In a Nutshell
The Intel NUC 11 Extreme is the largest and the most powerful NUC to date. Featuring modular design, strong performance, and great cooling system, this tiny PC practically has no flaws, except for its price.
- High performance (given its compact dimensions)
- Quiet operation even under heavier loads
- Possibility of installing full size graphics cards
- Intelligently designed cooling system
- Compute Element concept and upgradeability
- Support for 4 NVMe SSDs
- Two Thunderbolt 4 ports
- Integrated Wi-Fi 6E and 2.5G LAN
- Built-in SD card reader
- Relatively high price
- Power supply somewhat limits the choice of graphics cards
Since their first appearance, Intel’s NUC (Next Unit of Computing) computers have been known as the best ultra-compact computers in existence. Thanks to a combination of really small dimensions and exceptional reliability, they have found application in our homes, where we use them as HTPCs, music servers and more, but also in business environments, where small NUCs have proven to be great for receptions and offices.
You can often seen NUCs in museums, government institutions and banks, fixed to the back of large TVs and displays, which are in charge of displaying the corresponding multimedia content. In short, in places where reliability, quietness and minimal space usage are required, Intel’s NUC computers continue to be the first choice, despite the existence of numerous, and mostly cheaper alternatives.
In addition to these extremely compact NUCs, Intel also offers NUCs designed for more serious gaming, which still aim to keep the external dimensions within reasonable limits, but allow the installation of a classic, discrete graphics card. The latest such Intel computer is the NUC 11 Extreme, codenamed Beast Canyon.
Intel NUC 11 Extreme Specifications
|Processor||Intel Core i7-11700B or Core i9-11900KB|
|Graphics Card||NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3060 12GB|
|Memory||32GB Crucial DDR4-3200 SO-DIMM|
|SSD||Crucial P5 Plus 1 TB (NVMe Gen4)|
|Power Supply||FSP 650 W (80+ Gold)|
|Networking||LAN (2.5 Gbit/s), Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.2|
|RAM Slots||2 x SO-DIMM DDR4, up to 64 GB|
|PCIe Slots||1 x PCIe Gen4 x16, 1 x PCIe Gen4 x4|
|M.2 Slots||2 x NVMe Gen4, 2 x NVMe Gen3|
|Front Panel||2 x USB 3.1 Gen2|
1 x 3.5 mm audio
1 x SDXC reader (UHS-II)
|Rear Panel||2 x Thunderbolt 4.0|
6 x USB 3.1 Gen2
1 x HDMI 2.0b
1x LAN (2.5 Gbit/s)
The NUC 11 Extreme is sold in two pre-configured versions at Amazon. There is the NUC11BTMi7 ($1,015) and NUC11BTMi9 ($1,190). The first one has a Core i7-11700B processor, and the latter has a built-in Core i9-11900KB. In both cases, they are Tiger Lake processors, with eight physical cores and 16 threads, both featuring a TDP of 65 W, but with slightly different operating clocks. While the Core i7-11700B ranges from 3.2 to 4.8 GHz, the Core i9-11900KB adds 100 MHz at both ends, eventually reaching a Turbo clock of 4.9 GHz, but also having TVB (Thermal Velocity Boost) clock up to a high 5.3 GHz. Both processors are soldered to the motherboard and cannot be changed (“B” in their designation means BGA), and the Core i9-11900KB is also unlocked (“K” in the designation) so there is potential for overclocking, although this is not something that we recommend doing with such a compact PC.
The rest of the configuration in both Beast Canyons is the same. The mentioned processors are joined by Gigabyte’s GeForce RTX 3060 Eagle OC 12G graphics card, equipped with 12 GB of GDDR6 video memory. There’s also 32 GB of Crucial’s DDR4-3200 SO-DIMM RAM, which fills one of the two available memory slots, and Crucial’s terabyte NVMe M.2 SSD P5 Plus, known for its good performance-to-price ratio. All of this is powered by a 650-watt FSP power supply, with an efficiency rating of 80 PLUS Gold.
In both cases, such a configuration will be sufficient for the smooth execution of all everyday tasks, as well as for comfortable gaming in 1080p and 1440p resolutions. At maximum detail, in Battlefield V you will get an average of 110 frames per second in 1080p and about 85 in 1440p. More demanding games, such as Red Dead Redemption 2, will run at around 50 FPS in Full HD, and optimized multiplayer shooters, such as Apex Legends, at over 130 FPS – all at the highest graphics settings.
|Intel NUC 11 Extreme NUC11BTMi9|
For more frames per second, it is always possible to reduce graphics settings, but there is another, less obvious option, according to which the NUC 11 Extreme differs from “ordinary” compact computers – you can replace the entire graphics card. Namely, the housing of the device is designed and organized from the inside so that it easily accepts full-size graphics cards, up to a maximum length of 305 millimeters.
In other words, if you want to upgrade to RTX 3070 or 3080 one day (or right away), nothing will stop you. Of course, there will be even more powerful graphics cards, such as the RTX 3080 Ti, but at some point you should start thinking about the power of the built-in power supply. With a capacity of 650 watts, the factory power supply unit should not be burdened with graphics cards more powerful than the RTX 3080.
However, even the RTX 3080 is on the very edge of acceptable, given that all graphics card manufacturers recommend a 750 W power supply for this GPU. Although replacement of the power supply for another ITX unit is theoretically possible, in practice no normal person will deal with it due to the complicated setup of existing cables, and the fact that the pre-installed power supply features non-standard dimensions in order to fit inside the case.
The interior of the Beast Canyon can be reached by removing a few screws and detaching the sides of the housing. The interior of the case is dominated by a large module with three 92 mm Cooler Master fans, located on the top of the case, below the metal mesh that filters dust, and the aforementioned Gigabyte RTX 3060 graphics card. This is the so-called Compute Element.
The Compute Element can in some ways be considered as computer within a computer. Namely, it is a module with a soldered processor, two slots for DDR4 SO-DIMM memory, one NVMe M.2 Gen4 slot, two M.2 NVMe Gen3 slots, 2.5G LAN card, Wi-Fi 6E wireless network card and controllers for all interfaces available to NUC 11 Extreme.
The Compute Element uses a blower fan with an additional plastic air deflector, which ensures that ambient air goes directly into the Compute Element, without dissipation into the rest of the housing. The accumulated heat is then pushed through a passive cooler to the edge of the Compute Element and directed to the fans at the top of the case, which draw it into the environment. Intel has basically achieved negative pressure inside the Beast Canyon case, which is why air tends to enter through every perforation, thus directly benefiting the graphics card’s cooling system. In our tests, the graphics processor did not exceed 70°C, no matter how much we tortured our NUC 11.
Thanks to all this, NUC 11 Extreme manages to work continuously at the very top of its capabilities, without a significant and long-lasting drop in performance caused by reaching thermal margins. Although our CPU temperature used to rise to 96°C, Intel’s toddler calmly continued to chew units and zeros, without any signs of instability or inexplicable slowdown.
Also, it should be noted that the built-in cooling system is surprisingly quiet. During the whole test, we kept the Beast Canyon next to the monitor, less than three feet from the head, but it never caught our attention with the noise of its fans. All that could be heard from the housing, in moments when the system was under heavy load, was an unobtrusive roar of air. When we dealt with everyday things, such as Internet browsing or writing documents, NUC 11 Extreme was practically silent.
If it was not clear so far, the Compute Element is the main part of Intel’s NUC, and the board in which it is inserted is actually a kind of adapter, through which other connected devices (graphics card and other M.2 NVMe Gen4 SSDs) use PCIe 4.0 lanes, 20 in total, to communicate with the rest of the system.
Extremely compact computers, regardless of their purpose, are generally not particularly upgradable, but the NUC 11 Extreme has no problem with that. In addition to receiving up to four NVMe SSDs and two SO-DIMM memory slots (one slot in the tested model was factory filled), NUC 11 supports easy replacement of the graphics card, which requires only one screwdriver and approximately five minutes of time.
Let’s not forget the very heart of the computer – the Compute Element, which can also be completely replaced. When Intel launches a new Compute Element in the coming years, with a more powerful processor, network cards and interfaces, Beast Canyon owners will simply be able to take out the current one and install the new one in its place, basically installing a brand new computer in the existing case.
We should also mention that customers who do not like Intel’s recommended configuration variants of NUC 11 Extreme for one reason or another are free to choose the graphics card, the amount of RAM and the number and type of NVMe SSDs for their copy. In other words, if you want your Beast Canyon to come with, say, three NVMe SSDs, 64GB of RAM, and an RTX 3080, all you need to do is contact your dealer and request these upgrades. Of course, the price of the system compared to the tested one here is significantly higher. The only thing that can’t be changed is the processor – the “base” must be either Core i7-11700B or Core i9-11900KB.
As we have already mentioned, on the side of the Compute Element facing the back of the case, there are all the connectors that the Beast Canyon has. These include an HDMI 2.0b video output, a pair of Thunderbolt 4.0 ports, six USB 3.1 Gen2 ports and a 2.5-gigabit LAN connector. Of course, the mentioned HDMI output is connected to an integrated graphics card, and in practice you will use video outputs on a discrete graphics card – two HDMI 2.1 and two DisplayPorts 1.4a.
It also has a connector on the front of the case, under the power button and a glowing skull, which Intel is happy to use with its gaming computers. Specifically, there are two more USB 3.1 ports, a SDXC memory card reader, and a combined 3.5 mm headphone and microphone jack.
In addition to the luminous skull, the entire underside of the Beast Canyon is illuminated, using three RGB strips. This detail seems pleasing in practice, especially because of its milky white strips, from which soft light comes out, without visible transitions between individual LEDs and uncontrolled spread on the desktop. Of course, all the mentioned RGB effects can be turned off if desired.
We can’t really say anything about the Beast Canyon housing itself that isn’t visible in the photos. It is square in shape and chamfered in several strategic places, and its top and sides are perforated, which is a very intelligent engineering move, especially considering that the cooling system is designed to achieve negative pressure in the housing (three fans extract air, and only one retracts).
Intel NUC Software
The NUC Software Studio application is used for the basic configuration of Intel NUCs. In the case of the Beast Canyon, it allows you to choose the color and effects of its luminous elements (skull in front and stripes below), or turn them off completely. We are also offered a choice of performance modes: Low Power, Balanced, Max Performance and Custom. At the same place is the setting of the fan mode, and there is a separate section for monitoring the system, where we can find out about the installed components, operating temperatures, fan speeds and other things that might interest us.
This brings us to the conclusion, where the price of $1,015 to $1,190 dollars should be dealt with, depending on the selected processor. Intel’s NUCs have always cost significantly more than the sum of the prices of their components, and NUC 11 Extreme is no exception. If your goal is to put together the cheapest compact gaming computer possible, then Beast Canyon is definitely not for you. But in case you are willing to pay a little more for a system that is fundamentally assembled as a carefully thought-out whole, then NUC 11 Extreme actually has no counterpart.