Modular design allows for fast, easy upgrades in a mini-PC
Ample number of ports, including two Thunderbolt 3
Fans run fairly quiet, with a tolerable pitch
Where’s the RGB?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.)
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.)
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
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
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Since our Ghost Canyon NUC9i9QNX delivers such consistent performance in actual games with its retail RTX 2070, I’m not going to focus on those results when discussing these next two benchmarks. I’d rather draw attention to how these NUC 9 Extreme machines depend on a dedicated graphics card for gaming. Unlike with Skull Canyon and Hades Canyon, where adding a separate GPU was optional, you must buy one to play in virtual worlds or even get an assist in content creation tasks.
That’s because the CPUs in the Compute Elements use standard Intel H-class processors. This NUC does not feature special, souped-up integrated graphics. You only get vanilla Intel UHD Graphics that can’t take you beyond powering multiple 4K displays (up to three total).
In fact, we had to use 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider as our first gaming test because our attempt to start with 2017’s Middle-earth: Shadow of War was flat-out refused by the game. (We couldn’t run the benchmark at a lower graphics setting, because almost all of our comparison machines have been returned to the vendors and weren’t available for new tests.)
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Traveling further back in time to 2014’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor doesn’t change the story at all, even though the game is less punishing than Rise of the Tomb Raider. If anything, this benchmark makes the Skull Canyon’s Iris Pro 580 look respectable with its four-year-old, 1080p-capable integrated graphics.
Why do this to the Intel UHD Graphics 630 part, when we already knew what was to come? I wanted to clearly sketch out the NUC9i9QNX’s reliance on a discrete graphics card to realize its potential. These sets of numbers make it concrete.
Some folks may wonder (like I did) if the Core i9-9980HK holds back the RTX 2070 in our review unit, relative to a desktop CPU. So I fired up a few modern AAA games that can punish a GPU when all the bells and whistles get cranked up—because if you’re losing frames, you’ll care more about it in those kinds of titles.
First I ran benchmarks in three games on the NUC9i9QNX. Then I removed its Asus Dual RTX 2070 Mini, installed that card in the Ryzen 7 2700X streaming PC I built for work purposes while sheltering in place, and ran the same tests again.
(Why not the Core i9 9900K? Or Ryzen 7 3700X? Had they been available to me, I would have used them, but I had to make do with what I had on hand.)
In situations that rely more heavily on the GPU, you don’t lose much. On Ultra settings, Borderlands 3 has a drop of 4.9 percent in performance at 1080p, and 4.3 percent at 1440p. You still remain above the golden standard of 60 fps at 1080p, and in the low 50s at 1440p—not a difference you’d distinctly feel.
The results in Metro Exodus, also a heavyweight game, show an even narrower gap in the numbers. We ran this benchmark on Ultra with ray-tracing and DLSS turned off. The performance dip between the PCWorld Streaming PC and the Ghost Canyon NUC9i9QNX is 3.9 percent at 1080p and 2 percent at 1440p—or about 2 fps at 1080p and just 1 fps at 1440p.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
But what about a game that leans heavier on the CPU? Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has a reputation for gobbling CPU resources, so I threw it into the mix and ran its benchmark on Ultra High.
At 1080p, the performance drop mirrors that of Borderlands 3 and Metro Exodus, with a 4.7 percent difference (or 3 fps). That jumps up to 7.5 percent at 1440p, but works out to only 4 fps.
Keep in mind these numbers only loosely indicate the effect of the Core i9-9980HK on gaming performance. (If I had used a Core i9-9900K or even a Ryzen 7 3700X as the desktop processor in this set of comparisons, the hard numbers would have bigger gaps between them.) Ultimately, the takeaway from the benchmarks is that the NUC9i9QNX does post very good framerates, even if outdone by beefier CPUs.
Normally in this section, I’d cover both power draw and acoustics, but I didn’t get the meter I needed to test power draw in time for this review. I’m hoping to add that information in an update.
The NUC9i9QNX kept fairly quiet throughout testing. Fan noise is audible but low in pitch, so it hums along as pleasant white noise. I was a bit surprised, because Ghost Canyon’s side panels are open grilles and don’t dampen any sound.
(Incidentally, this mini PC does shed a lot of heat through those side panels and the two 80mm exhaust fans mounted at the top of the chassis.)
For graphics card (or other expansion card) acoustics, your mileage will vary based on the card you choose.
When decked out with the best in hardware, Ghost Canyon packs an incredible punch for its size. Intel has always poured love into its high-performing mini PCs, and the NUC9i9QNX’s excellence reflects that.
But after all my hours of benchmarking, I’m not drawn to the Computer Element because of its performance. I find it appealing because of how it blurs lines between form factors, simplifies the process of building and upgrading a PC, and enables cramming top-notch hardware into small spaces.
The more partners Intel can get on board to support its shiny new tech, the greater the ways we’ll be able to use it in the future. If this kind of modular DIY PC took off, we could see more mainstream applications, too. My colleague Gordon Mah Ung suggested that newer Compute Elements could become compatible with standard motherboards and power supply pinouts, letting you breathe new life into an old desktop with minimal fuss.
Just imagine: Fifteen-minute tech support for friends and family who want a faster or newer PC. You would drop in a fresh Compute Element, reroute several cables, and end up with a system sporting a brand-new CPU, ports, wireless connectivity, and support for speedier storage and RAM…all in less time than it takes for them to complain to you about the computer’s old specs.
Such a scenario would be a relief. Serving as unpaid tech support is trying for the best of people, and I’m nowhere near that saintly.
In the near term, we can expect baby steps into this new world with the standalone release of the Compute Element later this year. It’ll be accompanied by cases from vendors like Razer and Cooler Master that accommodate full-length graphics cards and SFX power supplies, and offer layouts that make installation dead easy.
When those become available, deciding what to build will become even harder—and that’s a happy place for PC builders to live in.
Alaina Yee is PCWorld's resident bargain hunter—when she's not covering PC building, computer components, mini-PCs, and more, she's scouring for the best tech deals. Previously her work has appeared in PC Gamer, IGN, Maximum PC, and Official Xbox Magazine. You can find her on Twitter at @morphingball.