Intel Ghost Canyon NUC: the Digital Foundry verdict

One-off novelty or the start of something special?

Intel's new Ghost Canyon NUC is a fascinating device. In theory it possesses more CPU power than the next-gen consoles with GPU power that's likely to be broadly equivalent to what Sony delivers with PlayStation 5. It's a machine that can work well in your office but it's also small and discreet enough to happily sit next to your TV in the living room. I rather like this design - the PC is the ultimate evolving platform with the most versatility - the most freedom - in choosing how to game, with a huge array of upgrade options. The NUC delivers all of this appeal in an absolutely tiny package.

You can see how the machine is put together at the nuts and bolts level in the video review embedded below, but suffice to say that the design is relatively straightforward. If you've built your own PC before, you'll have no problem in stripping back the NUC to its core components. Upgrading the GPU is easy enough - you'll only need to remove six screws in total, along with one side panel, a retention bracket and the top portion of the case, in order to be able to remove the existing card. Extracting the compute element - required to gain access to memory and storage - is more of a challenge. You'll also need to be careful: one of the WiFi antenna terminals came away in its entirety during my teardown. The design seems to be a little more fragile than your average PC, while obviously you have a lot less room to work in.

I think we've established that compared to a mini-ITX gaming build, you're trading some performance for a huge reduction in form factor - but you're paying a bit premium in the process. However, the concept of the compute element itself is ingenious and I'd really like to see this evolve into its own market segment. Mini GPUs are nothing new, but combining them with compute element designs delivers something genuinely new.

The Digital Foundry video review of the new Intel Ghost Canyon NUC 9 Extreme.

Meanwhile, I see no reason why AMD couldn't release its own take on the compute element - fundamentally, it's a miniature motherboard built onto a standard PCIe interface. Based on our experience with Ryzen 4000, AMD could deliver something very special here too. The compute element design could go further too, beyond delivering small form factor PCs. The ability to integrate an entire mini-PC into a traditional desktop has mouthwatering possibilities. Plug in a USB capture solution and fashion a power switch of some description and you have a really powerful streaming set-up, for starters.

I'm hopeful that this form factor can catch on, especially when the likes of Razer and Corsair are producing their own larger chassis designs big enough to enclose and power an RTX 2080 Ti. My only concern right now is that the compute element is novel enough to command a high price point. The entry level is the Core i5 9300H - four cores and eight threads priced at an eye-watering $1050. That's not really good enough. Six cores and 12 threads are delivered with the Core i7 9750H ($1250) while the base kit reviewed here stretches to circa $1700. With prices this high, it may make more sense simply to build a 'larger but still relatively compact' mITX PC and save yourself a small fortune. In the case of the i5 and i7, you can actually get entire gaming laptops with the same processor for the same price, which is a sobering thought.

There is the sense that Intel realises that this is something of a novelty package, in the here and now, at least. That explains why the fully constructed NUC we were sent for review was supplied in a sturdy flight case with shoulder strap, which is pretty neat, but does come across as an attempt to justify the high pricing. The novelty factor also explains why the package also includes a black light torch that illuminates a skull motif on the casing. There's the sense that Intel is positioning this as a bit of a collector's edition premium device.

But hopefully this is the start of something new and exciting - fundamentally, I really like the core ambition behind this product. Intel has successfully tackled some pretty severe thermal challenges and having so much performance in so small a box is quite an achievement, with the ability to upgrade addressing one of the fundamental disadvantage of prior Intel NUCs. Ghost Canyon may be more of a novelty proposition in the here and now, but with Intel set to transition to 10nm for future processors and Nvidia moving onto 7nm for its GPUs, the same form factor could deliver so much more performance within just a couple of years - so what's impressive in the here and now could end up evolving into something incredible.

Intel Ghost Canyon NUC analysis:

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About the author

Richard Leadbetter

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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