Tiger Lake debuts in SFF gaming powerhouse

Intel kicked off a form factor revolution in the early 2010s with the introduction of ultra-compact NUCs. The systems were meant to be an alternative to the tower desktops used in many applications where the size, shape and capabilities of the system were mostly unwarranted. The success of NUCs allowed Intel to begin to reinvent the construction of systems used in a wider range of settings.

More recently, the introduction of the NUC skull canyon in 2016 was Intel’s first effort to create a gaming-focused SFF PC. And the desktop-focused compute (essentially a motherboard in a PCIe card form factor) launched in early 2020 meant full-featured gaming desktops could credibly fall under the NUC banner. Also last year, the Ghost Canyon NUC9 – the first NUC Extreme – hit the market with support for a discrete, user-replaceable GPU. Ghost Canyon was extremely impressive, but the restrictions on the size of the dGPU and the high-end prices were brakes.

Fortunately, the introduction of Tiger Lake has allowed Intel to make several updates to its Compute Element line. Incorporating a few tweaks and changes from their experience with Ghost Canyon, Intel has now introduced its flagship NUC for 2021: Beast Canyon. With a desktop processor and the capacity to accommodate most discrete GPUs on the market, the Beast Canyon NUC promises a lot. Does he manage to exorcise the ghosts of his predecessor? Our review below provides some answers.

Product introduction and impressions

The gaming-focused Intel lineup of NUC started with the Performance Series (Skull Canyon NUC6i7KYK and Hades Canyon NUC8i7HVK), before moving up through the ranks to the Extreme Series (Ghost Canyon NUC9i9QNX). The Beast Canyon, announced at Computex 2021, takes up the torch this year. Important updates on the Ghost Canyon NUC include:

  • Support for 65W desktop processors in the compute element (compared to the 45W processor focused on mobile desktops in the compute elements of Ghost Canyon)
  • Chassis dimensions increased to accommodate larger discrete GPUs
  • Tiger Lake 10nm processor with new micro-architectural enhancements for performance and power efficiency
  • Support for a richer set of I / O (including PCIe Gen 4)

Intel provided us with a technical sample of the top-of-the-line SKU from the Beast Canyon line – the NUC11BTMi9 sporting the extreme compute element NUC11 (NUC11DBBi9). This computing element is housed in a 357mm x 189mm x 120mm chassis. Traditionally, NUCs have been associated with the ultra-compact form factor (100mm x 100mm in a 0.63L or 0.42L chassis). The introduction of Skull Canyon and the subsequent NUC Hades Canyon created another NUC class of 0.7L to 1.2L, and last year’s Ghost Canyon raised it to around 5L. The need to accommodate the cooling solution of a more powerful compute element, as well as the ability to accept large dGPUs contribute to the 8 liter volume of the Beast Canyon NUC chassis. This is still the domain of SFF PCs – an adult can still carry the unit on their own. Other important SFF aspects such as the integrated power supply are taken from the Ghost Canyon NUC.

Intel’s NUC line has traditionally included card and kit variants, allowing its partners to provide value additions (such as a passive chassis or additional I / O ports in the end system). Kits (other than those shipped with an operating system preinstalled) require the end user to add storage, DRAM, and install an operating system to complete the system. Intel plans to sell two varieties of the NUC Beast Canyon – the NUC11BTMi9 and the NUC11BTMi7. These two NUCs are kits based on the Driver Bay range of compute elements. OEMs and end users can build their own NUC11 system based on the following components:

  • Calculation element (NUC11DBBi9 or NUC11DBBi7)
  • Plinth (or backplane)
  • Frame
  • power supply
  • DRAM (up to 2x DDR4-3200 SODIMM)
  • Non-volatile storage
  • Discrete GPU (optional)

An out-of-the-box Beast Canyon NUC11BTM kit leaves only DRAM, non-volatile storage, and discrete GPU at the end user’s choice. Before the platform scan and preview our review setup, let’s take a look at the pre-built components in the list above.

Driver bay calculation element

The NUC11BTMi9 we are reviewing today comes with the NUC11DBBi9 NUC11 Extreme Compute Element. It comes with a soldered-in processor – the Core i9-11900KB. It belongs to the Tiger Lake family (11th generation) and has an 8C / 16T configuration with a TDP of 65W. It can turbo up to 5 GHz. This compute element is the natural successor to the NUC9 compute element which reinvented the traditional motherboard in a discrete PCIe x16 card form factor.

The compute element comes with a cooling shroud containing a single fan and three M.2 heat sinks with pre-attached heat pads. These align with the three M.2 2280 slots in the compute element. The slot to the right of the processor is enabled by x4 Gen 4 lanes directly from the processor, while the two to the right (and the M.2 slot occupied by the WLAN card) come from the PCH. On the far right we have the two SODIMM slots which can operate at speeds up to DDR-3200 for DIMMs up to 64GB in total. These are vertical locations (compared to horizontal locations in NUC9 compute elements) and free up valuable space which is taken up by the additional M.2 slot. The gallery below provides additional photographs of the compute element and cooling shroud.

The NUC11BTMi9 comes with two Thunderbolt 4 ports, one 2.5G Ethernet port, one HDMI 2.0a display output, and six USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-A ports on the back. There are two USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-A ports, a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, and an SDXC slot with UHS-II support on the front. The forward I / O is enabled by a daughter card that connects to the headers of the compute element. The compute element has its own power connection to the power supply.

Monster Cove Skirting

The plinth used in Beast Canyon (codenamed Monster Cove) is an evolving update to the West Cove plank used in Ghost Canyon. PCIe lanes are now Generation 4, but they retain the x8 / x4 / x4 branching capabilities designed in the previous generation. Fortunately, the M.2 22110 slot resulting from this bifurcation is now easily accessible from the underside of the chassis, without having to remove the computing element from the plinth.

Similar to the West Cove card, using one of the two x4 slots limits the device in the x16 slot to x8 bandwidth. This was an issue in our exam setup of the Ghost Canyon NUC, but the Beast Canyon does not have such problems, as we will see later. One of the downsides of the new plinth compared to the West Cove is the placement of the vertical PCIe x4 slot between the Compute Element slot and the x16 slot. Due to the placement of the air guide above the compute element fan (essential due to the 65W TDP of the resident processor), slot x4 is rendered unusable.

Chassis and power supply

The NUC11BTMi9 chassis has the same ease of installation as the previous generation Extreme NUC. The dimensions have been extended to allow the installation of dual slot GPUs up to 12 “in length. The included 650W 80+ Gold internal power supply also provides an 8-pin connector and a 2×6 + 2-pin connector for the GPU The chassis can be disassembled by removing the four screws to dislodge the back cover and popping out the side panels.

The top panel with the three fans rests on a hinge. The raised directions in the frame help the user to open it. This is essential for accessing the compute element and removing its shroud to install RAM and storage.

Despite the plastic front panel frame, metal-based construction in other areas gives the chassis a premium look and rugged feel. The Beast Canyon NUC chassis also features customizable RGB lighting, as well as a replaceable RGB front logo. The chassis has enough space inside for easy cable management, even in the presence of a discrete GPU. These are updates from the previous generation of NUC Extreme.

The chassis also has some drawbacks. Front USB ports are recessed, and given their Type-A nature, determining the correct orientation for plugging in peripherals is a bit of a hit and miss. Some keyboard / mouse receivers may end up completely inside the recess, making it difficult to remove them when the other USB slot is also occupied. Placing the power supply’s AC outlet on the upper end of the chassis means that the heavy AC power cord could potentially create cable management issues. In both of these aspects, the Ghost Canyon NUC chassis had a much better design.

Our NUC11BTMi9 review sample came with the following components preinstalled:

  • 2x Kingston HyperX KHX3200C20S4 / 8G for 16 GB DRAM
  • 1x Sabrent Rocket NVMe 4.0 500 GB M.2 2280 SSD
  • ASUS Dual GeForce RTX 3060 12 GB GDDR6

Having a desktop processor in the system means the Beast Canyon NUC should easily be able to support powerful GPUs such as the dual slot RTX 3080 variants (although we only tested with the RTX 3060) . In the next section, we take a look at the full specs from our review sample, followed by a detailed platform analysis along with some notes on our setup experience.

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