Intel’s Ghost Canyon NUC and its Compute Element card were two of the most intriguing pieces of hardware shown by the company at CES 2020. They may be tiny, but they represent some big changes to small-form-factor PCs. Here are the key questions and facts about this new generation.
What are Intel's Ghost Canyon NUC and Compute Element?
Intel's Ghost Canyon NUC is a mini-PC (also known as a small-form-factor PC), and so is the Compute Element inside of it. That's not a brain-bender, but a new, modular approach. Where prior Intel NUCs had their own motherboards, the Ghost Canyon NUC is essentially a shell with a power supply, plus a baseboard that takes the Compute Element, a full-fledged PC on a PCIe card. Theoretically, if you wanted to upgrade your Ghost Canyon NUC, you'd just remove the old Compute Element and put in a new one.
Intel’s Compute Element features either a Core i5, Core i7, or Core i9 mobile CPU, as well as two RAM and two M.2 slots. Although some vendors have said the two M.2 slots on the Compute Element card are SATA, Intel’s now-published documents say they can be configured as either SATA or NVMe, depending on the driver installed. The board features a vapor chamber for cooling plus a small fan, as well as WiFi 6.
Is the Compute Element proprietary to Intel?
Intel said it plans to build and sell the Compute Element card. One big question is just how proprietary the card is. Given that it’s basically like stripping the keyboard, speakers, display, battery, and shell from a laptop and slapping the motherboard into a PCIe card, most of that would be possible for a vendor to replicate.
Intel officials said while they aren’t encouraging third parties to build their own Compute Elements, they’re also not discouraging it. So on the proprietary scale, we’d probably put it at 3 out of 10.
What's special about the Compute Element chipset?
Intel said all Compute Element cards will be based on the CM246 chipset for its Xeon CPUs, even if it rocks a consumer-focused Core chip. Officials said that was done to simplify the boards, as there are Xeon-versions using the Xeon E-2286M as well. The bonus for consumers will be the 24 PCIe lanes available from that CM246 chipset, versus the 16 lanes of the consumer HM370 chipset.
What's up with the baseboard's non-standard 10-pin connector?
Most of the mini-PCs we saw from CyberPower, Ibuypower, Razer, and Cooler Master feature SFX or SFX-L power supplies inside the chassis. While the PSUs appear to be off the shelf, the Intel baseboard is powered by a non-standard 10-pin connector. That’s not done to mess with people—it’s likely a decision to keep the board size manageable.
We’ve spoken to PSU makers who say the 10-pin is just a combination of some of the power pins from off-the-shelf PSUs. A simple cable will make it easy to adapt to existing PSUs. And no, they have no plans to sell the 10-pin to consumers today.
The Compute Element itself runs off a standard 8-pin ATX 12V/EPS 12V connector. For a build, you’d need the 10-pin plug for the baseboard and the ATX 12V connector, plus any power the GPU might need.
The baseboard is where you customize it
The baseboard is where third-party vendors can customize. Intel's features two x16 physical PCIe slots, a physical and electrical x4 slot, and an M.2 slot with NVMe support. It can be run using the integrated graphics or discrete graphics plugged into the baseboard.
CyberPower’s Nox mini PC, built in Cooler Master’s case, will add space between the Compute Element card and the GPU to help the CPU run cooler. Razer’s Tomahawk N1 will likely delete the M.2 slot altogether, because populating it throttles bandwidth on the graphics card.
Why an NVMe drive will cut GPU bandwidth in half
Speaking of bandwidth, the Compute Element has some limitations. It appears to plumb its 16 lanes of CPU-based PCIe into the baseboard, which then divides those lanes among the graphics card, the M.2 NVMe drive, or the x4 slot. Because the CPU itself is limited to a maximum of 16 lanes of PCIe, populating the NVMe or x4 PCI slot will kick the GPU from 16 lanes to 8 lanes. While some vendors, such as Razer, aim to prevent that from happening by simply deleting both slots, others may let it slide because, well, very few consumer workloads demand the bandwidth of a full x16 connection.
The Core i9 Compute Element will push the envelope
The priciest Compute Element used in the mini PCs will feature a Core i9-9980HK with its base TDP set to 65 watts and a short term of up to 105 watts. That should yield fairly high clock speeds most of the time, rivaling those of most gaming laptops. It’s not enough to shove aside AMD’s Ryzen 3000 CPUs or even desktop Core i9 chips, but for most gaming purposes, it could be a pretty decent setup.
Why can't you upgrade your desktop with a Compute Element?
While the Compute Element is intended to make it easy to upgrade a NUC, it's not designed to upgrade a regular desktop PC. The company said if you did install it into a motherboard's PCIe slot and run power to it, the Compute Element would boot and run just fine. It just wouldn’t be able to talk to the motherboard it’s plugged into, nor would it be able to access an adjacent GPU. It’s also possible you'd have to power up the connected PC for the Compute Element to receive power through the PCIe slot, which could be problematic.
Will the Compute Element concept succeed?
With the Compute Element, Intel is clearly trying to reinvent mini-PCs. Who wouldn’t want the ability to upgrade a complete machine in five minutes?
The question is whether consumers will embrace it. We can say that seeing multiple vendor at CES with plans to offer systems on it is a good sign.
How much will the Compute Element cost?
The biggest hurdle we see in this is cost. The top-end Core i9 Intel Ghost Canyon bare-bones model with PSU and case will set you back $1,700—and you’ll still need to bring your own RAM, SSD, and OS. Prices for the Core i5 and Core i7 notch down to $1,000 to $1,300, respectively, depending on options. CyberPower’s Nox with a GeForce GTX 2080 Super is expected to sell for about $2,700. So no, this new concept of a modular PC that’s easy to upgrade won’t be cheap at first.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the CPU used for the Core i9 version of the Compute Elements. PCWorld regrets the error.