Intel Ghost Canyon NUC9i9QNX review: The first modular NUC heralds a new future for mini PCs

Intel’s latest spin on a gaming mini PC is the computer equivalent of LEGO Duplo.

Ghost Canyon NUC9i9QNX on stairs
Alaina Yee / IDG

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At a Glance
  • Ghost Canyon NUC9i9QNX

The NUC 9 Extreme NUC9i9QNX (also known as Ghost Canyon), like its forebears, showcases Intel’s latest, cutting-edge tech—and the most unpronounceable product names. It continues a tradition begun in 2016 with Skull Canyon and its 45-watt quad-core processor, followed in 2018 by Hades Canyon and its unique integrated graphics capable of modern 1080p gaming.

This time, the newest Next Unit of Computing challenges preconceptions of mini PCs by swinging away from the silicon and over to its housing.

Modularity is Ghost Canyon’s star attraction. Other tiny computers have soldered parts with restricted upgrade options, but not this NUC. Built around Intel’s Compute Element, it comes apart as big, easy-to-swap components. When you outgrow your processor, you simply replace the entire Compute Element with a more modern version. The same applies for the GPU, because you can install an off-the-shelf graphics card from the get-go.

Yes, that’s right. This NUC can be overhauled and upgraded like bigger PCs, and in mere minutes.

Design

Ghost Canyon NUC9i9QNX surrounded by other Intel mini PCs Alaina Yee / IDG

Ghost Canyon surrounded by Skull Canyon, Hades Canyon, the Intel Compute Stick, and a Broadwell-era NUC. Don't be fooled by the picture—Ghost Canyon is considerably bigger than all of them, measuring 9.37 x 8.5 x 3.78 inches (238 x 216 x 96mm).

To give Ghost Canyon its modular flexibility, Intel did have to supersize it a bit. All three flavors of this NUC—Core i5, Core i7, and Core i9—use the same five-liter chassis.

In other words, our NUC9i9QNX review unit towers over all of Intel’s itty-bitty PCs, past and present. It looms like Godzilla over the pocketable dongles and little 4 x 4-inch square boxes. Even next to the larger Skull Canyon and Hades Canyon models, it remains imposing. Ghost Canyon’s only visual tie to other NUCs is the skull graphic printed on its two side panels. (Sadly, you won’t find any panel variants or RGB lights like before.)

Given its size, you could mistake Ghost Canyon for a standard small-form-factor (SFF) build. But pop it open and you’ll find a decidedly unconventional interior.

Top down view of Ghost Canyon NUC9i9QNX with top panel off Alaina Yee / IDG

A top-down view of our NUC9i9QNX. Its RTX 2070 is toward the bottom of the photo, with the Compute Element above it.

Instead of a motherboard populated with a CPU, CPU cooler, RAM, storage, and a discrete GPU, you’ll instead find those parts divided among a few primary modules. One, of course, is the Compute Element, which contains the CPU and its cooling, along with slots for M.2 SSDs and RAM SODIMMs, system ports, and the wireless connectivity card. You pull it out as a single unit and open it up only to install SSDs and RAM—the CPU is soldered on.

The second (and possibly third) are your off-the-shelf expansion cards. You can install up to two, as the NUC 9 Extreme’s chassis has a x16 and a x4 slot, but you’re limited to cards no longer than 8 inches or wider than 2 slots. Be aware that if you populate both expansion slots, the x16 card will run at x8 speeds.

Ghost Canyon NUC9i9QNX completely empty of PCIe cards Alaina Yee / IDG

A close-up look at the baseboard in the NUC 9 Extreme. In this photo, the M.2 slot has an Intel Optane 905p SSD installed.

The final bit is a third M.2 SSD, if you choose to install one on the baseboard next to the PCIe expansion cards. Note that this particular spot supports NVMe drives only. If you add an SSD here, any card installed in the x16 slot steps down to x8 speeds.

All of these key upgrades require a single component change. You remove the part, seat its replacement, perhaps reattach a screw or a few cables, and you’re done. Maneuvering items within the confined space often takes longer than the installation process itself.

The other components and accessories, like the baseboard, power supply, and power cables, come preinstalled in the chassis and are not currently swappable.

Ghost Canyon NUC9i9QNX power supply Alaina Yee / IDG

The new NUC 9 Extreme models come with a preinstalled 500W power supply. Note that while the PSU uses a special 10-pin connector to power the system, it's unrelated to Intel’s new ATX12VO spec.

In effect, Ghost Canyon functions as a hybrid, with one foot in the customizable world of DIY PC builds, and the other still in the realm of mini PCs, where proprietary design allows maximum use of scant space. If building a regular mini-ITX, micro-ATX, or ATX PC is like assembling Lego, Ghost Canyon is like playing with Duplo.

Price, specs, and ports

Price

As with all other NUCs, Ghost Canyon is sold as a bare-bones kit. You get the chassis, a preinstalled 500W power supply with prerouted cabling, and Intel’s Compute Element (which, as mentioned above, contains the CPU and its cooling, system ports, and wireless connectivity module). Storage, RAM, any expansion cards such as a discrete GPU, and the operating system must be purchased separately.

Our review unit is the top-of-the-line version: the $1,700 NUC9i9QNX, which features an 8-core, 16-thread Core i9-9980HK. This 45W CPU runs at a base clock speed of 2.4GHz that boosts up to 5GHz. It's technically overclockable, but Intel doesn't recommend it, as doing so will void your warranty.

You also have the option of the $1,250 NUC9i7QNX, which comes with a 6-core, 12-thread Core i7-9750H (2.6GHz base clock, 4.5GHz turbo); or the $1,050 NUC9i5QNX, which has a 4-core, 8-thread Core i5-9300H (2.4GHz base clock, 4.1GHz turbo). These chips are both 45W parts, too.

NUC9i9QNB Compute Element Alaina Yee / IDG

To keep the components housed within the Compute Unit cool, Intel uses a CPU vapor chamber and 80mm fan.

Intel spared no expense in outfitting our NUC9i9QNX. The company has constantly pushed the idea of these high-end NUCs as gaming machines, and that approach continues with Ghost Canyon. Our review unit came pre-equipped with an Asus Dual RTX 2070 8GB Mini, 16GB (2x8GB) of Kingston HX432S20IB2K2 RAM running at 2667MHz, an Intel Optane 905p 380GB M.2. NVMe SSD, a 1TB Kingston KC2000 M.2 NVMe SSD, and a Windows 10 Home license.

All told, you would shell out about $3,050 at today’s street prices for an equivalent system—the 380GB Optane drive alone goes for a little over $500. For context, that amount of cash far outstrips the $1,100 and $1,550 outlay for Skull Canyon and Hades Canyon, respectively. Instead, it reaches heights similar to that of expensive gaming laptops like the $3,250 Alienware Area-51m, which is also semi-modular.

You can whittle down our Ghost Canyon NUC’s price, of course—the two storage drives inflated Intel’s bill considerably. Still, the potential for sticker shock lingers, if you’re only minding dollars and cents.

Specs and ports

Turn your attention to the technology you get for that money, though, and the outlook improves considerably. These extreme NUCs have always been about bleeding-edge technology and more ports than most people know what to do with, and Ghost Canyon packs that in.

NUC9i9QNB Compute Element with panel removed Alaina Yee / IDG

Inside the Compute Element. The M.2 slots are on the left, while the SODIMM slots are on the right.

The Compute Element itself carries most of the weight. Inside are two M.2 SSD slots that support NVMe or SATA drives—one accomodates drives up to 110mm in length, the other up to 80mm. An additional NVMe M.2 SSD up to 110mm in length can also be installed on the chassis, but if you want to set up a RAID 0 or RAID 1 configuration, you must install the two M.2 drives within the Compute Element. The Compute Element also supports Optane Memory (M10 and H10 series) and Optane SSDs.

All versions of the Compute Element accommodate up to 64GB DDR-2666MHz RAM, but only the Core i7 and Core i9 variants support overclocked RAM via XMP profiles.

For ports, you’ll find four USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps) Type-A ports, two Thunderbolt 3 ports, two gigabit LAN ports, one HDMI 2.0a, and a 3.5mm speaker/TOSLINK combo jack on the Compute Element.

Two additional USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps) Type-A ports, a 3.5mm stereo headset jack, and an SDXC slot with UHS-II support are available on the front of the chassis, while tucked inside are headers for internal front panel audio, CEC, 2x USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C, 2x USB 2.0, and SATA 3.

Performance

The blend of mini-PC sizing and DIY-build customization makes Ghost Canyon fascinating, but also a little more complicated to evaluate. You have so much freedom to tailor it to your needs, far more than any Intel NUC before it.

Given our time constraints and home lab setup, we couldn’t dive deep into all major use cases. Instead, we looked at performance more broadly, using a variety of CPU and gaming benchmarks to find the NUC9i9QNX’s boundaries. Then we stacked it against both laptop and desktop systems, because when we asked ourselves which group served as competition, the answer was...yes.

General performance

With Skull Canyon and Hades Canyon, we started with the most interesting part of the tale—gaming performance. Their integrated graphics pushed limits in ways not seen before.

This time, we begin with tests that focus on the CPU and its output. Because any graphics card you drop into a NUC 9 Extreme will be a known quantity, exploring its performance revolves more around common concerns, i.e., enough airflow to deliver expected framerates.

The Compute Element, on the other hand, has a compact layout that could potentially throttle CPU performance. How does our NUC9i9QNX’s Core i9-9980HK fare against both spacious laptops with the same class of mobile chips, and desktop processors with more horsepower and room to throw off heat?

Cinebench R15

ghost canyon cinebench R15 benchmark chart Alaina Yee / IDG

First up is Cinebench R15. This benchmark doesn’t push as hard as Cinebench R20’s more contemporary, longer test, but it still serves as a good gauge of how the processor manages short bursts of full utilization. It provides results quickly, too—most systems take just a few minutes to generate the 3D scene.

Having seen the Core i9-9980HK in other systems, we already knew it easily handles everyday tasks like web browsing and document editing. Its Cinebench score only confirms that, and overall it holds up well against competing machines with similar chips.

The one intriguing detail is how NUC9i9QNX between falls between Acer’s 10.5-pound, 17-inch Predator Helios 700 laptop and Dell’s 4.5-pound, 15-inch XPS 15, which have the same mobile processor. Before digging into the numbers, we had wondered if the Compute Element's freedom from sharing space with a screen and a full array of other components would be an advantage. In this particular set of data, devices with roomier digs seem to gain an edge.

(We can’t say anything more sweeping than that, as engineers design cooling for laptops specific to each model. It makes in-depth, apples-to-apples comparisons between all these form factors nearly impossible.)

Handbrake 0.9.9

ghost canyon handbrake benchmark chart Alaina Yee / IDG

Next we turn to HandBrake, a popular encoding program, to see how the NUC9i9QNX handles content-creation tasks. Our real-world test involves converting a 30GB MKV file into a smaller MP4 using the Android Tablet preset, and it hits the CPU hard.

Again the NUC9i9QNX’s Compute Element lands just under the Predator Helios 700, with an encode time of 23 minutes. That speed holds up well against full-socketed 95W+ parts, as the 9900K clocks in at 18 minutes and the 2700X at about 20 minutes. For processing smaller, shorter jobs, you don’t give up too much performance.

As in previous years, I also ran HandBrake separately with Intel’s Extreme Tuning Utility (XTU) open in the background, to see how hot this NUC gets under a full CPU load. According to XTU’s monitoring tools, the Core i9-9980HK hit a max temperature of 75 degrees Celsius while averaging 3.44GHz across all 8 cores. The result tracks with my expectations—temperatures drop as NUC size increases. (Skull Canyon ran at 100 degrees Celsius during this same test, while Hades Canyon ran at 84 degrees Celsius.)

Gaming performance

Given that the NUC9i9QNX relies on discrete graphics for its gaming chops, our curiosity about its performance revolved around three questions. First and foremost, would its densely packed chassis lack sufficient air flow and throttle performance?

On a more philosophical level, we also wondered just how much skipping the purchase of a discrete graphics card hampers the potential of this NUC. What exactly happens when you rely solely on the Core i9-9980HK’s integrated graphics?

Finally, does having a mobile CPU pull down performance relative to a system with a desktop processor?

3DMark Fire Strike

ghost canyon fire strike benchmark chart Alaina Yee / IDG

We kick off the gaming party with 3DMark’s well-known synthetic benchmark, which simulates gaming at 1080p on Medium settings. Since we’re including older NUCs and their integrated graphics in our comparison, we’ve once again isolated the graphics score to minimize potential influence of the CPU on results.

The numbers shake out as anticipated when a system has adequate airflow. Our Ghost Canyon NUC’s off-the-shelf RTX 2070 hits right where it ought to, given that this Asus Dual Mini card essentially has reference specs.

Also meeting expectations are the integrated graphics found in our NUC9i9QNX’s Core i9-9980HK. The Intel UHD Graphics 630’s bottom-of-the-barrel score might not mean much if you don’t read graphics card reviews often, so let’s move on to the real-world game results for a better view of the situation.

Next page: More gaming benchmarks, acoustic performance, and final thoughts

At a Glance
  • The latest Next Unit of Computing may be less compact than its predecessors, but that sacrifice enables room for a intriguing modular design—one that opens the door to exciting possibilities.

    Pros

    • Modular design allows for fast, easy upgrades in a mini-PC
    • Highly customizable
    • Ample number of ports, including two Thunderbolt 3
    • Fans run fairly quiet, with a tolerable pitch

    Cons

    • Expensive
    • Where's the RGB?
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