Intel NUC 12 Enthusiast review: a book-sized gaming PC

Intel Nuc 12 Enthusiast Review 1

Intel NUC 12 Enthusiast

MSRP $1,180.00

“The NUC 12 Enthusiast delivers desktop-grade performance in a small form factor.”

Pros

  • Excellent 1080p gaming performance

  • Laptop CPU equals desktop performance

  • Small and relatively quiet

  • Fantastic connectivity

Cons

  • Expensive

  • Big, clunky power wall

Intel’s NUC, or Next Unit of Computing, machines don’t usually make it into the pantheon of the best desktop computers, but the NUC 12 enthusiast is causing me to take another look. It is a DIY kit where you have to bring your own memory and storage, but the power Intel was able to pack into this machine, because its size is nothing less than remarkable.

A large asterisk is not surprisingly okay. It’s a small and very powerful PC, but it’s connected to a power brick that’s almost as big. In addition, the NUC 12 Enthusiast marks an impressive debut for Intel’s Arc Alchemist mobile graphics, which excel in the latest titles but fall behind in older games.

Even with a few suggestions, the NUC 12 Enthusiast presents many more advantages than disadvantages. On the gaming front, it can put the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X to shame at a fraction of the size. For creators, it rivals desktops that are more than 10 times as big, and with only laptop hardware in the battle.

Meet the Intel NUC 12 enthusiast

Processor Intel Core i7-12700H
Graphics card Intel Arc A770M 16GB
Ram 16GB DDR4-3200
storage 1TB NVMe PCIe 4.0 SSD
Wireless Intel Wi-Fi 6E AX 1690i, Bluetooth 5.2
Thunderstorm 2x Thunderbolt 4 / USB4 Type-C ports
Display Connections 1x HDMI 2.1, 2x DisplayPort 2.0
USB ports 6x USB 3.2 Gen2 ports
Audio ports 1x front 3.5 mm stereo, 1x rear 3.5 mm stereo
power supply 330W external power wall
Dimensions (LxWxH) 7.1 x 2.4 x 9.1 inches
List price $1,180

Intel sent the NUC 12 Enthusiast pre-configured, but if you’re not used to the NUC line, let me stop you. It’s a barebones PC, so a basic kit comes with everything inside minus storage and RAM. You have to add those yourself.

The NUC 12 Enthusiast comes with three M.2 NVMe SSD slots (two PCIe 4.0 and one PCIe 3.0), as well as two slots for up to 64GB DDR4 laptop memory (SODIMM). Although the Core i7-12700H inside the machine supports faster DDR5 memory, you are unfortunately locked to DDR4.

My configuration came with Windows 11 pre-installed, which is what I used for testing. The barebones kit does not have an operating system, however, so you are free to install Windows or one of the various Linux distros that the NUC 12 Enthusiast supports.

Smaller than a book

Intel NUC 12 enthusiast next to an Xbox Series S.

The amount of power that Intel was able to cram into the NUC 12 enthusiast is insane for its size. It is only 2.5 liters in volume. For reference, even the smallest DIY PCs are somewhere around 11 liters, while machines like the Corsair One sit around 8 liters.

In dimensions, the NUC 12 Enthusiast is only 7.1 inches long, 2.4 inches wide and 9.1 inches tall. For context, the Xbox Series S is 5.9 inches long, 2.6 inches wide, and 11 inches tall, and a reprint of Stephen King’s IT I had laid around was 5.5 inches long, 2.8 inches wide, and 8.7 inches tall. IT is a big book, sure, but it doesn’t have Thunderbolt 4 ports and a 14-core processor.

Worthless comparisons aside, it’s clear that the NUC 12 enthusiast is small. Nevertheless, it packs the latest tech under the hood: Thunderbolt 4, Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.2, and even DisplayPort 2.0; the gear is all here. The only requirements are a large 330W external power brick for the machine and a fairly large vertical stand. There are feet to set up the NUC 12 Enthusiast horizontally, however, which results in a much neater look.

You need to open the NUC 12 Enthusiast and install RAM and at least one SSD, and it’s easy enough. Intel has RAM and SSD slots on the back of the board, so you no longer have to grab sensitive components to install what you need. My only quibble is that Intel uses an Allen key for the external screws and a Philips head for the internal screws, so you can’t just grab a screwdriver and get to work. On the plus side, all of these screws are captured, so you don’t have to worry about losing them.

RAM and SSD slots in the Intel NUC 12 Enthusiast.

You are free to dig deeper into the machine if you want, although there is not much reason to. The graphics card and CPU are soldered to the board, but it’s still nice to have access under the main cavity to troubleshoot if something goes wrong.

Before you get to the SSD and RAM slots, Intel has an LED panel where you can custom decals. The panel is just a big RGB light that you can control with software, so you’re free to insert anything that might block some light for a unique design. It’s a gimmick but still a cool bit of flare.

Laptop CPU, desktop performance

The Core i7-12700H is a laptop processor, so it’s not as powerful as the Core i7-12700K or Core i9-12900K you’ll find in a full desktop. Despite being a laptop CPU, it’s the same chip in most laptops with access to better cooling and higher boost potential.

You can see this when the chip is stacked against the Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 3, which also has a Core i7-12700H. In Cinebench R23, the NUC 12 Enthusiast is about 5% ahead in single-core performance and a massive 38% ahead in multi-core performance, and that’s with the ThinkBook Plus Gen 3 in its performance mode. A tuned laptop can squeeze out a win over the NUC, however, as demonstrated by the Core i7-12800H in the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 5.

While the processor is impressive for a mobile chip, it still lags behind a full, fat desktop CPU. Even with access to fewer cores, the desktop Core i5-12600K offers better single and multi-core performance. Nevertheless, the NUC 12 puts Enthusiast closer to desktop performance than laptop performance, despite what its specifications would suggest.

Handbrake, the free video encoding app, is proof of that. Encoding times were only a few seconds longer on the Core i7-12700H compared to the desktop Ryzen 5 7600X and Core i5-12600K. In addition, more powerful laptop CPUs like the Core i9-12900H in the HP Envy 16 lag far behind, despite having more cores and higher clock speeds.

The NUC 12 Enthusiast has some unique advantages for creative apps due to an Intel processor and graphics card as well. In Premiere Pro, the NUC 12 enthusiast is even close to a desktop AMD Ryzen 9 7950X, which is a processor that draws 230 watts with 16 full cores. That’s crazy, and a huge testament to the optimizations Intel has in creative apps like Premiere Pro.

Arc Mobile came to the game

Gaming Benchmarks for Intel NUC 12 Enthusiast.

No, the NUC 12 Enthusiast will not put to shame a complete gaming desktop with an RTX 4080, but it is still a powerful mini gaming PC considering its size. This one stands out because it includes Intel’s Arc A770M mobile graphics cards, which are based on the Arc A770 and A750 desktop GPUs.

It runs over 60 frames per second (fps) in most games at 1080p, and with upscaling features like Intel’s Xe Super Sampling (XeSS), you can even print higher resolutions like 1440p and 4K. Intel’s Arc graphics cards actually perform better at higher resolutions, which is why you’ll see relatively small gaps between 1080p, 1440p, and 4K in most games.

Even if you get the Arc A770M, it’s the mobile version of Intel’s flagship desktop GPU. It has the same name, but you get less performance in games like Horizon Zero Dawn. However, it is found in some titles, especially Cyberpunk 2077.

Small form factor gaming PCs like the Falcon Northwest Tiki and even Intel’s NUC 11 Extreme will always pack better performance because of the larger graphics cards inside. The NUC 12 Enthusiast is still impressive considering how small it is, going toe to toe with machines like the HP Z2 Mini G9 and games despite costing much less.

Try to handle the heat

The Intel NUC 12 enthusiast sits next to his Power Brick.

Heat and noise are the main enemy of small form factor builds, but Intel manages the heat well in the NUC 12 Enthusiast. At idle, the processor sat around 45 degrees Celsius, which is great for this small PC. Temperatures quickly rise to 95 degrees in Cinebench R23, causing the CPU to drop to around 3.1GHz.

CPU throttling is important in a machine like this, but it only matters if the processor is underperforming. And as you can see in my test above, this is not the case. The two internal fans and ventilation around the machine can effectively move the heat out, so although the processor reaches its thermal limit, it is still able to operate at a higher level than what we see with the same CPU in laptops.

The noise isn’t bad either, never exceeding a faint hum, even when the machine was pushed to the limit in Cinebench. Gaming is a different story. With the CPU and GPU stressed, the NUC 12 enthusiast can get tough, but still not as tough as monstrous gaming laptops like the MSI GT77 Titan.

Should you buy the Intel NUC 12 Enthusiast?

Intel NUC 12 enthusiast sitting on a desk.

The NUC 12 enthusiast raves about its weight and performance, features and design. It is a clear example of what is possible in a small form factor with a dedicated design and hardware (not unlike the M1 Mac Mini). Creator performance is fantastic for the size, especially considering the amount of storage, the NUC 12 enthusiast support, and you get a fantastic 1080p gaming experience.

Price is the main limiting factor considering you have to add your own RAM and storage to an already expensive barebones kit. Although the NUC 12 outclasses enthusiast laptops that cost just as much or even more, it also takes a backseat to larger desktops like the Dell XPS Desktop 8950, which cost less money. However, the premium Intel is asking is not unreasonable. The NUC 12 Enthusiast handles heat well, and it performs much better than its size would suggest.

Editors’ recommendations






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