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Intel NUC 11 Extreme Kit review: A fun mini-PC for DIY enthusiasts

By Aaron Yip - 24 Oct 2021

Intel NUC 11 Extreme Kit review: A fun mini-PC for DIY enthusiasts

Note: This review was first published on 14 October 2021.

As a PC enthusiast, building my own gaming rig is as much a right of passage as it is a labour of love. Watching all your handpicked components come to life in a kaleidoscope of RGB illuminations is a tech geek’s moment of satisfaction. But the existing ATX (and mini ITX) form factor – which has lasted for more than three decades – meant that despite the advancement in computing and graphics processing powers, the process and methodology of building your very own personal computer has largely remained the same.

Intel seems to think so too, and with their latest NUC 11 Extreme Kit aka Beast Canyon, has given us a glimpse of how the experience of building a gaming computer could be different in their world.

Hint: It's got to do with downsizing a computer without compromising power.

 

Intel NUC recapped

For those not in the know, NUC is short for “Next Unit of Computing” and the NUC Kit series (there are also other NUC variants) is Intel’s obsession with putting full-sized PC power in a mini-PC form factor. Avid readers of HWZ would have recalled that I’ve previously featured the NUC 9 Pro Kit, which was designed as a mini-workstation alternative. The NUC Extreme Kit on the other hand - as the name implies - is geared towards gamers.

Our review unit came with a GeForce RTX 3060 card from ASUS.

Whereas previous generation of NUC Extreme Kits have been kept largely small and limited to mini-ITX graphics cards, the latest NUC 11 Extreme Kit is now more appealing for enthusiasts by supporting a full-size discrete graphics card. This also makes it the largest NUC to date. It’s a delicate balance: keeping a form-factor small, yet large enough to have to fit in a full-length graphics card. But I think Intel’s engineers have done a remarkable job here.

The Beast Canyon's fully-meshed casing helps with air flow and heat dissipation.

That said, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: the Beast Canyon isn’t cheap. According to the product list on Intel’s website, the Core i7 and i9 models have a starting price tag of US$1,050 and US$1,200 respectively. Even though the kit comes with the casing and a CPU, remember that these are still barebone configurations. Your total investment will have to factor in a graphics card, SSD storage and memory. Considering that the latest graphics cards series are still commanding insane prices, your final bill will definitely be higher than the buddy who got a ready-made system from PC brands like Aftershock and Dreamcore here.

But if you’re the adventurous sort of PC enthusiasts, then the Beast Canyon could be the sort of appealing DIY project for you. Frankly, I think the casing looks great and its mini size allows it to be hidden away from sight (should you choose to) or even carried around to places.

 

Intel has great hardware engineers

Intel’s silicon engineers may have been struggling with their chip manufacturing process, but oh boy can their hardware engineers remind us that the technology company still has plenty of innovative ideas in its pockets.

It's impossible to miss the Compute Element cartridge in the NUC 1 Extreme Kit.

At the heart of each NUC Kit is a Compute Element cartridge that contains an Intel CPU that’s soldered onto a miniaturized motherboard, memory, storage, and Wi-Fi. These cartridges snap easily onto a PCI-e slot, and you can theoretically upgrade an entire Beast Canyon machine just like you’d upgrade a graphics card. The truth is that it’s a little bit more complicated in my practice with it (as I will detail in the photos below), but the idea is sound. The Beast Canyon’s dimensions of 357mm x 189mm x 120mm makes it one of the larger NUC Kits around, and not too dissimilar to other mini-ITX casings around. But it still looks remarkably small when placed next to a full ATX desktop. The overall build quality is really par excellence.

Look at that mini size!

Opening up the Beast Canyon shows an internal layout that just makes sense. Want to swap out your graphics card fuss free? You can flip up the entire top of the Beast Canyon, triple-fan-array and all, to easily swing it out of the machine. The whole top pivots on a hinge. The caveat here is that your choice of high-end cards the likes of RTX 3080 or RTX 3070 can be limited as the Canyon Beast will not be able to accommodate a card that takes up three PCI-e slots.

The case offers one of the best accessibility to the components inside of any mini-PC models.

Here's a sample of how a full-length GeForce RTX 3080 Founders Edition card looks when fitted inside the Beast Canyon.

It also comes with up to three PCIe power connectors.

There’s plenty of connectivity and expandability too. There are a total of eight USB 3.1 ports, a pair of Thunderbolt 4 Type-C ports, HDMI 2.0b, 3.5mm audio jack, and even a UHS-II SD card slot. For networking, a 2.5Gbps Ethernet port and an integrated Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.2 are available. There’s even room for up to 64GB of DDR4 memory and four M.2 slots for SSD storage – three full-length M.2 slots inside the Compute Module and a rare M.2 slot with Intel Optane support at the bottom of the case.

Bonus points for including a UHS-II SD card slot.

There's enough firepower here to drive 4K gaming.

The Beast Canyon will not leave you wanting in the storage department - there are a total of four M.2 slots for all your SSD needs.

Oh, and if you’re not a fan of RGB lighting? Simply turn off the whole lot via a dedicated hardware button on the bottom.

 

Final thoughts

The NUC Kit series has always been limited in one way or another; be it being only able to accommodate shrunken (and less powerful) GPUs or having insufficient expansion capabilities. The Beast Canyon or NUC 11 Extreme Kit as Intel would prefer it to be known, perhaps showcases the best of what an extreme version of an NUC Kit is capable of. But it’s not without its shortcomings.

The first is to remember that the Beast Canyon is sold as a barebone kit where you have to source for your own components – Intel doesn’t sell fully built computers. What it does come with is a great-looking casing that’s also fun to build with, a 650W 80+ Gold rated PSU, and a Compute Element module that comes with a preinstalled, soldered on, Intel CPU. And therein lies a problem – you can’t switch out the CPU and obviously there’s no chance of it being paired with an AMD processor.

Then there’s also the matter of not having a glass panel on the GPU side. I get that a mesh cover helps with air flow and all that, but it’s a pity to not have a window to show off my graphics card in all its glory. And dusts. All these square cutouts don’t keep them and other small particles away, and the small confines of the NUC 11 Extreme Kit makes it near impossible to do the occasional cleaning without having to disassemble the components inside.

But ultimately, do I like the Beast Canyon? Actually, I do. There's a sense of playfulness when peeling away layers of the Beast Canyon – even if the final product doesn’t feel very polished. For example, the fragile Wi-Fi antennas’ cables. The Beast Canyon isn’t for everyone, but its DIY nature will find appeal amongst PC enthusiasts.

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8.5
  • Design 8.5
  • Features 8.5
  • Value 8
The Good
Smart design
Great RGB implementation
DIY appeal
Can work with power-hungry RTX 3070 and 3080 GPUs
The Bad
No glass window
Mesh sides will not keep out dust and small particles
Intel CPU only
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