How to Buy an Intel® NUC

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As we all hunker down and start a serious foray into work from home lifestyles, some of us are still interested in building our own computers. DIY mods are a large part of the desktop market, and you can sometimes save a lot of money by putting your own PC together.

What is it?

This is why Intel® is invested so heavily in the NUC brand. NUC stands for Next Unit of Computing, a small form factor that Intel® invented, which is a system that uses a barebones compact motherboard/slot combo that allows near total customization. You want great RAM? Add your own. You want a faster PCIe SSD drive? Help yourself. The initial push for NUCs was to create your own computer for less than a packaged system (check out our last article on NUCs here, which explains how to put one together in minutes.

There are now Intel® NUCs for a variety of needs. There are business NUCs that handled mostly high-powered business applications (like the Intel® NUC 8 Business Mini Desktop) gaming (the Intel® NUC 8 VR NUC8I7HNK Gaming Mini PC) or general application uses (you can search for all NUCs here). Most come as barebones system—you have to supply a monitor, RAM, storage and operating system, which can get pricey, depending on your needs.

Intel® NUC 8 Business Mini Desktop Computer

They also come equipped with a wide variety of processors, from Intel® Celeron® to Intel® Core™ i9, and the prices scale accordingly (the Intel® Celeron™ unit goes for less than $200, and the newer Intel® Core™ i9 tips the scales at just over $1,600).

Intel® NUC 9 NUC9i9QNX Extreme Kit

One of the drawbacks of these compact computers has been the lack of dedicated, powerful graphics options. While some did include a discrete graphics chip (a must-have for gamers and creative professionals working with video and graphic design), many are sold barebones, but until now the small size precluded the addition of dedicated graphics cards, which could take up from 5 1/2 to 12 inches of space in a regular enclosure, and would also need to occupy a PCI-e slot, which is hard to include on a compact motherboard.

Along comes Intel® with its "hold my beer" mentality. Intel® loves challenges, and challenged its designers to come up with a small form factor motherboard and enclosure that would hold a new breed of graphics card—powerful, capable, even VR ready cards that now work on a mini-architecture, and contains a double-wide PCIe 3.0 x16 slot, which supports a graphics card with a maximum length of 8".

What Does it Do?

The NUC 9 Extreme is more than just a build-it-yourself mini PC kit. It uses a new modular technology, called the NUC Compute Element. This portable board can be swapped out of the system (and in the future, possibly replaced with a newer unit) with relative ease. What this means for most of us is that instead of replacing the entire motherboard in a small chassis, you can just replace the Compute Element, which comes with the processor, RAM slots, and PCIe hard drive slots already configured. Imagine you bought the NUC i3 Compute but decided later when you saved up some money that you really want the Core™ i9 version. You simply buy the corresponding Compute Element and swap it in—nothing else needs replacing. This is an insidious task in most DIY computer builds—you have to make sure the right motherboard works with the right processor, you have to make sure the heatsinks are placed and pasted correctly, you have to make sure your power supply is adequate, all a pain in the motherboard when you want to plug, play, and power on.

The NUC 9 Extreme

The specs are impressive, if you're willing to pay a premium price for them. The Core™ i9 versions uses a 2.4 GHz (base clock) Intel® Core™ i9-9980HK 8-Core processor (single core turbo max is 5 GHz), about as close to perfection and speed as most of us will see, and even rivals the powerful new Intel® Xeon™ E-2276M laptop processors, seen in mobile workstations utilized by graphic designers and high-end workflows involving CAD programs. Intel® also offers an E-2286M version of this product, called “NUC 9 Pro.”

For Whom is this NUC 9?

Now, speed demons and gaming fiends can enjoy a very powerful graphics option that will handle almost anything thrown at it visually (might we suggest the soon-to-be available ASUS Dual GeForce RTX 2070 MINI OC Edition Graphics Card, which is made specifically with the Intel® NUC 9 in mind, and in conjunction with engineers at both ASUS and Intel® on board?) and when paired with a great monitor (we used the Samsung JG56 27" 16:9 144 Hz Curved FreeSync VA Gaming Monitor, more on that later) and found the experience to be everything we had hoped for, we jumped into full gaming mode immediately. Who is this NUC 9 for? Us.

ASUS Dual GeForce RTX 2070 MINI OC Edition Graphics Card

And then the sticker shock set in, and we were a bit more skeptical.

The NUC 9 with the Intel® Core™ i9 processor runs $1,699 for the barebones system. Add the graphics card (although you can find cheaper cards) for $419, a Samsung monitor (a steal at $280) two RAM modules (at 16GB each for a total of 32GB—$123, at 8GB each for a total of 16GB—$68), a 1TB NVME M.2 SSD (like this one, which is super powerful, amazingly fast, and uses a PCIe slot and not a slower SATA interface) for $179 and add in an operating system (USB or download, there is no optical drive with this unit), and you're looking at somewhere in the ballpark of $2,800. That’s a pretty expensive ballpark, but one in which you can be guaranteed to hit homeruns for quite a while. You could opt for a lower-end processor, and decrease RAM, graphics (for VR, you don’t want to go below a GeForce GTX 1060) and storage options, but still end up north of $2,000 (see chart)

Crucial 32GB DDR4 2666 MHz SODIMM Memory Module Kit
Intel® NUC i9 Cost Intel® NUC i7 Cost Intel® NUC i5 Cost
Extreme Kit $1,639.00 Extreme Kit $1,349.00 Extreme Kit $999.00
GPU (High end) $419.00 GPU (Mid range) $399 GPU (Value) $239.00
RAM (32GB) $179 RAM (32GB) $123 RAM (16GB) $68.00
OS (Windows 10 home) $139 OS (Windows 10 home) $139 OS (Windows 10 home) $139.00
Storage (high capacity) 1TB $179 Storage (mid capacity) 512GB $79 Storage (low capacity) 256GB $64.00
Monitor $279.00 Monitor $279.00 Monitor $279.00
Total $2,834.00   $2,368.00   $1,788.00

Prices subject to change. All prices current as of April 2020. Some items may be back-ordered.

As you can see, the options sway by almost a thousand dollars. We found it hard to budge on the Samsung monitor in all scenarios, simply because it’s value-priced and has nothing but good feels going for it. When testing the unit, the Samsung JG56 monitor (the only monitor we found with a 1440p 144Hz spec) we were blown away. The colors were crisp, it utilizes AMD’s FreeSync (older models did not) and quite simply, you should not pass this monitor up if your gaming needs require a fast, affordable monitor. The affordability plays a big factor, since you’re going to sink major money into the NUC 9 unit and graphics card.

Is it a Buy, Try, or Bye Bye?

This NUC 9 Extreme is beautiful to see in action, impressive in speed and performance, and powerful enough to last on your desktop for a while before you consider your other options. But fully loaded, the unit is about as expensive as a fully decked-out custom gaming PC, which you could also build from the ground up. The difference is that you will be hard pressed to find such a complete DIY kit in such a compact form factor—this thing’s footprint is about the same as most external hard drives available today.

But that price, though... especially in today’s market. You might find that money will be better spent making your own, although we come back to form factor. There are not enough mini PCs that contain the raw power of the NUC 9 with an i9 processor, although many competitors are beginning to take hold in the market (like the Razor Tomahawk) and competitors are going to come after the hallowed Intel® Core™ processors (check out what AMD has in store for gamers with its Ryzen Threadripper series). So, the choice is a highly personal one: do you want a modular and easily customizable unit or something that doesn’t have an impact on your student loans or mortgage payments? Something that looks good on your desk, or something that can play anything you throw at it?

Let us know what you think. Does price matter? Does size matter? Would you sacrifice form for function or vice versa? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

1 Comments

Hello,

First, i hope the american people is safe about the covid 19. From Paris with love.... Well, in my opinion, of course the price is essential and the size too. I prefere build my own computer with for example the razer : less price, small and easy to transport and could be upgraded.

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