Intel NUC 12 Enthusiast review: A gaming PC the size of a book

Intel NUC 12 Enthusiastic

suggested retail price $1,180.00

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

Advantages

  • Excellent 1080p gaming performance

  • Laptop CPU matches desktop performance

  • Small and relatively quiet

  • Fantastic connectivity

cons

  • Expensive

  • Large, clumsy power stone

Intel’s NUC, or Next Unit of Computing, machines don’t usually make it to the pantheon of the best desktop computers, but the NUC 12 Enthusiast makes me take another look. It’s a do-it-yourself package that requires you to bring your own memory and storage, but the power Intel was able to pack into this machine, given its size, is nothing short of remarkable.

A large asterisk is unsurprisingly in place. It’s a small and very powerful PC, but it’s accompanied by a power brick that’s almost as big. In addition, the NUC 12 Enthusiast shows an impressive debut for Intel’s Arc Alchemist mobile graphics, which excel in recent titles but fall behind in older games.

Even with some caveats, the NUC 12 Enthusiast offers far more pros than cons. In terms of gaming, it can put the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X to shame at a fraction of the size. For makers, it competes with desktops more than 10 times the size, and with only laptop hardware in tow.

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
Lightning strike 2x Thunderbolt 4 / USB4 Type-C ports
Show connections 1x HDMI 2.1, 2x Display Port 2.0
USB ports 6x USB 3.2 Gen2 ports
Audio ports 1x front 3.5mm stereo, 1x rear 3.5mm stereo
Power supply 330W external power brick
Dimensions (LxWxH) 7.1 x 2.4 x 9.1 inches
Catalog price $1,180

Intel sent out the NUC 12 Enthusiast preconfigured, but if you’re not used to the NUC line, let me catch you up. It’s a barebones PC, so a basic kit comes with everything in it minus storage and RAM. You have to add it 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 64 GB of DDR4 laptop memory (SODIMM). While the Core i7-12700H in the machine supports faster DDR5 memory, unfortunately you’re stuck with DDR4.

My setup came with Windows 11 pre-installed, which I used for testing. The barebones kit doesn’t have an operating system though, so you’re free to install Windows or any of the various Linux distributions that the NUC 12 Enthusiast supports.

Smaller than a book

Intel NUC 12 Enthusiast next to an Xbox Series S.

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

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

Crappy comparisons aside, it’s clear that the NUC 12 Enthusiast is small. Nevertheless, there is the latest technology under the hood: Thunderbolt 4, Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.2 and even DisplayPort 2.0; the gang is all there. The only caveats are a large 330W external power brick for the machine and a fairly large vertical stand. However, there are feet for setting the NUC 12 Enthusiast horizontally, leading to 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 placed the RAM and SSD slots on the back of the board, so you don’t have to hunt around for more sensitive components to install what you need. My only quibble is that Intel uses an Allen wrench for the outer 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 fixed, 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 wish, although there isn’t much of a reason to. The graphics card and CPU are soldered to the board, but it’s still nice to have access under the main cavity for troubleshooting if something isn’t right.

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

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 that you’ll find in a full-fledged desktop. Despite being a laptop CPU, it outperforms the same chip in most laptops with access to better cooling and higher boost potential.

You can see that when the chip is compared to 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 whopping 38% ahead in multi-core performance, and that’s with the ThinkBook Plus Gen 3 in its performance mode. However, a tuned laptop can take a win over the NUC, as evidenced by the Core i7-12800H in the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 5.

While the processor is impressive for a mobile chip, it still sits behind a full, chunky desktop CPU. Even with access to fewer cores, the desktop Core i5-12600K offers better single and multi-core performance. Still, the NUC 12 Enthusiast sits closer to desktop performance than laptop performance, despite what the specs 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 benefits for creative apps as it also has an Intel processor and graphics card. In Premiere Pro, the NUC 12 Enthusiast even comes close to a desktop AMD Ryzen 9 7950X, a processor that draws 230 watts with 16 full cores. That’s insane, 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 won’t disgrace a full gaming desktop with an RTX 4080, but it’s 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 delivers over 60 frames per second (fps) in most games at 1080p, and with upscaling features like Intel’s Xe Super Sampling (XeSS), you can push even 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.

Although you get the Arc A770M, it’s the mobile version of Intel’s flagship desktop GPU. It has the same name but you get lower performance in games like Horizon zero dawn. However, it comes close in some titles, esp Cyberpunk 2077.

Small form factor gaming PCs like the Falcon Northwest Tiki and even Intel’s NUC 11 Extreme will always have better performance thanks to 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 in games, despite costing much less.

Try to cope with the heat

The Intel NUC 12 Enthusiast sits next to its power brick.

Heat and noise are the worst enemies 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 climbed to 95 degrees in Cinebench R23, resulting in the CPU dropping to around 3.1 GHz.

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 testing above, that’s not the case. The two internal fans and ventilation around the machine can dissipate heat effectively, so even though the processor is reaching its thermal limit, it can still run at a higher level than what we see with the same CPU in laptops.

The sound isn’t bad either, never surpassing a faint hum, even when the machine was pushed to its limits in Cinebench. Gaming is another story. With the CPU and GPU stressed, the NUC 12 Enthusiast can get loud, but still not quite as loud 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 exceeds its weight in performance, features and design. It’s a clear example of what’s possible in a small form factor with a special design and special hardware (not unlike the M1 Mac Mini). The maker’s performance is fantastic for the size, especially considering the amount of storage the NUC 12 Enthusiast supports, and you get a fantastic 1080p gaming experience.

Price is the main limiting factor, as you have to add your own RAM and storage to an already expensive barebones kit. While the NUC 12 Enthusiast outperforms laptops that cost the same or even more, it also takes a backseat to larger desktops like the Dell XPS Desktop 8950 that cost less. Still, the premium Intel charges isn’t unreasonable. The NUC 12 Enthusiast can withstand heat well and performs much better than its size suggests.

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