Big power, small package
A typical gaming PC is either big, gaudy, expensive, or a combination of all three. Even gaming laptops distinguish themselves from the rest of the laptop world by their bulk and gamer-style design, with lights, logos, and grilles galore. But the PC I’ve been playing games on for the past few weeks takes up less room in my bag than a hardcover novel.
Intel’s latest-generation Next Unit of Computing (ugh, I’ll just call it a NUC) is an honest-to-goodness gaming PC capable of running the latest AAA titles at frame rates that won’t get you instantly sniped. Yet it’s small enough to fit on top of my desk, under my monitor and uses far less electrical power than a typical gaming PC rig with equivalent capabilities.
Intel’s been making NUC computers for years as a way to demonstrate how much computing power can be packed into a small form-factor. The latest model (the NUC 8) is the first one that can really run games as they are supposed to be, and it’s even powerful enough to run high-end VR experiences. It’s able to do this thanks to a when-pigs-fly partnership that became a reality earlier this year: there’s an AMD graphics card right next to the eighth-generation Intel Core i7 processor on the NUC 8’s tiny motherboard that does much of the heavy lifting for gaming. While much smaller and less power-hungry than the discrete graphics card that gaming PCs typically use, the AMD Radeon RX Vega M still packs a wallop.
In addition to being a capable gaming rig, the NUC 8 is also a very powerful and fast workstation, able to crank through productivity and creative needs with ease. Using it as a workstation makes me think of it as a modern Mac Mini, but with far more power than Apple ever put into its tiny computer. The NUC 8’s size and power also make it an attractive home theater PC (HTPC) option in your entertainment console as something that can handle streaming video or living room gaming with ease, though AnandTech found that it didn’t support YouTube HDR video or UHD Blu-ray playback, which might deter some.
Despite its ultra-compact form-factor (the box weighs about three pounds and measures 8.7 x 5.5 x 1.5 inches, not much different than a typical cable modem), the NUC 8 has more ports than any other small form-factor computer. There are six USB-A ports, a USB-C 3.1 port, two Thunderbolt 3 ports, two mini DisplayPorts, two Ethernet jacks, two HDMI ports, two 3.5mm audio inputs, and a full-size SD card slot. One of the HDMI ports, two of the USB-A ports, the USB-C port, the SD card slot, and one of the 3.5mm jacks are located on the front of the machine for easy access, while the rest of the I/O is neatly arranged around back. This number of inputs and outputs allow the NUC 8 to support up to six displays at once and obviate the need for any external USB hubs or readers.
Even though it’s decidedly not traditional, the NUC 8 still has some gaming tropes built into its chassis. There’s a glowing skull on top that illuminates whenever the PC is on and there are multiple LED indicator lights on the front. The good thing is that there’s an app that lets you customize the colors and blink patterns of the skull and the LED lights to anything in the RGB spectrum — or turn them all off entirely, including the skull, if you want.
Unlike typical PCs, Intel’s NUCs are sold “barebones”, which means you need to add your own RAM, storage, and operating system to them. Because of that, the value proposition for this is not very high, as the NUC itself starts at $799 before you add those necessary components. The board supports up to 32GB of DDR4 RAM and it has two NVMe M.2 slots for storage. To get a NUC 8 as equipped as the review unit provided by Intel (Intel Core i7 8809G, 16GB of Kingston HyperX DDR4 RAM, a 118GB Intel Optane 800p SSD, and a 512GB Intel 545s SSD, plus Windows 10 Pro) it would cost you about $1,700 total. That’s not cheap, especially when you consider that you still need a display, mouse, and keyboard before you can frag your first n00b. You can certainly get a more traditional gaming PC, with a large form-factor and a full-size discrete graphics card for less. But that PC won’t fit neatly on your desk or slip into your bag to bring to a friend’s house.
With the NUC 8 hooked up to my ultrawide monitor, I was able to run titles such as Star Wars: Battlefront II and Battlefield 1 at 1080p resolution with frame rates between 60 and 90 frames per second. That’s not as high as you can get with something like an Nvidia GTX1080 graphics card, but it’s certainly good enough to be playable. (AnandTech’s extensive benchmarks of the NUC 8 found the Vega M performed about as well as a last-generation 900-series GPU from Nvidia.) Still, if you want more headroom, and more future-proofing, then a traditional gaming PC and high-end graphics card will suit your needs better than the NUC 8.
Even if you’re not interested in gaming, the NUC 8 might be intriguing as a powerful, compact PC for image and video editing. I’m not a video editor, but I did use the NUC 8 to process RAW images in Lightroom and do some Photoshop work, and it cranked through that workload far easier than the laptops I usually work on. Unsurprisingly, it also had no issue handling my other work requirements, which include lots of browser tabs and multitasking between Slack, email, writing, video watching, and social media.
The NUC 8 does have fans inside its compact chassis, and they will spin up under load, especially when gaming. But they aren’t as loud as a full-size case, and I never found them to be too obnoxious or distracting while I was working or gaming.
Mostly though, the NUC 8 isn’t supposed to be something that many people buy. It exists to show off what can be done with a small form-factor PC. And thanks to Intel and AMD’s new partnership, it turns out you can do quite a lot.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge
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