Intel Beast Canyon NUC 11 Extreme review: A true mini gaming PC
“The NUC 11 Extreme is too expensive, but that still doesn’t hold it back.”
- Stays quiet
- Solid processor performance
- Support for full-size graphics cards
- Excellent connectivity
- Too expensive
- Larger than previous NUCs
There’s an empty space on my desk where my gaming PC used to live, now occupied by Intel’s NUC 11 Extreme, otherwise known as Beast Canyon. It’s a barebones kit of welcome compromises, balancing desktop-like performance with a form factor that’s smaller than a recent game console.
It’s too expensive, inconvenient to work with compared to a full-size machine, and slightly underpowered put up against a desktop chip. But I can’t stop using the NUC 11 Extreme. It’s a smartly designed PC that makes concessions only where necessary, and it’s fit to exist in a category all its own.
That doesn’t mean Beast Canyon is for everyone. It’s targeted at a very particular market — those with an affinity for tinkering that don’t mind paying up for interesting designs. That said, if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty (and you have a spare graphics card to put inside), the NUC 11 Extreme is excellent.
Intel first unveiled the NUC, or Next Unit of Computing, concept in 2012. Intel provides the bones of the PC, including the power supply, motherboard, and processor, and you bring everything else (including RAM, storage, and with recent NUCs, a graphics card). The heart of the PC is the compute element, which you can slot out like a graphics card.
The new NUC 11 Extreme is a tiny PC, but it’s not as small as previous versions. The 8-liter chassis measures 14.1 inches long, 7.1 inches high, and 4.7 inches wide. The NUC 9 Extreme is taller at 8.5 inches but much shorter and slightly less wide. It also doesn’t support full-size graphics cards as Beast Canyon does.
That’s the trade-off with Beast Canyon. It’s larger than previous NUCs and other mini PCs, but it supports a full-length graphics card. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, and I’m happy with the compromises Intel made. As I’ll get to in the upcoming sections, the NUC 11 Extreme still punches above its weight class despite the slightly larger size.
That’s clear when comparing it to other small form factor options. The Cooler Master MasterBox NR200P is one of the smaller mini ITX cases that supports a full-size GPU, and it’s still 10 liters larger than the NUC 11 Extreme. There are smaller NUC cases like the Razer Tomahawk, but that machine comes with an older compute element and at a premium over the NUC 11 Extreme.
The star of the show is a massive RGB skull on the front of the NUC 11, which joins ambient RGB strips lighting the bottom of the case. You can, thankfully, tweak and turn off the LEDs if you want. The bundled NUC Software Studio allows you to independently control the skull, as well as the front, right, and left LEDs.
It’s a decent suite, allowing you to set a solid color or set standard RGB modes like strobing or breathing. Also in the NUC Software Studio, you can monitor system temperature and usage, change your fan curve, and switch between processor performance modes.
Although the NUC Software Studio presents a decent list of options, it’s a little buggy. Jumping around the software is easy enough, but it would consistently hang for a second or two after I changed any setting. It’s not a deal-breaker, but the NUC Software Studio doesn’t feel great to use.
For my testing, I stayed on the Balanced fan mode to see the curve Intel intended. There’s a trio of 92mm fans under the top panel to keep everything cool, and they never got loud enough to bother me while testing (even in a Cinebench R23 loop). They make noise, but the NUC 11 Extreme is remarkably quiet given its size. While answering email or just hanging out online, the NUC 11 Extreme was silent.
Intel could have trimmed down on the number of ports with the NUC 11 Extreme, but it didn’t. As is the case with a lot of aspects of the kit, you’re giving up surprisingly little compared to a full-size desktop. You’re spoiled for port options with the NUC 11 Extreme, and in some ways, it goes beyond some full-size PCs.
Up front, you have quick access to two USB 3.1 ports, a headphone/microphone combo jack, and an SDXC card slot. That proved to be enough in my testing, though I missed a front panel USB-C connection. I often use a Samsung T5 external SSD to swap games between PCs, and it would’ve been nice to just throw it in front of the case.
Instead, I had to connect it in the back, but that wasn’t a problem. Even in this small of a size, Intel manages to cram six USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports, 2.5G Ethernet, and two Thunderbolt 4 ports on the back of the case. The motherboard also includes an HDMI 2.0b output in case you want to use the integrated graphics.
Of course, the HDMI out isn’t all you have access to if you slot in a video card. It’s only there to provide the option for integrated graphics, so if you add a graphics card, you’ll have access to the ports that it has, too. In the case of the RTX 3060 inside my review unit, that included a single HDMI and three DisplayPort outputs.
Over the NUC 9 Extreme, this unit adds another two USB ports in the back and upgrades the Thunderbolt ports from Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 4. Even if you run out of ports — which is unlikely given the eight USB ports surrounding the case — you can always throw a Thunderbolt dock into the equation to expand your connectivity further.
For wireless connectivity, the NUC 11 Extreme includes Intel’s AX201 chip, which provides dual-band Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.2.
Intel offers the NUC in two configurations: Either with a Core i7-11700B or Core i9-11900KB. As is the case with all NUCs, you’ll need to bring your own graphics card, SSD, RAM, and operating system. Everything else you need is already inside the compute element or the case. That includes a 650W 80+ Gold power supply and an Intel AX201 chip.
|CPU||Intel Core i9-11900KB or Intel Core i7-11700B|
|GPU||Support for full-size, dual-slot GPU or Intel UHD 750|
|Memory||Up to 64GB of dual-channel SO-DIMM DDR4|
|Storage||Up to two PCIe 4.0 M.2 SSDs, up to two PCIe 3.0 M.2 SSDs|
|Power supply||650W 80+ Gold|
|USB ports||Up to 12, eight included|
|Thunderbolt ports||Two Thunderbolt 4|
|Networking||2.5G Ethernet, dual-band Wi-Fi 6|
|Ports||Headphone/microphone jack, SDXC reader, HDMI 2.0b|
My review unit came kitted out with the Core i9-11900KB compute element, which is a beefed-up laptop chip that’s part of the 10nm Tiger Lake family. In short, you shouldn’t confuse it with the desktop Core i9-11900K, which is built using Intel’s 14nm process and requires over twice the power.
The Core i9-11900KB is a 65W chip, but it still comes with eight cores and 16 threads, and it can turbo up to 4.9GHz based on Intel’s specs. My chip never reached that speed during testing, but it got close at just above 4.8GHz. The slightly cheaper Core i7-11700B still comes with eight cores and 16 threads, but a slightly lower clock speed.
Both chips come with integrated graphics, but I was disappointed to find that they use Intel UHD graphics, not Iris Xe like many mobile Tiger Lake chips. As I’ll get to in a bit, you need a discrete GPU if you want any reasonable gaming performance out of Beast Canyon.
Otherwise the NUC 11 Extreme supports what you can bring to it. That includes up to 64GB of dual-channel DDR4 laptop memory (SO-DIMM), a dual-slot graphics card, and up to four M.2 SSDs, one of which you’ll need to install in the compute element.
Opening everything up is a breeze. There’s some nice attention to detail on Intel’s part here, including the tiny captive screws holding on the back plate, a handy door for unlatching the compute element, and an SSD slot on the bottom so you can quickly upgrade your storage.
Once you have the side panels off, the NUC 11 Extreme opens up to provide unprecedented access in this small of a form. The top panel, which holds three fans, flips up to give you clearance around all parts of the case. And there’s not a lot going on inside.
Most of the PC lives inside the compute element, so you’re left with a small, specially designed motherboard, the power supply, the compute element, and GPU if you have one installed. The NUC 11 Extreme has exactly what it needs, trimming the fat that often comes along with small builds.
It’s not without issues, though. The latch for the graphics card PCIe slot is almost impossible to reach with a card installed. I had to push the back end of a screwdriver between the GPU and the compute element to get it open, and you have to remove the GPU before getting at the compute element.
Support for full-size graphics cards should come with a big asterisk, as well. It’s true that you can slot a full-length, dual-slot GPU into the NUC 11 Extreme, but that’s it. That doesn’t take into account the extra modular power cables, either, which need to share the space with the tail end of the GPU.
The NUC 11 Extreme has exactly what it needs, trimming the fat that often comes along with small builds.
Dual-slot is the limit, though. If your cooler even protrudes slightly past the dual-slot mark, it won’t fit in the NUC 11 Extreme. Nvidia Founder’s Edition cards might pose an issue, too. The RTX 3080, for example, has a fan on both sides. One fan would be directly against the back side of the power supply in that case.
Overall, though, this is the most pleasant small form factor experience I’ve ever had. I have a few niggles with the graphics card slot and the extra cables, but those are easy to overlook with the clear attention Intel paid to the building experience. The NUC 11 Extreme continues to make a case for barebones, small form PCs.
The most disappointing part of the NUC 11 Extreme is that you can’t buy it complete. Adding RAM, an SSD, and Windows is easy enough, but Beast Canyon really shines with a GPU installed. And adding the price of an expensive graphics card on top of the already high price of the NUC 11 Extreme is a tough sell.
The premium makes sense, though. You can’t build anything quite like the NUC 11 Extreme with off-the-shelf parts. If you’re willing to shop around and have a mini ITX graphics card, though, there are options like the Velka 3 that are actually smaller than the NUC 11 Extreme.
Getting down to the raw power of Beast Canyon, it’s more powerful than I expected. The Core i9-11900KB isn’t quite on the level of a full desktop part, but it doesn’t need to be in this small of a package. There’s a small trade-off, but it’s much smaller than it should be considering the size of Beast Canyon.
I started testing with PCMark 10, which provides a nice overview of performance across a long list of tasks. The NUC 11 Extreme earned an overall score of 7,520, which is just slightly off the MSI Aegis RS 10 — a mid-tower desktop packing a full-size Core i9-10900K. It handily beat the flagship Tiger Lake chip in the HP Elite Dragonfly Max, too, scoring nearly 3,000 more points.
PCMark 10 is demanding, too. The processor reached a maximum temperature of 93 degrees Celsius during the benchmark, but it never downclocked. Even when slammed, my i9-11900KB continued to boost slightly above 4.8GHz.
Cinebench R23 came next, which pushes processors to their limits by forcing them to render a complex 3D image. Here, the Core i9-11900KB earned a single-core score of 1,636 and a multi-core score of 11,424. The multi-core score is on the high end, though a desktop Core i9-10900K can still outpace it by about 30%. Any other Tiger Lake chip, however, doesn’t even come close.
The Core i9-11900KB actually beat the desktop Core i9-10900K in the single-core test by about 23%. Although a strong showing, Cinebench revealed some weaknesses of Intel’s design. The Core i9-11900KB peaked at its maximum operating temperature of 100 degrees Celsius — according to HWiNFO64 — before downclocking to 3.4GHz. Even with a solid cooling solution, the NUC 11 Extreme is susceptible to throttling when pushed to the limit.
GeekBench 5 isn’t nearly as demanding, and the NUC 11 Extreme once again showed its power. Similar to PCMark 10, the Core i9-11900KB beat the desktop Core i9-10900K in the single-core test and came in a close second in the multi-core one. It shot way ahead of the NUC 9 Extreme, too, beating the older unit by around 23%.
It’s a competent counterpoint to a desktop chip, and performs far above any other Tiger Lake offering available.
Handbrake told a similar tale. The NUC 11 Extreme shaved 13 seconds off our encoding time of the Elysium trailer compared to the NUC 9 Extreme. That said, Handbrake showed that the Core i9-11900KB is still, at its core, a mobile part. Compared to the desktop Core i9-10900K, the chip was a full 30 seconds slower.
Finally, I turned to PugetBench for Premiere Pro to see how the NUC 11 Extreme would handle video editing. This kind of machine seems perfect for the task, and my results back that up. Overall, it scored above a desktop Core i9-10900K configured with an RTX 3060 and 32GB of RAM. That’s mostly on the back of smooth playback performance, however, as the NUC 11 Extreme fell short of the desktop in the export and GPU scores.
You’re not getting the full performance of a desktop chip with the NUC 11 Extreme, but at less than half the wattage, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s a competent counterpoint to a desktop chip, and performs far above any other Tiger Lake offering available. Heat was an issue in Cinebench, but that benchmark is a bit of a stress test. You shouldn’t experience throttling in most tasks.
I only ran a few gaming tests with the NUC 11 Extreme because it doesn’t actually ship with a graphics card. Your performance is going to depend on what you slot inside. Still, I wanted to get an overview of how the RTX 3060 inside my review unit would stack up against one inside a full desktop. And good for Intel, there’s virtually no difference.
The NUC 11 Extreme averaged exactly the same frame rate as a desktop configured with a Core i9-10900K and RTX 3060 in Fortnite at 1080p Epic settings. Up to 1440p, only three frames separated the NUC 11 Extreme from the desktop, with the NUC averaging 83 fps (frames per second) and the desktop averaging 86 fps.
That was the case in Civilization VI, too, where the NUC averaged 141 fps at 1080p Ultra and the desktop averaged 143 fps. At 1440p with the same settings, the two machines were within a frame of each other. The NUC 11 Extreme’s side panel offers plenty of air to the GPU, and based on my limited range of tests, cards should perform about as well as they do in a desktop.
If you order a NUC, you won’t get this performance without adding a graphics card. The UHD graphics inside the Core i9-11900KB are pitifully slow for gaming. They’re available, but a bit of a non-option. In fact, I couldn’t complete my 1440p tests because the integrated graphics simply wouldn’t hold up.
3DMark Time Spy showed just how much of a difference there is. With the RTX 3060 installed, the NUC 11 Extreme earned an overall score of 8,953. With the GPU out, the machine scored just 828 points, less than a 10th of what the RTX 3060 could manage. I couldn’t push past 1080p High settings in Fortnite, either, with the integrated GPU averaging just 15 fps.
Civilization VI was a little better at 1080p with Medium settings, but even then, the UHD graphics averaged just 23 fps. The integrated graphics aren’t good for gaming unless you’re willing to drop down to 720p and run at Low settings, and even then, some games may struggle.
You’re clearly supposed to add a GPU to the NUC 11 Extreme. The integrated graphics aren’t very good, but the good news is that you’re giving up virtually nothing between a full-size desktop and the NUC 11 when it comes to GPU performance. The design of the chassis allows plenty of air inside, so most cards should hold up.
The NUC 11 Extreme is excellent — as long as you can deal with its high price. The kit starts at $1,150 for the i7-11700B, and that doesn’t include an operating system, RAM, an SSD, or critically, a graphics card. Add those into the mix, and you’re looking at a machine that easily costs over $2,000, and that’s without a high-end GPU.
It’s way too expensive, but that’s kind of the point. You already know if the NUC 11 Extreme is for you. It’s not a machine that’s trying to hit a certain price or offer a certain value. Instead, it showcases excellent small form factor design, a unique way to lay out a computer, and performance that gives even full-size desktops a run for their money.
If you’ve been looking at the NUC with envy, it will deliver on your expectations — given that you have a graphics card to slot inside.
Are there any alternatives?
There are other mini PCs, but nothing quite like the NUC 11 Extreme. Unless you seek out a boutique case and configure your own rig, there isn’t another machine that crams as much power as the NUC 11 Extreme does in this small of a case. Most mini ITX cases are not only larger, but also more difficult to work with.
That said, you can save some money by building your own machine if you’re OK with a slightly larger case or can settle for a mini ITX GPU.
How long will it last?
The point of a NUC is that you’ll be able to upgrade it with a new compute element over time. Assuming Intel continues delivering them, you’ll be able to use the NUC 11 Extreme until the power supply gives out.
Should you buy it?
Yes, as long as you know what you’re getting into. The NUC 11 Extreme isn’t just a mini PC, so if you’re looking for something you can set up and forget, a machine like the M1 Mac Mini is probably better.