Intel NUC 12 enthusiast
“The NUC 12 Enthusiast offers desktop-class performance in a tiny form factor.”
Outstanding 1080p gaming performance
Laptop CPU matches desktop performance
Small and relatively quiet
Big, chunky energy building block
Intel’s NUC or Next Unit of Computing machines don’t typically make it into the pantheon of best desktop computers, but the NUC 12 Enthusiast makes me take a different look. It’s a DIY kit that requires you to bring your own memory and storage, but the power Intel has been able to cram into this device considering its size is nothing short of remarkable.
A big asterisk is unsurprisingly okay. It’s a tiny and very powerful PC, but it’s complemented by a power brick that’s almost as big. Additionally, the NUC 12 Enthusiast marks an impressive debut for Intel’s Arc Alchemist mobile graphics, which excels in newer titles but falls behind in older games.
Despite some limitations, the NUC 12 Enthusiast offers far 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 developers, it competes with desktops that are more than 10 times the size and only have laptop hardware in tow.
Meet the Intel NUC 12 enthusiast
|processor||Intel Core i7-12700H|
|graphic card||Intel Arc A770M 16GB|
|storage||1TB NVMe PCIe 4.0 SSD|
|Wireless||Intel Wi-Fi 6E AX 1690i, Bluetooth 5.2|
|lightning||2x Thunderbolt 4 / USB4 Type-C ports|
|show connections||1x HDMI 2.1, 2x DisplayPort 2.0|
|USB ports||6x USB 3.2 Gen2 ports|
|audio connections||1x 3.5mm Stereo Front, 1x 3.5mm Stereo Rear|
|power supply||External 330W power brick|
|Dimensions (LxWxH)||7.1 x 2.4 x 9.1 inches|
Intel shipped the NUC 12 Enthusiast pre-configured, but if you’re not used to the NUC line, let me catch up with you. It’s a barebones PC, so a basic kit includes everything, minus storage and RAM. You must add these yourself.
The NUC 12 Enthusiast has three M.2 NVMe SSD slots (two PCIe 4.0 and one PCIe 3.0) and two slots for up to 64GB of DDR4 laptop memory (SODIMM). Unfortunately, although the Core i7-12700H in the device supports faster DDR5 memory, you are locked into DDR4.
My configuration had Windows 11 pre-installed, which I used for testing. However, the barebones kit doesn’t have an operating system, so you can install Windows or any of the various Linux distributions that the NUC 12 Enthusiast supports.
Smaller than a book
The amount of power Intel has been able to cram into the NUC 12 Enthusiast is insane given its size. It is only 2.5 liters volume. For reference, even the smallest DIY PCs are around 11 liters, while machines like the Corsair One hold around 8 liters.
In terms of dimensions, the NUC 12 Enthusiast is just 7.1 inches long, 2.4 inches wide and 9.1 inches high. For context, the Xbox Series S is 5.9 inches long, 2.6 inches wide, and 11 inches tall and is a reprint of Stephen King IT I was 5.5 inches in length, 2.8 inches in width, and 8.7 inches in height. IT is a big book, sure, but it doesn’t have Thunderbolt 4 ports and it doesn’t have a 14-core processor.
Worthless comparisons aside, it’s clear that the NUC 12 Enthusiast is tiny. Nevertheless, the latest technology is under the hood: Thunderbolt 4, Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.2 and even DisplayPort 2.0; The gang is all here. The only limitations are a large 330W external power pack for the machine and a fairly large vertical stand. However, there are feet to stand the NUC 12 Enthusiast horizontally, resulting in a much tidier look.
You need to open the NUC 12 Enthusiast and install RAM and at least one SSD, and that’s easy. Intel has the RAM and SSD slots on the back of the board, so you don’t have to search for more delicate components to install what you need. My only issue is that Intel uses an Allen key for the external screws and a Phillips 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 captive, so you don’t have to worry about losing them.
You’re free to delve deeper into the machine if you wish, although there’s not much reason to do so. The graphics card and CPU are soldered to the board, but it’s still nice to have troubleshooting access underneath the main cavity if something doesn’t work.
Before you get to the SSD and RAM slots, Intel has an LED panel that you can add custom stickers to. The panel is just a big RGB light that you can control with software, so you can plug in anything that can block some light for a unique design. It’s a gimmick, but a cool bit 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 can find in a full 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 you compare the chip 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 full 38% in multi-core performance, with the ThinkBook Plus Gen 3 in Performance mode. However, a tuned-up laptop can pull out a win over the NUC, 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-fledged fat desktop CPU. Even accessing fewer cores, the desktop Core i5-12600K offers better single and multi-core performance. Still, the NUC 12 Enthusiast is closer to desktop performance than laptop performance, despite what its specs might suggest.
Handbrake, the free video encoding app, is proof of that. The Core i7-12700H encode times were only a few seconds longer than the desktop Ryzen 5 7600X and Core i5-12600K. Additionally, more powerful laptop CPUs like the Core i9-12900H in the HP Envy 16 lag far behind despite packing more cores and higher clock speeds.
The NUC 12 Enthusiast offers some unique benefits for creative apps as it also features an Intel processor and graphics card. In Premiere Pro, the NUC 12 Enthusiast is even close to a desktop AMD Ryzen 9 7950X, a processor that draws 230 watts with 16 full cores. That’s insane and a great testament to the optimizations Intel has in creative apps like Premiere Pro.
Arc Mobile came into play
No, the NUC 12 Enthusiast won’t outshine a full-fledged gaming desktop powered by an RTX 4080, but it’s still a powerful mini gaming PC given 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 drives 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 reach 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’re getting the Arc A770M, it’s the mobile version of Intel’s flagship desktop GPU. It goes by the same name but you get in games like e.g. B. a lower performance Horizon Zero Dawn. In some titles, however, things get particularly tight Cyberpunk 2077.
Small form factor gaming PCs like the Falcon Northwest Tiki and even Intel’s NUC 11 Extreme will always perform better due to the larger graphics cards inside. The NUC 12 Enthusiast is still impressive considering how small it is, and rivals machines like the HP Z2 Mini G9 in games despite costing a lot less.
Try to manage the heat
Heat and noise are the main enemies of small form factor builds, but Intel handles the heat well in the NUC 12 Enthusiast. When idling, the processor was around 45 degrees Celsius, which is great for this small PC. Temperatures quickly climbed to 95 degrees in Cinebench R23, causing the CPU to throttle down to around 3.1 GHz.
CPU throttling is important in a machine like this, but it only matters when the processor is underperforming. And as you can see in my tests above, that’s not the case. The two internal fans and the ventilation around the device are able to dissipate heat effectively, so even though the processor is reaching its thermal limit, it is still able to perform at a higher level than we can with the see same CPU in laptops.
The background noise isn’t bad either and doesn’t go beyond a quiet hum even when the device is pushed to its limits in Cinebench. Gaming is a different story. When the CPU and GPU are stressed, the NUC 12 Enthusiast can get loud, but still not as loud as monstrous gaming laptops like the MSI GT77 Titan.
Should You Buy the Intel NUC 12 Enthusiast?
The NUC 12 Enthusiast beats its weight in performance, features and design. It’s a clear example of what’s 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 how much storage the NUC 12 Enthusiast supports, and you get an amazing 1080p gaming experience.
Price is the main limiting factor when you consider adding your own RAM and storage to an already expensive barebones kit. While the NUC 12 Enthusiast outperforms laptops that cost as much or more, it also takes a backseat to larger desktops like the Dell XPS Desktop 8950 that cost less. Still, the premium Intel is charging isn’t unreasonable. The NUC 12 Enthusiast handles heat well and performs much better than its size would suggest.