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Intel NUC 11 Extreme Kit powers a wee beastie of a gaming PC

Hands-on with Intel's 11th-gen Next Unit of Computing, which lets you pack a lot of power into a very compact PC.

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The kit includes the Compute Element module -- a tiny unit with a motherboard containing a CPU, slots for memory and storage and rear connectors  -- plus an 8L case with fans and 650w power supply. You don't have to keep the skull plate if you don't like it.

Lori Grunin/CNET

If you want your PC to be really small but still powerful enough to game -- in other words, accommodate a full-size graphics card -- things can get tough, with 10 liters a common lower bound. Intel's NUC 11 Extreme Kit "Beast Canyon" squeezes all the gaming essentials, including an Intel Core i7 or i9 overclockable processor, room for a GPU as large as an Nvidia RTX 3080 Ti, and slots for up to 64GB RAM, into a case just a little bigger than an Xbox Series X.  

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The Compute Element has a fan and a lot of empty space for airflow to keep the CPU, memory and SSD from getting too hot.

Lori Grunin/CNET

The key to the kit is Intel's Next Unit of Computing Compute Element, a self-contained motherboard module comprised of a CPU with supporting chipset, memory and NVMe slots, networking chipsets and antennas, plus a full set of connectors like you'd find on any typical motherboard. The kit itself includes the CE plus a case with a backplane that includes a slot for a GPU, power supply, front connectors, fans and RGB lighting. 

You don't have to use the NUC with Intel's kit; third parties make systems built around the NUC -- such as Razer's Tomahawk Gaming Desktop -- and you can buy the module by itself as an easy way to upgrade your CPU and connections. 

Intel expects to begin shipping sometime between Sept. and Oct., expanding into regions outside the US, China and Europe through the end of the year. There's no final pricing yet, but Intel expects the kit to run $1,150-$1,350 and $780-$980 for the Compute Element alone. You can preorder some basic configurations now from SimplyNUC.

Intel NUC 11 Extreme Kit

Estimated price Approximately $1,150-$1,350 for the kit, $780-$980 for the Compute Element alone
Size 8 liter (14.1 x 7.4 x 4.7 in/357 x 189 x120 mm)
Motherboard Intel NUC11BTMi9 or NUC11BTMi7 and 650w 80+ Gold PSU
CPU 3.3GHz Intel Core i9-11900KB or Core i7-11700B
Memory Supports 2 dual-channel SO-DIMMs up to 64GB
Graphics Up to a 12-inch, dual-slot graphics card that draws 350w or less
Storage Four M.2 key M slots: 2280 CPU-attached PCIe X4 Gen4 NVMe, two 2242/80 PCH-attached PCIe x4 Gen3 NVMe or SATA3 SSD, RAID-0 and RAID-1 capable, CPU-attached 42/80/110 PCIe X4 Gen4, Intel Optane M10, H10, H20 and Intel Optane SSD ready
Ports 8 x USB-A, 2 x USB-C/Thunderbolt 4, 1 x HDMI 2.0b, combo audio jack
Networking 1 x 2.5Gb Ethernet, Intel AX201 WiFi 6 (802.11ax), Bluetooth 5.2
Operating system None included

I got a chance to test a preproduction, prebuilt version of the kit equipped with the Core i9 CE, 16GB RAM, 500GB NVMe SSD and an Asus Dual RTX 3060 graphics card.

The way Intel manages to put an i9 in such a small system with just some basic fans is by using a B-series processor. Those are middle-of-the-road 65w versions of its overclockable desktop CPUs, the same power draw as the mobile versions but in a smaller package. The standard i9-11900K goes up to 95w.

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There are ways the case could be a little friendlier, but it's not bad. You unscrew the back cover, slide the sides out and tilt back the top fan section to get to the guts of the system. There's enough room to accommodate a dual-slot graphics card that's less than a foot long and draws less than 350w power.

Lori Grunin/CNET

The tradeoff seems to be speed. For instance the NUC kit delivered roughly the same performance on processor tests as a Core i7-10700K. You don't get penalized for the GPU, though; I didn't get a chance to swap it, but the RTX 3060 performed almost identically across the board to one tested in a larger system. That's without Resizeable BAR enabled, though, so you might expect a slightly better showing.

You can use a much more powerful graphics card and I think the case can handle the heat output of higher-end cards, since there's ventilation on all sides and fans on top. It might be a different story if your GPU blows air toward the CE module rather than toward the outside vent, though.

The CPUs include integrated graphics (if you want to wait until graphics card supplies ease or just need a small desktop with a higher-power CPU than you get many laptops), but while the CPU is Tiger Lake generation it uses the old Intel UHD 630 graphics architecture rather than the newer Iris Xe.  

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The Compute Element fits into a PCIe slot on the backplane and the plastic cover (left) fits over the fan for airflow access to the outside of the system.

Lori Grunin/CNET

When it comes to rolling my own PC, I fall into the "Anything's fair game except I don't want to touch the CPU or design a cooling system appropriate to everything I want to pack in" camp. I have a history of shaky hands, bent pins and little patience. A motherboard with a preinserted CPU that's small enough to fit on my desk with two monitors appeals to me a lot. 

And the fact that it has two Thunderbolt 4 connections, still a rarity in a desktop, is a big plus for me, as is the PCIe 4 bus. Skull graphic aside -- you don't have to keep the one on the front of the system -- I also really like the underlighting.

Its layout isn't bad, but it's not great. Of necessity, everything's crammed in pretty tightly with clunky power cables and it's tough to reach in far enough to press the slot release for the GPU. Intel's 8L chassis is bigger than previous models, which ran closer to 5L, so going just a little bit bigger to add some hand-wiggle room shouldn't be a stretch. Especially since to access the memory and SSD you've got to remove the GPU and open up the NUC. Fewer screws would be much appreciated as well. 

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To get into the Compute Element, you unscrew a couple of screws and tilt the center section down. That gives you access to the SSD and memory slots.

Lori Grunin/CNET

I think the layout and the resulting location of the Wi-Fi antennas, affects signal stability. It disconnected so frequently I had to switch to Ethernet just to install a few games, a problem I haven't had much since the AX200; that's a common problem with desktops, but many gaming systems ship with external antennas you can use to boost the signal. A Bluetooth-connected controller felt a tiny bit laggy, too.

The NUC 11 Extreme Kit has its place, but it's less of a full-on retail product than a proof-of-concept to inspire other manufacturers to offer sleeker NUC-based designs -- or to give twiddlers a box for fun and experimentation.