Intel NUC 9 Extreme NUC9i9QNX Review: Ghost Canyon Packs a Punch
Intel’s NUC 9 Extreme Kit: A Trio of Firsts
The NUC 9 Extreme Kit is a first from Intel in three ways, being the first NUC to support discrete graphics cards, the first to offer processor upgrades via implementation of Intel’s Compute Element cards, and the first to offer a Core i9 processor – in this case a 9th Gen Core i9-9980HK.
“Imagine your dream gaming rig. Then build it with the Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit, the highest-performing Intel NUC available for consumers today. Ultra-powerful and modular, it’s also upgradable with an Intel NUC 9 Extreme Compute Element.
The Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit supports up to an eight-inch discrete graphics card, giving enthusiast gamers the flexibility they need to build a monster rig for gaming and streaming simultaneously. All this in a 5-liter chassis—making this one of the smallest- footprint gaming systems available that supports desktop discrete graphics.”
Considerably larger than previous NUC designs, Intel’s NUC 9 devices offer much greater performance potential, with the usefulness of PCI Express expansion – not to mention the possible CPU upgrade path – creating interesting possibilities for building and upgrading a very compact gaming PC or workstation.
This NUC 9 Extreme Kit is just that – a kit, not a complete system – and will require users to supply memory, storage, and an operating system.
How well did it perform? We will explore this with the fully configured system we received, and report on the thermals and noise levels observed during testing. We will also take a close look inside this latest NUC, tearing down the system and taking a look inside the Core i9 Compute Element.
Intel NUC 9 Extreme Compute Element (NUC9i9QNB)
- Processor and Graphics:
- Intel Core i9-9980HK processor
- 2.40 GHz – 5.00 GHz Turbo, 8 core/16 thread, 16 MB Cache, 45W
- Intel UHD Graphics 630, 350 MHz – 1.25 GHz
- System Memory:
- Two DDR4 SODIMM sockets
- Dual channel DDR4-2666+ SODIMMs, 1.2V, max 64 GB @ 2400 MHz or 32 GB @ 2666 MHz
- Storage Capabilities:
- Two M.2 slots: 42/80 + 42/80/110 NVMe or SATA3 SSD, RAID 0/1 capable
- Intel Optane Memory M10, H10, and Intel Optane SSD ready
- Two Thunderbolt 3 ports
- Intel Wi-Fi 6 AX200
- Bluetooth v5
- Two Intel 10/100/1000 Mbps (i219-LM and i210-AT) Ethernet ports
- HDMI 2.0a port
- Four USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-A ports
- Up to 7.1 multichannel digital audio via HDMI or Thunderbolt 3
- 3.5 mm rear speaker/TOSLINK combo jack
- SDXC slot with UHS-II support
- Internal Front Panel Audio, CEC, 2x USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-C, 2x USB 2.0, and SATA3 headers
- Operating System Compatibility:
- Windows 10
- Various Linux distros
- System BIOS
- 256 Mb Flash EEPROM with Intel Platform Innovation Framework for EFI Plug and Play
- Advanced configuration and power interface V5.0b, SMBIOS2.5
- Intel BIOS
- Intel Express BIOS update support
- Hardware Management Features
- CPU vapor chamber and firmware-controlled 80 mm fan
- Voltage and temperature sensing
- ACPI-compliant power management control
- Power Requirements: 12-19VDC 180W via EPS 12V connector
- Thermal Management: Dual 80 mm firmware-controlled exhaust fans
Intel NUC 9 Extreme Chassis
- Storage Capabilities: One CPU-attached M.2 slot: 42/80/110 NVMe-only
- Expansion Capabilities
- PCIe X16 slot up to 8″ card length dual-slot capable
- PCIe X4 slot up to 8” card length, shared with X16 slot
- Front Panel Connectivity
- Two USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-A ports
- 3.5 mm front stereo headset jack
- SDXC slot with UHS-II support
- Chassis Size: 9.37″ x 8.50″ x 3.78″ / 238 mm x 216 mm x 96 mm
- Power Requirements
- 500W internal power with geo-specific AC cords
- Internal EPS 12V connector for Intel 9 Extreme Compute Element
- Internal 6+2 pin and 6-pin PCIe GPU power connectors, supplying up to 225W
- 3-Year limited warranty
“Imagine your dream gaming rig. Then build it with the Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit, the highest-performing Intel NUC available for consumers today. Ultra-powerful and modular, it’s also upgradable with an Intel NUC 9 Extreme Compute Element.”
The Next Unit of Computing Evolves
When Intel revealed their Next Unit of Computing, or “NUC” concept back in 2012, it was the result of an engineering push to develop the smallest, fully-featured computer possible at that time.
The first units were released in the Ivy Bridge era, and with the highest-specified model featuring only a dual-core U-Series (17W) mobile CPU with HD 4000 graphics, they were best suited to lighter ‘everyday’ computing tasks.
The first NUC kits were powered by dual-core Ivy Bridge CPUsIntel continued to update the expanding NUC family, adding new platforms each generation and eventually releasing products with significantly higher desktop performance. But graphics performance was always a sticking point with the NUC for users looking for a small form-factor system that offered a legitimate gaming experience. Intel’s foray into high-end, gaming-ready NUC began with the Skull Canyon model, launched in 2016. It offered a high-end mobile Core i7-6770HQ with Iris Pro 580 Graphics, but the lack of a dedicated GPU, not to mention the pricing (starting above $600 for a kit without memory or storage), made it less attractive to the enthusiast market.
And then, in 2018, Intel released a successor to the Skull Canyon, Hades Canyon, which featured Kaby Lake-G; the supremely odd pairing of an Intel 8th Gen CPU and AMD Radeon RX Vega M graphics on the same substrate. Yes, an Intel CPU with integrated AMD graphics and HBM2 memory.
The “Hades Canyon” NUC featured the short-lived Kaby Lake-G
In our original review of the 100W variant of the Hades Canyon NUC (NUC8i7HVK) we found the gaming performance to be more than respectable in the 1080p/Ultra gaming tests, offering better performance than a system with a Radeon RX 560, and trading blows with a system powered by a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti.
Intel has moved out of Hades and back to earth – at least in spirit – with their latest ‘Canyon’ NUC, with the Ghost Canyon featuring the potential for more processing power than ever via Intel’s Compute Elements and offering users the ability to add a dedicated GPU, within the space and thermal/power constraints of the form-factor.
And this GPU can be quite powerful, with our reviewer’s kit including nothing short of an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2070 graphics card – with the ASUS Dual GeForce RTX 2070 MINI (DUAL-RTX2070-8G-MINI and DUAL-RTX2070-O8G-MINI) specifically designed for the NUC 9 Extreme and NUC 9 Pro systems (and now Ghost Canyon, of course).
The Ghost Canyon NUC
Features from Intel:
- Unlocked 9th gen Intel Core i9 processor
- PCIe x16 slot for desktop graphics support, up to 8″ card length, dual-slot capable
- Supports three 4K displays (additional displays supported with a discrete graphics card)
- Two Thunderbolt 3 ports
- Intel Wi-Fi 6
- Bluetooth 5
- Two Intel Gigabit LAN ports
- HDMI 2.0a port
- 3-year limited warranty
The Ghost Canyon NUC has an approximate volume of 4.9 liters, and while the NUC 9 lineup is considerably larger than previous NUC designs, this chassis is smaller than even tiny mini-ITX enclosures such as the popular Dan Cases A4-SFX (7.2 liters) – though its size does limit it to shorter “ITX” sized GPUs rather than full-length cards.
The NUC 9 Extreme Chassis
The NUC 9 form-factor is considerably larger than previous Intel mini-PC designs at 9.37 x 8.5 x 3.78 inches, with the current NUC 10 Performance lineup retaining the smaller dimensions we are used to seeing (the taller “H” chassis in that series is just 4.6 x 4.4 x 2 inches).
The front panel I/O makes use of the Compute Element’s internal headers to provide two more USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-A ports, a 3.5 mm stereo headset jack, and an SDXC card slot featuring UHS-II (a bus interface offering 156MB/s full duplex, 312MB/s half duplex).
Rear I/O (from the Compute Element) includes 4x USB 3.1 Gen2 ports, 2x Thunderbolt 3 ports, HDMI 2.0a port, dual Ethernet ports, and a 3.5 mm L+R+TOSLINK combo jack. As there is an internal power supply installed, wall power requires only a standard IEC cable (included, of course).
NUC919QNB Compute Element
At the heart of the system is the NUC 9 Extreme Compute Element, with the NUC9I9QNB built on Intel’s CM246 mobile chipset and integrating a Core i9-9900HK processor. This 8-core, 16-thread 9th Gen Intel Core i9 mobile CPU offers a Max Turbo frequency of 5.0 GHz, with 16MB of Intel Smart Cache and a TDP of 45W.
This Compute Element is more than just a CPU on a card, as it houses an entire system with slots for SODIMM memory, M.2 storage, integrating USB 3.1 Gen2 and Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, wired and wireless networking, audio, and of course graphics via the processor’s integrated UHD Graphics 630.
Rear I/O includes 4x USB 3.1 Gen2 ports, 2x Thunderbolt 3 ports, HDMI 2.0a port, dual Ethernet ports, and a 3.5 mm L+R+TOSLINK combo jack.
NUC 9 Extreme Kit Performance
This NUC 9 Extreme being a kit, rather than a fully configured system, there will naturally be variance in performance. The Core i9 Compute Element is effectively a motherboard with a pre-installed mobile CPU, with the end-user deciding on speed and capacity of installed RAM and population of the M.2 slots for storage.
Beyond the Compute Element is the PCI Express expansion (and additional M.2 slot) afforded by the chassis, with a full x16 slot and a x4 PCIe Gen3 slot available. Naturally, choice in graphics card will be the biggest deciding factor in gaming performance, and for our purposes we made use of the ASUS RTX 2070 MINI card supplied with the review system.
|NUC 9 Extreme Test Configuration|
|Processor||Intel Core i9-9980HK|
|Memory||HyperX Impact 16GB (8GBx2) DDR4-3200 (@2666MHz)|
|Storage||Intel Optane SSD 905P Series 380GB
Kingston KC2000 1TB NVMe SSD
|Graphics Card||ASUS Dual NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2070 MINI OC|
|Operating System||Windows 10 64-bit (1909, November 2019 Update)|
|Drivers||GeForce Game Ready Driver WHQL 445.75|
First, a quick look at the potential CPU performance with a handful of common benchmarks. The Core i9-9980HK is an 8-core, 16-thread CPU based on 9th Gen Coffee Lake architecture (14 nm Skylake derivative), and with a 45W TDP.
That TDP is based on average power when operating at base frequency on all cores, which in this case is 2.40 GHz. The Max Turbo frequency with the i9-9980HK is 5.0 GHz, and sustained frequencies in that range will result in higher power draw –not an issue considering the integration of a 500W internal PSU (we will evaluate CPU cooling at maximum load, as well).
The system was pre-configured with the OS residing on the Optane SSD, and I performed a clean installation of Windows 10 Pro version 1909 (build 18363) on this drive before installing the latest drivers for all components.
Cinebench was run three times in both single and multi-threaded mode per CPU, with the results averaged. AGESA versions varied between 188.8.131.52AB and 184.108.40.206 in AMD Ryzen testing, though any differences should be slight.
Before proceeding I’ll note that, naturally, the 12-core Ryzen 9 3900X is going to lead in these CPU charts. It is included as a point of reference since it is a direct competitor to the Intel Core i9-9900K; essentially the desktop counterpart to the NUC’s Core i9-9980HK.
Looking at the results from the lower half of the chart we see that in single-core performance the NUC 9 Extreme’s Core i9-9980HK tied the Core i7-9700K with a score of 503, with the Ryzen 5 3600X a single point behind at 502.
Things widen up a bit between these three CPUs when we move on to multi-threaded results, with the Core i9-9980HK falling short of both the i7-9700K and R5 3600X, achieving slightly higher performance than a Core i7-8700K.
With the 7-Zip benchmark results we find the i9-9980HK ahead of the Ryzen 5 3600X and both the Core i7 8700K and 9700K in overall MIPS, though the 3600X did offer better compression performance.
We first look at FPS numbers from this 2-pass 1080p video transcoding benchmark. The result to focus on here is the much CPU-intensive (and longer) second pass, and here the i9-9980HK finished 1.82 FPS ahead of the Core i7-8700K, and behind the rest of the pack.
The significantly faster first-pass performance with the 9980HK, compared to Ryzen 5 and both Core i7 CPUs, helped only slightly when looking at total encode times, where the i9-9980HK moves up just one place, finishing behind the i7-9700K by about 15 seconds here
CPU Performance Summary
The i9-9980HK can perform very well in multi-threaded workloads where its 16 threads can help offset its lower base clock speed, though this processor’s mobile provenance is evident when looking at the more power-hungry Cinebench results.
For a peek at CPU clocks with this Compute Element under a full all-core load, frequency logging was performed using HWINFO64 during a Cinebench R20 test with the Core i9-9980HK.
Turbo Boost clocks ranged from 4.189.8 to 4.788.3 GHz across the eight cores to begin the run, eventually settling between 3092.4 and 3192.2 GHz on all cores during this short (~40 seconds) test. There is some flexibility with power limit/duration in the system setup, but the observed boost behavior is expected for a mobile part, and keeps thermals in check – particularly given the power being drawn during this test (more on this later).
Though the Core i9-9900K and i9-9980HK are both 8-core, 16-thread CPUs with a 5.0 GHz Max Turbo frequency, performance will naturally be higher with desktop 9900K thanks to its significantly higher 4.0 GHz base frequency and 95W TDP. When comparing to recent Intel desktop CPUs the Core i7 processors (both the 8-core non-HT Core i7-9700K and 6-core, Hyper-Threaded Core i7-8700K) were much closer in performance to this mobile Core i9.
It should be noted that the i9-9980HK was paired with DDR4 running at its highest officially supported speed of 2666 MHz (though memory overclocking is supported with this system), and the desktop systems were configured with 3200 MHz memory when the charted data above was recorded.
GPU Performance with the RTX 2070 MINI
While gaming performance is going to vary based on choice of GPU, I thought it was worth running a few benchmarks using the graphics card from our review system. As we mentioned in the introduction, Intel’s review kit included the most powerful of the current ASUS MINI graphics card lineup, the DUAL-RTX2070-O8G-MINI.
This model offers a light factory overclock on its NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2070 GPU, with a Boost Clock of 1680 MHz in OC mode and 1650 MHz in Gaming mode. This dual-slot card is just 197 mm / 7.8 inches in length, with dual axial fans on its compact heatsink that should benefit from the adjacent mesh side panel when installed in the NUC.
“The new Dual GeForce RTX 2070 MINI Graphics Card is specifically designed for the new Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit and Intel NUC 9 Pro Kit, bringing the thermal performance of larger cards to the evolving small-form-factor market. Features like Axial-tech fan design, a custom 2-slot thermal solution, and Auto-Extreme Technology make the MINI an obvious choice for those looking for the best experience with the Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit, Intel NUC 9 Pro Kit, and other small chassis.”
This card has a performance advantage over all other currently-available GPUs that will fit into this enclosure, so it presents the best-case scenario for gaming performance with the NUC 9 Extreme Kit.
For a point of reference I quickly tested this RTX 2070 MINI card using our standard GPU testbench, a Z390 system powered by a Core i7-9700K processor, and the results to follow show the NUC 9 Extreme against this setup. By no means is this is perfect comparison, and ideally every CPU from that portion of the review would be represented here, as well.
3DMark Time Spy
Our lone synthetic test is 3DMark Time Spy, which is split between two graphics tests and a CPU test.
With Time Spy we see a slightly higher GPU result from the open test system with a Core i7-9700K, while the NUC 9 Extreme’s Hyper-Threaded Core i9-9980HK fared better in the CPU portion of the test with double the available CPU threads.
Here, quickly, are three game benchmark comparisons between the two systems with this RTX 2070 MINI card.
Far Cry 5
World of Tanks enCore
The 8-core i7-9700K’s 1.20 GHz base clock speed advantage obviously makes a difference in graphics tests, and I suspect that a better Intel desktop comparison would be to 6c/12t Core i7-8700K processor due to its lower core count.
(For a much larger-scale comparison, pitting the NUC 9 Extreme’s Core i9-9980HK against more than two dozen CPUs in compute and gaming benchmarks, I recommend the comprehensive Gamers Nexus review – if you haven’t watched it already.)
NUC 9 Extreme Thermals, Noise, and Power
Though a densely-packed system relying primarily on a small PCIe form-factor card containing a modest laptop-style blower cooler, the thermals we recorded were better than expected. Using default performance settings from the system setup and the default Windows 10 ‘Balanced’ power profile, idle temps from the Core i9-9980HK averaged 40 C in an ~18 C room. Under full all-core loads we consistently saw temps in the 80 C range, with a max 81 C recorded during a Cinebench R20 all-core test.
Noise levels were similarly controlled overall, with idle noise at our meter’s lower limit of 31.8-32 dBA, typical load noise in the 33.8 – 34.4 dBA range, and a max of 40.6 dBA recorded. However, the touchy nature of the fan speed control caused very noticeable changes in noise as the fan ramped up and down quickly in response to modest changes in CPU activity. By no means was even the peak 40.6 dBA level particularly loud against normal ambient room noise, but the constant up/down of the fan is far from ideal.
As to power consumption, here the reality of Intel’s TDP ratings is on display. Idle power from the system configured with the Optane SSD, NVMe SSD, and 16GB of memory running at 2666 MHz (without the dedicated RTX 2070 GPU installed) was 20.7 W, rising to a high of 140.8W when running Cinebench R20 all-core. These numbers will naturally vary depending on workload and installed expansion cards.
As mentioned earlier in this review, Intel’s 45W TDP rating with the Core i9-9980HK is based on all cores operating at the base clock speed, which in this case is 2.40 GHz. Under loads where the power limit (and thermals) permit, frequencies at or approaching the 5.0 GHz Max Turbo are certainly possible, with the CPU drawing considerably more power in those instances, as we have seen.
NUC 9 Extreme Teardown
After removing the top panel, which unlocks via a pair of captive screws on the back and slides free, the mesh side panels are removed by simply sliding them up and out of the enclosure’s frame. The top panel contains a pair of 80 mm exhaust fans to aid in the removal of heat from both the Compute Element and any installed expansion cards.
Inside the NUC chassis we see just how densely packed these components are. There is little, if any, wasted space when the Compute Element is joined by a dual-slot graphics card like this.
After removing a metal bracket on the GPU side, which is fastened with one screw on either side, it’s fairly easy to remove the graphics card upon disconnecting the 8-pin PCIe power connector, which is a 90-degree design to conserve space above the GPU.
A USB 3.1 cable running over the top of the GPU from the Compute Element should also be disconnected, and the GPU’s retention bracket is held in place with two screws.
Removal of the Compute Element is slightly more involved. In addition to a single retention bracket screw it is not completely free until the wireless antenna connectors along the top, and a pair of cables along the right side of the card (front panel and upper fan), are removed.
After removing the Compute Element, the PCB containing the system’s PCI Express slots is exposed. This board also provides another M.2 slot (under a heatsink between the two x16 slots).
Our review unit arrived with this slot populated by a 380GB Intel Optane SSD 905P Series (SSDPEL1D380GAX1).
Power to the board – and the NUC’s Compute Element – comes via a 10-pin connector on the edge, which accepts a cable from the PSU directly beneath.
An FSP 500W power supply is implemented here, model FSP500-30AS. This is a high-efficiency 80 Plus Platinum rated Flex ATX form-factor model, which seems to be a variant/relative of the FSP500-50FSPT (data sheet, PDF). It is actively cooled with a 40 mm exhaust fan.
In addition to the system power cable and 90-degree 8-pin PCIe power we removed from the RTX 2070 MINI, there is an additional 6+2-pin PCIe power connector. Though it seems unlikely that a GPU requiring more than an 8-pin connector will be implemented here, this does allow for more flexibility when selecting expansion cards.
Inside the NUC 9 Extreme Compute Element
Now we take a look inside the NUC919QNB Core i9 Compute Element , which has a cover in the shroud providing access to memory and storage slots. This cover held in place with two captive screws and is simple to remove.
Detaching the rest of the shroud is accomplished easily after five more screws have been removed, and the CMOS battery has been disconnected from the board. With the Compute Element’s board exposed we see a densely-packed motherboard, complete with processor and chipset (beneath the heatsink assembly).
A Cypress CYPD5225 (PDF) USB Type-C port controller, Intel Titan Ridge JHL7540 dual port Thunderbolt 3 controller, and ASMedia ASM1542 10Gbps USB 3.1 controller are present on the PCB, while a MegaChips MCDP2800BC (PDF) provides the Compute Element’s HDMI 2.0 output via DisplayPort to HDMI conversion (Intel IGP natively supports HDMI 1.4).
Wired networking is supplied by a pair of Intel Gigabit controllers, with Intel i219-LM and i210-AT integrated. Wireless networking is integrated via Intel’s Wi-Fi 6 AX200 solution. The audio codec is a Realtek ALC256.
The CPU/chipset/VRM cooler is removed via four spring-loaded screws. It is a copper vapor chamber design with aluminum fins on the small heatsink portion. A 12V SUNON MagLev blower fan (MF80201V1-C070-S9A) is tasked with pushing air through this heatsink.
This is not a comprehensive breakdown of all components integrated into the Compute Element board, but should help demonstrate just how complete a system is contained within this PCIe form-factor card.
The NUC 9 Extreme Kit is a brilliant realization of an ultra-compact, modular approach to the PC, with plenty of CPU power on tap and true desktop-level graphics performance for gaming when paired with a dedicated GPU like the tested ASUS RTX 2070 MINI.
Intel’s Compute Element is a fascinating idea for desktop, bringing a fully modular, PCIe-based design containing all required compute components, akin to a blade server, to a consumer-facing device with an appliance-like utility.
Cost is going to be a huge factor in adoption of the NUC 9 Extreme kit, with a $1639 price tag for the base unit (most of that cost belongs to the is Core i9 Compute Element, $1399 if purchased separately), pushing the overall investment for a build like the one we tested to eye-watering levels.
It is certainly not necessary to configure the system quite so lavishly, with review build we received including 16GB of 3200 MHz HyperX memory, a 1TB Kingston A2000 NVMe drive, an Intel Optane SSD 905P Series 380GB (configured as the OS drive, no less), and the most powerful GPU that will fit in this enclosure in the ASUS DUAL RTX 2070 MINI.
- NUC 9 Extreme Kit: $1639.99, B&H
- HyperX Impact 3200 MHz 16GB (2x8GB) SODIMM kit: $106.68, Amazon
- Intel Optane SSD 905P Series 380GB: $513.18, Amazon
- Kingston A2000 M.2 1TB NVMe SSD: $146.49, Amazon
- ASUS RTX 2070 MINI: $419.99, Amazon
- Windows 10 Home OEM: $99, Amazon
The total cost of our test configuration, adding current Amazon prices for the components shipped with this system? $2925.33. But it should be noted that a little over $500 of that total was the Intel Optane SSD 905P Series, which is a very expensive, and unlikely, addition to a gaming PC build. Omitting it takes us down to $2412.15, which is still obviously quite high for a Core i9-powered rig with an RTX 2070, but good luck finding another one this compact.
I was very impressed with the NUC 9 Extreme, tempering my enthusiasm in part due to the total cost involved here. The other thing is the CPU involved, as Intel just launched their 10th Gen Core H-Series processors, with higher clocks and faster memory support than this brand new NUC offers with its 9th Gen Core i9 CPU. The difference in performance is likely small, but it would still be nice to get the latest CPU with a new device like this.
I am a big fan of small form-factor systems, and have had the chance to go hands on with a number of mini-PCs over the years, including several Intel NUC kits. This NUC 9 Extreme kit is, by far, the most impressive one I’ve had a chance to use. It’s not the smallest mini-PC, to be sure, but it is one of the most powerful – and customizable.
For its innovative design, high performance, and better than expected noise and temperature levels, I find this a worthy of consideration for anyone looking for desktop-class performance, and upgradable components, in as small a device as possible.
This disclosure statement covers the way the product being reviewed was obtained and the relationship between the product's manufacturer and PC Perspective.
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The system is on loan from Intel for the purpose of this review.
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