Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) mini-PCs are a long-running platform that lets the big chip maker showcase how much performance and functionality can fit in a compact, minimalist desktop design. The NUC 12 Extreme Kit under review here (dubbed “Dragon Canyon” during its development) is a gaming desktop barely larger than a game console, but packing in some major firepower: a 12th Generation Intel “Alder Lake” Core desktop processor, plus the space and power delivery for a full-length graphics card. Not only that, but it’s also entirely end-user upgradable, from its SO-DIMM RAM and three M.2 storage-drive slots to its actual CPU, via Intel's unique Compute Element platform.
A traditional mid-tower desktop with these specs would doubtlessly cost less; sold only as a barebones unit, the NUC 12 Extreme Kit starts at $1,150 with a Core i7 Compute Element installed, jumping to $1,450 for the Core i9 version we’re testing. That’s before you add your own RAM, storage, operating system, and graphics card. But the allure of a mini-PC that can do it all is undeniable, and the NUC 12 Extreme Kit’s outstanding performance and practicality make it our top gaming mini-PC, and a repeat Editors' Choice award winner.Our Experts Have Tested 37 Products in the Desktop PCs Category in the Past YearSince 1982, PCMag has tested and rated thousands of products to help you make better buying decisions. (See how we test.)
The NUC 12 Extreme Kit is a refresh of 2021’s NUC 11 Extreme Kit (“Beast Canyon”), using much the same chassis and internal layout. (See our deep-dive interview with the Intel NUC team around the time of the NUC 11 launch.) It makes the all-important jump to Intel’s 12th Generation Core Alder Lake platform, which is leaps and bounds more capable than the 11th Generation “Tiger Lake” silicon that was used in the NUC 11 Extreme Kit.(Photo: Molly Flores)
Our NUC12EBDi9 review unit features the 65-watt Core i9-12900, a lower-wattage version of the 125-watt Core i9-12900K. (Hit that link for a thorough background on Alder Lake and its hybrid architecture.) The Core i9-12900’s Performance-core (P-core) Turbo Boost is just 100MHz lower (5.1GHz versus 5.2GHz), which means that its peak performance should be similar, but it will produce less heat in long-running tasks since its base clock is much lower. (That's 2.4GHz versus 3.2GHz; look for our benchmarks later.)
The NUC 12 Extreme Kit is also available with the Core i7-12700 (the kit dubbed NUC12DCMi7, with Compute Element model NUC12EDBi7), a likewise lower-wattage version of the Core i7-12700K. No budget-friendly (friendlier?) Core i5 options are planned, though Intel will be offering the NUC 12 Extreme Kit with Intel vPro remote management features as separate SKUs.
Start up the NUC 12 Extreme Kit—after you assemble it, of course, more about which later—and you’re greeted with a fearsome RGB-backlit skull faceplate. Love it or hate it, count me in the former; this is one brash mini-PC, and it makes no pretense of hiding that.(Photo: Molly Flores)
But if you’re in the second camp, the faceplate is removable. You can replace the skull with your own design, printed on transparency film, or simply turn off the lighting in the BIOS. The NUC’s side panels are also RGB-lit along the bottom edges, much like a modded-up car with ground-effects lighting.(Photo: Molly Flores)
Size-wise, the NUC 12 Extreme Kit is 7.4 by 4.7 by 14 inches (HWD), or just long enough to fit a full-length (12-inch), two-slot desktop graphics card. The interior volume is just under eight liters, which makes the compact 12-liter Corsair One i300 seem downright brawny.
Connectivity is one of the NUC 12 Extreme Kit’s strengths. On the front are two USB 3.2 Gen 2 ports (one Type-A and one Type-C; the NUC 11 Extreme Kit had two Type-As), a full-size SD card reader, and a headset jack. The card reader is a rare and nice sop to content creators and pro photography hounds.(Photo: Molly Flores)
The backplane has six USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A and two Thunderbolt 4 ports. The Core i9 model seen here has both 10Gbps and 2.5Gbps Ethernet jacks whereas the Core i7 model just gets the 10Gbps jack. The HDMI 2.0b video output is for the CPU’s onboard graphics.(Photo: Molly Flores)
Note that no dedicated graphics card is installed for these photos, but two slots over is where you’d have the video connectors poking out on whichever card you install. The HDMI output on the Compute Element lets you rely on the on-chip Intel UHD Graphics on the Compute Element without a video card, if you need to. But given how much you paid for a chassis like this that supports a big graphics card, what's the fun in that?(Photo: Molly Flores)
The power cord also connects back here. More about the power supply once we open up the chassis...(Photo: Molly Flores)
Wireless networking comes from an Intel AX211 Wi-Fi 6E card with an antenna that’s built into the case instead of being external.
Inside the NUC 12 Extreme Kit is where the magic happens. As noted, this NUC is sold only as a barebones unit (hence the “Kit” in the name), so being able to install components is a mandatory skill.
How to get inside isn’t obvious. It starts with removing four Phillips-head screws on the plastic back panel. (Tip: you must maneuver the top part of the back panel off before the bottom will unhook.) With the back of the unit exposed, you’ll need to remove another screw that holds down a latch, just below the power connector, and release it; this allows both side panels to slide forward and away. After all that, you can pull up the top panel, which hinges upward as seen below.(Photo: John Burek)
The top comprises three fans supplying robust cooling for the Core i9 CPU in the Compute Element, and for your video card. Here’s the NUC 12 Extreme Kit’s interior as it comes in the box.(Photo: John Burek)
The skull-emblazoned module is the Intel Compute Element. It’s essentially a mini-motherboard inside a compartment where you’ll find the CPU, three M.2 Type-2280 PCIe Gen4 x4 slots for SSD storage, and two SO-DIMM slots. The RAM standard is DDR4-3200, not DDR5, though in fairness, DDR5 memory in SO-DIMM format isn’t generally available yet. Up to 64GB of RAM is supported, on two 32GB SO-DIMMs.(Photo: John Burek)
Here, once we removed the Compute Element’s plastic cooler ductwork you see above (just one screw, and it lifts off) and unscrewed the front face of the Element module itself, we could see the Compute Element is actually quite motherboard-like inside...(Photo: John Burek)
Note the SO-DIMM slots to the right of the big silver CPU heatsink, and the sticky gray M.2 thermal strips on the heatsinks, exposing two of the M.2 slots. The CPU in this case is socketed, as you can see from the removable screws at the corners of the heatsink, as opposed to the mobile CPU in the NUC 11 Extreme's Compute Element. The fan in the Compute Element's cover cools the Compute Element's interior by drawing fresh air from outside. Meanwhile, the three top-mounted fans draw air through the mesh side panels and upward. The fans are audible while gaming, but we had no noise complaints; the fans are low-toned and ignorable, no louder than they’d be in a typical gaming mid-tower. In fact, the NUC 12 Extreme Kit often ran silently when we weren’t pushing demanding compute tasks through it.
Back to the assembly process. The Compute Element module itself can be taken out to do any component installs, which isn’t hard to do but isn’t strictly necessary. (We installed the boot M.2 SSD and SO-DIMMs with the Compute Element still installed in its slot.) The Compute Element connects to the PC via a PCIe Gen4 x16 slot on the bottom backplane board, which Intel calls the "NUC Board Element." This modular design allows you, down the line, to swap in a new Compute Element and stay current without replacing the entire PC. (Not even a Mini-ITX motherboard would fit in this PC, so proprietary upgrades via newer Compute Elements are the only upgrade direction you can go.)
Your graphics card slots in right next to the Compute Element, with millimeters to spare between it and the airflow duct. The built-in 650-watt SFX-format power supply has a modular design and is good for powering even a 12-inch GeForce RTX 3080 Ti. You get twin eight-pin GPU power connectors, with lengths just right for the tight interior without cluttering it up with excess cable run.
On that note, there’s nothing stopping you from installing a workstation GPU and using the NUC 12 Extreme Kit as a mini-workstation, either. Keeping it simple, we installed a small Asus-brand GeForce RTX 3060, the same card that was installed in the 2021 Beast Canyon NUC 11 Extreme predecessor model we tested.(Photo: Charles Jefferies)
Rounding out the expansion capability is a third M.2 Type-2280 slot, also PCIe Gen4 x4, on the rear of the Compute Element. There’s also a hatch on the case’s underside that looks M.2-size for quick access, but it led to a blank bit of PCB in our sample. In the NUC 11, it was the doorway to an M.2 slot on the underside of the NUC’s baseboard. Here, a third M.2 slot is on the reverse side of the Compute Element module itself.
Overall, the NUC 12 Extreme Kit is remarkably modular for such a small PC. Intel notably backs it with a three-year warranty, though by this PC's nature it’s not a whole-system warranty. If your own-supplied graphics card or RAM or SSD fails, Intel won’t be replacing that, so choose the components you install wisely.
No spoiler alert necessary: The NUC 12 Extreme Kit is one of the fastest, baddest mini-PCs you can buy. I paired it off against some other seriously fast compact PCs for our performance benchmarks, including the liquid-cooled, $4,999-as-tested Corsair One i300, the even more expensive Maingear Turbo, and the relatively budget-friendly NZXT H1 Mini Plus. See their basic loadouts below.
The only truly "mini" PC among them is the NUC 11 Extreme Kit. We tested the NUC 12 Extreme Kit with the exact parts we used testing that unit, so we could isolate the CPU performance differences. Most of the following analysis will focus on the NUC duo; comparisons to the others will be largely academic, since the NUCs are only sold as barebones units. Unless you use the same parts as we did—a 500GB Sabrent Rocket 4.0 SSD, 16GB (two 8GB SO-DIMMs) of DDR4-3200 RAM, Windows 11, and an Asus-brand GeForce RTX 3060 graphics card—your performance mileage will vary.
The NUC 12 Extreme Kit was off to a promising start in our first test, UL’s PCMark 10, which simulates a variety of real-world productivity and office workflows to measure overall system performance. It improved on the NUC 11 Extreme Kit by a few percentage points which, given the test isn’t entirely CPU-restricted, is about what to expect.
Our other three benchmarks focus on the CPU, using all available cores and threads, to rate a PC's suitability for processor-intensive workloads. Maxon's Cinebench R23 uses that company's Cinema 4D engine to render a complex scene, while Primate Labs' Geekbench 5.4 Pro simulates popular apps ranging from PDF rendering and speech recognition to machine learning. Finally, we use the open-source video transcoder HandBrake 1.4 to convert a 12-minute video clip from 4K to 1080p resolution (lower times are better).
Our final productivity test is Puget Systems' PugetBench for Photoshop, which uses the Creative Cloud version 22 of Adobe's famous image editor to rate a PC's performance for content creation and multimedia applications. It's an automated extension that executes a variety of general and GPU-accelerated Photoshop tasks ranging from opening, rotating, resizing, and saving an image to applying masks, gradient fills, and filters.
Here's where the NUC 12 Extreme Kit’s new Core i9-12900 chip comes into its own. It dominated the NUC 11 Extreme Kit’s Core i9-11900KB, scoring 50% higher score in Cinebench and 41% higher in Geekbench. The NUC 12 Extreme Kit even outdid the Maingear and its Ryzen 9 5950X in that one test.
For Windows PCs, we run both synthetic and real-world gaming tests. The former includes two DirectX 12 gaming simulations from UL's 3DMark, Night Raid (more modest, suitable for systems with integrated graphics) and Time Spy (more demanding, suitable for gaming rigs with discrete GPUs). Also looped into that group is the cross-platform GPU benchmark GFXBench 5, which we use to gauge OpenGL performance.
Beyond that, our real-world gaming testing comes from the in-game benchmarks of F1 2021, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and Rainbow Six Siege representing simulation, open-world action-adventure, and competitive/esports shooter games, respectively. On desktops, we run them at their highest quality presets (F1 2021 at Ultra High, and Valhalla and Siege at Ultra) at 1080p, 1440p, and 4K resolutions.
The NUC 12 Extreme Kit’s performance gains over the NUC 11 Extreme Kit aren’t small, topping 10% in Time Spy and nearly doubling in the CPU-limited Night Raid. Mystically, the NUC 12 Extreme Kit matched or exceeded the NUC 11 Extreme Kit’s numbers in F1 2021 without DLSS but underperformed with DLSS. Nonetheless, most of the numbers agree that the NUC 12 Extreme Kit is the better gaming machine.
Even beastlier than its “Beast Canyon” predecessor, the NUC 12 Extreme Kit continues pushing the envelope for high-performance mini-PCs. Our Core i9 model showed across-the-board performance gains, thanks to its Alder Lake CPU. Despite its compactness, this mini-PC offers excellent end-user upgradability, including slots for three M.2 PCIe storage drives and most important, support for a full-length graphics card.
Now, given the NUC 12 Extreme Kit is only sold as a barebones unit, you’ll need to install your own components—memory, storage, an operating system, and a graphics card—but we found the install wasn’t all that difficult. Provided you’re willing to tackle that, the NUC 12 Extreme Kit is a marvel of a mini-PC that won’t make you wish you bought a bigger tower.
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