Intel’s tiny NUC (Next Unit of Computing) designs have been novelties for years, catching the attention small form factor enthusiasts but rarely making headlines for all-out performance. The company’s next-gen computers take a new, more modular approach, allowing users to pair a powerful laptop-grade CPU, upgradeable RAM and storage, and a full-sized desktop GPU.
At first look, the concept design we were shown by CyberPowerPC looks like an eGPU. But crack open the case and you see something odd: it looks like a little power supply plugged into two graphics cards, and only a tiny board connecting them. One of these PCI cards is indeed a standard GPU, but the other contains the new form factor of the NUC, with Ethernet and USB-C/Thunderbolt ports sticking out of the back of the case instead of the usual video ports.
Pop the NUC out of the connective PCI slot and remove the cover. There you’ll see the computer’s entire motherboard, with the Core i9 laptop CPU and its Lilliputian cooler soldered to the board. A pair of M.2 SSD slots and two laptop-sized RAM DIMM slots allow for relatively easy upgrades to storage and memory, so long as you can find modules of the right size. Power is delivered via an 8-pin rail from the power supply, shrunken down from the usual 24 pins plus a separate rail for a desktop CPU. The NUC can be paired with any standard desktop GPU via the PCI bridge board, combining to make a full-power desktop PC in a volume that puts Mini-ITX builds to shame.
The modular nature of the system is its most appealing feature. At the moment the only parts that would require full replacement are the NUC’s motherboard and CPU—and those are components that most users upgrade at the same time, anyway. CyberPowerPC envisions this kind of form factor being the PC core of a full connected home, but it’s easy to imagine it drawing in lots of attention from individual PC builders and boutique manufacturers alike. CyberPowerPC’s concept crammed the NUC, a mid-sized Asus GPU, and an 850-watt SFF power supply into a case about the size of a two-hard drive NAS box, but there was plenty of wiggle room—I could see these machines being barely larger than a hardcover book without sacrificing the ability to service them easily.
Razer’s also showing off a similar concept, about the same size as an eGPU enclosure. Intel’s self-branded version, the NUC 9 Extreme Compute Element, limits the length of the graphics card in order to fit everything in an astonishingly small square-shaped enclosure. Corsair has joined the fray too.
Practical applications of this form factor beyond space-starved customers are hard to determine, but cramming so much raw computing power into such a tiny space is still a staggering accomplishment. Replacing my gaming PC (the size of a small fridge) with something that can hide behind my monitor—without losing performance or upgrade potential—is an exciting proposition.
Naturally, these modular NUCs will cost a pretty penny. Current NUCs with a comparable CPU setup start at about a thousand dollars, though models with Core i3 and Core i5 processors and no room for dedicated GPUs are far less expensive. When Intel’s self-branded 9-series NUCs go on sale in March, the barebones systems will start at about $1050 for an i5 and go up to an eye-watering $1700 for the i9—and that’s before you add pricey M.2 storage, laptop RAM, and a graphics card.
Sliding out your motherboard, CPU, storage, and RAM as if it was just another expansion card could change the game for system builders, perhaps even tempting fans of massive ATX powerhouses to give smaller and more efficient machines a try. Intel’s offering might mark a notable shift for end users and space-strapped corporate clients alike.