations of GPUs.

Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker gave us a good show with average frame rates over 100fps. Spell effects and animations during the benchmark were incredibly smooth, even at higher resolutions. As is often the case with benchmarks, Wolfenstein: Young Bloods pushed high numbers at each resolution while Far Cry 5 (an AMD favorite) gets high outside of 1080p testing.

Apart from these maps, I took the NUC 12 for a nostalgic trip to Northrend in classic world of warcraft as the Wrath of the Lich King servers have transitioned from burning crusade. Even at 4K, the NUC 12 maintained smooth frame rates above 100 FPS as I traversed the frozen north.

My experiences with Destiny 2, however, were not as good. The frame rate was very inconsistent, which leads me to believe that there is still more to mature with game drivers as more developers start to adopt Intel’s GPU technology.

Thermal performance and power consumption

While I was recording game performance, I also monitored CPU thermal performance as well as power consumption throughout the system. After all, Alder Lake was an incredibly power-hungry platform. Seeing it at work in mobile form is a different story, however.

Overall CPU power remained quite low compared to the desktop counterparts of the i7-12700H while the Arc A770 consumed a little more. This seems to be in line with Intel’s vision for Arc GPUs – mid-range performance with mid-range power requirements. In our tests, the total power consumption of the NUC 12 Enthusiast Mini PC remained under 220W in most cases.

When it comes to thermal performance, I expected the NUC to be a little toaster – and I was mostly wrong.

CPU temperatures stayed within a decent range, considering the CPU family, and internal fans kept the NUC chassis cool to the touch while drawing heat away from the rear of the system. That being said, if you need a hand warmer, this can also be used.

“So who is the NUC for?”

I’m not going to lie: I was very excited to try out the NUC. I’ve always been a fan of the potential that exists with modular PCs, so playing around with one has been a pleasure. However, this question is one that keeps coming up in conversation.

Is it a necessity for the average everyday user? Certainly not, although it can serve as your main system if your rig is on a workbench. In summary, the Intel NUC 12 Enthusiast Mini PC has a variety of use cases.

It’s for the laptop PC for the gamer who needs a rugged, reliable setup on the go without having to burn someone else’s PC. It’s for the person with limited desk space who doesn’t want to be tied to a laptop screen and keyboard. It’s for the content creator who wants to take their content on the road and edit videos or photos from a hotel room. It’s for the DIYer who needs something a little more powerful than a Raspberry Pi to run their latest machinations.

Is the NUC for you? Only you can answer that.

Final Thoughts

When I look at the landscape of pre-built PC and laptop options in the $1500 range, the Intel NUC Enthusiast Mini PC offers an attractive value proposition to compete in the space it’s offered. Starting at $1180 – according to Intel press information at the time of writing this review, Intel’s NUC 12 Enthusiast Mini PC is squarely aiming for mid-range performance on a mid-range budget.

This isn’t a slam against the NUC, it’s actually a compliment for what Intel has been able to achieve with it. Will it outperform a full-size modern desktop platform? No, but you’re not going to put it in a backpack and take it with you. Does it have all the built-in features of a laptop? No, but it offers more I/O options than most while still being portable.

If you’ve been curious about the options in the laptop market, keep an eye out for Intel’s NUC lineup. Intel made tease their NUC 13 Extreme at TwitchConbut that’s a whole other beast!

So far, Serpent Canyon has offered an experience we’d be confident to take with us on the road.

The product discussed in this review was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes.

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