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Intel NUC 12 Enthusiast Mini PC Review: Powerable Power

Damien Gula Posted:
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Hardware Reviews 0

A short time ago, we had the opportunity to sit down with some of the folks at Intel to discuss PC building, innovations in CPU technology, and their passion project: NUC. Standing for “Next Unit of Computing,” NUC represents an interesting niche in the PC market. One might simply call NUC a mini PC, but the lineup of products within the NUC designation extends to a series of laptops, mini PCs, and compute modules.

What is its purpose? The purpose of the NUC is to provide powerful performance and processing in a portable package. That sounds impressive, but how well does it work 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 just how far we can push the NUC.

Specifications

  • Retail Price: $1180 to $1350
  • Processor: 12th Generation Intel Core i7-12700H
  • Graphics: Intel Arc A770M with 16 GB GDDR6 VRAM
  • Memory: Supports up to 64 GB dual-channel DDR4-3200 MHz SODIMMs (2x slots)
  • Storage: 2x M.2 PCIe x4 Gen4 NVMe SSD, 1x M.2 PCIe x4 Gen3 NVMe or SATA3 SSD 
  • Wireless: Intel Killer Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.3
  • Ethernet: 2.5 Gbps
  • Connectivity: 
    • 2x Thunderbolt 4 / USB4 Type-C ports 
    • 6x 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: 230 mm x 180 mm x 60 mm (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 underneath its understated exterior lies some pretty powerful hardware. Codenamed Serpent Canyon, the NUC 12 Enthusiast edition pairs 12th Generation CPU technologies with Intel’s Arc Alchemist GPU architecture in a mini PC form factor. 

If that latter note sparks your interest, good! We are just beginning 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 mid ranged GPU market. We will talk at length about performance in a bit and you might be surprised – if Arc hasn’t been on your radar.

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

In case you missed out coverage of Alder Lake or Raptor Lake, this processor utilizes a hybrid micro architecture comprised 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!

Sticking with the mobile theme, the NUC 12 Enthusiast utilizes SODIMMs for system memory to keep the profile slim. While Alder Lake CPUs support both DDR4 and DDR5, Intel opted to utilize DDR4 within the NUC. For storage, the NUC 12 has two PCIe 4.0x4 M.2 NVMe slots as well as a shared bus lane for PCIe 3.0 or SATA3 SSD storage. 

As for external connectivity, the NUC 12 Enthusiast has just about every connection type you might need for gaming on the go. For visuals, the NUC 12 has an HDMI 2.1 port that supports 4K at 60 Hz and two DisplayPort 2.0 ports as well. USB connections are in plentiful supply 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 a 2.5 Gb Ethernet port or WiFi 6E. The NUC 12 Enthusiast is Bluetooth-equipped with Bluetooth 5.2, 1x 3.5mm stereo headphone jack (front), 1x 3.5mm stereo headphone / TOSLINK jack (rear), and a SDXC slot on the front of the unit.

The SKU that we received for review came equipped with 16GB of DDR4-3200 MHz RAM and an NVMe drive with Windows 11 preinstalled. If you are a more DIY type of person, the NUC 12 Enthusiast kit can be purchased without RAM and storage and it does support a number of Linux distributions – if Linux is your thing!

From a build quality standpoint, the NUC is rock solid – and it certainly weighs about as much, too, at around 15 lbs. with all its packaging! Don’t let its stout weight fool you though, its design is unassuming, but not unremarkable. When powered down, the NUC 12 Enthusiast mini PC blends into most office settings. However, once powered up, the Serpent Canyon NUC stands out. Capable of being equipped with some fun light up inserts when powered on, this NUC has some addressable RGB lighting to work with. So, you know, it has lights therefore it must be for gaming…

But, how does it do at gaming? Let’s find out.

System Performance

Putting the NUC 12 Enthusiast mini PC through its paces was an interesting endeavor – it’s a mobile unit that serves as a desktop PC. While we are looking 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 just how well it would fare in repeatable environments and at a mix of resolutions. By doing this, we have a spread of data that shows varying degrees of CPU- and GPU-bound tasks.

Here is what we discovered:

In most of our gaming tests, the NUC 12 gave us a decent overall showing at 1080p. Each one of our benchmarks used the highest in-game graphics settings while disabling any features that might artificially enhance performances – 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 an increase in performance by 18% at 1080p, 36.9% at 1440p, and 67.5% at 4K! While XeSS is in its infancy and adoption is not terribly high just, this benchmark gave us a pretty stunning 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 did struggle, but it squeaked across the 60 FPS line at 1080p with little difference between our passes with ray tracing and those without. This isn’t a bad feat, but it is also something that we saw AMD and NVIDIA achieve with both their previous generation of GPUs. 

Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker gave us a good show with frame rates averages above 100 frames per second. Spell effects and animations during the benchmark were incredibly smooth, even at higher resolutions. As is typical for the benchmarks, Wolfenstein: Youngbloods pushed out high numbers at each resolution while Far Cry 5 (an AMD favorite) drug its feet outside of 1080p tests.

Outside of these charts, I took the NUC 12 for a nostalgic journey to Northrend in World of Warcraft Classic as the Wrath of the Lich King servers made the transition from Burning Crusade. Even at 4K, the NUC 12 held smooth frame rates over 100 FPS as I quested around the frozen north.

My experiences with Destiny 2, however, were not as good. The frame rate was highly inconsistent, leading me to believe that there is some more maturing with game drivers to be done as more and more developers begin to adopt Intel’s GPU technology.

Thermal Performance and Power Draw

As I recorded gaming performance, I also monitored the thermal performance of the CPU as well as power draw across the system. After all, Alder Lake was an incredibly power-hungry platform. Seeing it at work in mobile form is, however, a bit of a different story.

Overall, CPU power remained fairly low compared to the i7-12700H’s desktop counterparts while the Arc A770 consumed a touch more. This seems to be in line with Intel’s vision for the Arc GPUs – mid-range performance with mid-ranged power requirements. During our testing, the total power draw for the NUC 12 Enthusiast mini PC stayed below 220W in most cases.

As far as thermal performance does, I was expecting the NUC to be a tiny toaster – and I was mostly wrong. 

CPU temperatures stayed within a decent range, considering the family of processors, and the internal fans kept the chassis of the NUC cool to the touch while venting heat out the back of the system. That being said, if you would find yourself in need of a hand warmer, it can double as that, too.

“So, who is the NUC for?”

I’m not going to lie: I have been pretty excited to try out the NUC. I have always been a fan of the potential that exists with modular PCs, so getting to actually play around with one has been a blast. However, this question is the one that keeps coming up in conversation.

Is it a necessity for the average, everyday user? Certainly not, though it could serve as a main system if your rig is on a workbench. In my summation, the Intel NUC 12 Enthusiast mini PC has a variety of use cases. 

It’s for the portable PC for the gamer who needs a rugged, dependable set-up while traveling without having to bum someone else’s PC. It’s for the person with limited desktop space that does not 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 tinkerer that needs something a bit 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 within the $1500 range, the Intel NUC Enthusiast mini PC offers an interesting value proposition to compete within the space that it is priced at. Starting at $1180 – according to Intel’s press information at the time of writing this review, Intel’s NUC 12 Enthusiast mini PC aims squarely for middle-of-the-road performance on a middle-of-the-road budget. 

That’s not 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-sized, modern desktop rig? No, but you’re not going to throw that into a backpack and take it with you. Does it have all of the built-in features of a laptop? No, but it does offer more I/O options than most while remaining portable. 

If you have been curious about the options within the portable PC market, keep your eyes on Intel’s NUC line-up. Intel did tease their NUC 13 Extreme at TwitchCon, but that is a whole other beast! 

For now, Serpent Canyon delivered an experience that we would feel confident taking on the road with us. 

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

8.0Great
Pros
  • Excellent mid range performance
  • Decent value for a portable system
  • Intel Arc GPU performs well in its first showings
Cons
  • With Alder’s Lake’s capabilities to use DDR5, choosing DDR4 seems like a step backward
  • Arc GPU may get better as more developers integrate it and drivers update
  • Power brick is a bit chonky


Pastor_Dame

Damien Gula

Born in the heyday of mullets and the El Camino to a tech-foward family, Damien joined the MMORPG.com team back in 2017 to review hardware and games as well as provide coverage for press preview events. He has participated in a number of MMOs over the years, including World of Warcraft, RIFT, Guild Wars 2, and the Destiny series. When he isn't writing for MMORPG.com, Damien is a pastor by trade who loves talking with anyone interested about life, God, and video games (in no particular order). He also co-hosts a podcast dedicated to these conversation with fellow MMORPG writer Matt Keith called Roll The Level.