Final Score: 84%
The Intel NUC series of prebuilt, small form-factor computers have always satisfied the needs of very specific niches. In these niches they are known not as “Next Unit of Computing” devices, rather they are “I Gotcha Boo” devices. Want a simple little email, Facebook, candy crush’ing computer for grandma? I gotcha boo. Here is an i3 NUC Slim (plus 512GB SSD and 8GB of RAM). Have a need of Point of Sales computer for a kiosk but don’t want to pay the laptop touchscreen tax? I gotcha boo. Here is an NUC i5 Slim (with 1TB SSD + 16GB of RAM + 17-inch touchscreen). Want a Home Theatre PC that can handle x265, Lanczos3 up conversion in KODI, while also being small enough to be hidden behind (or even attached to) your TV? I gotcha boo. Here is an i5 NUC Tall (with 256-512GB SSD + 16TB HDD + 16GB RAM). Are you a professional that works either at home or in an office and hate the idea of either buying two systems or lugging a big laptop back and forth? I gotcha boo. Here is a NUC Slim i7 (1TB SSD + 32 or 64B of RAM). Do you run an inbound “support” call center and want to cram in even more wage slaves in the same amount of floor space? I gotcha boo. Give them a NUC i5 slim (with 512GB SSD + 8 to 16GB of RAM… and the phone number to their local suicide hotline) and cut another foot off their cubicle’s width. These are all examples of system recommendations we personally have made while consulting on various jobs in the past year. Every single one, including the hell desk workers, were pleased as punch with their new NUC upgrade.
With that said the only ones we did consistently recommend were what are now called the “Pro” versions. Be they ‘slim’ or ‘tall’ they both had niches where they are without equal. Sadly, Intel do make more than just ‘Pro’ versions. In our humble option both the Enthusiast and Extreme editions were rather lackluster for one reason or another. For example, the Extreme versions were basically a prebuilt mITX system with the typical prebuilt mITX tax baked in… and yet lacked a ‘stock’ discrete GPU. For many, the homebrew ‘shoebox build’ simply made more sense from performance, noise, and value perspectives. As for the Enthusiast editions, their combination of an underpowered “U” class laptop processor paired with an anemic NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060 mobile GPU was underwhelming for its asking price.
Thanks to a massive leap in performance in both the GPU and CPU performance, this generation Enthusiast edition makes a lot more sense. On the CPU front, the new Alder Lake-H i7 is more than up to 90-95 percent of tasks the typical home, small office, and home office user will run into. Arguably it is going to be overkill for many – as it not only comes with 20 cores with a PL1 TDP set to 75 watts but comes with a PL2 set to 95 watts (for 48 seconds). That is a lot of processing power. Enough processing power that if you are using a 3-year-old desktop i5 based system this 14c/20t CPU will run circles around it. All the while coming in a package small enough to easily fit on the back of a 20-inch monitor.
The video card however is where the magic really happens. Gone is the weak sauce RTX 2060M and in its place is a ‘mobile’ variant of the Intel Arc A770. A video card that gives up very little to gain a TGP of under 150 watts. Yes, the inclusion of an Intel Arc GPU is what sealed the deal and has changed our opinion on the Enthusiast series of NUCs. So, while it is true the Intel Arc’s drivers are still a bit squirrelly, they honestly are no worse than the Modern Warfare 2 (… 2022… Scooby-Doo… Electric Boogaloo) launch week drivers Nvidia released recently. With time Intel will get better and better on the driver front. In the meantime, we finally we get a NUC (even if it is a laptop sized NUC) that comes with enough horsepower to satisfy the needs of most prebuilt system buyers. Simply put, this combination of a good CPU with an actually decent GPU means that the 12th Generation NUC Enthusiast offers near ‘desktop’ levels of performance with ‘laptop’ levels of noise and near ‘laptop’ levels of portability.
When you then consider the fact that similarly priced SFF competition cannot even come close to matching the overall performance of the 12th Gen NUC Enthusiast the result is a rather cohesive argument in the NUC Enthusiast’s favor. One that will persuade a lot of the prebuilt buying public to take a chance and go for something different. Something small. Something reliable. Something that is not a ‘wallmart/newegg/chicom special’… something (team) Blue.
With all that said the NUC Enthusiast is not perfect, nor is it as flexible as could be. Intel really have to step up the cooling performance the Enthusiast edition has on tap. Yes, they have upgraded to a copper fin array from an aluminum one. Yes, it has even more heatpipes for the dGPU and CPU compared to the last generation. However, if they were willing to change the z-height of the NUC enthusiast an imperceptible amount more, and grow it from 2.4 inches to 3 inches, a taller ~30mm cooling fin array could have been used. A taller fin array would have in turn allowed Intel the luxury of using taller blower fans. Fans with higher CFM, better static pressure, and do both at lower RPMS.
Bluntly stated, such a cooling solution would have allowed for the i7-2700H to run at its full TDP. Alternatively, a beefier cooling solution could have allowed superior Alder Lake-HX CPUs to be used. Possibly even ‘desktop’ Alder Lake-S processors. Either of which would have offered moderate to massive uplift in CPU performance as well as offering PCIe 5.0 M.2 futureproofing. Which in turn would have transformed this new 12 gen NUC Enthusiast from an excellent addition to the NUC line-up into a slam dunk success. Such a success that no one would have raised even an eyebrow over the increase in MSRP.
The same is true of the Arc A770M. On the one hand it is a massive generational leap over NVIDIA “mobile” cards like the RTX 2060M used in previous generation. On the other it is slower than the A770 desktop variant. Once again Intel should have further increased the cooling abilities of the NUC Enthusiast so that they could use a desktop(ish) class A770 video card with a TGP of ~200 watts. They did not and thus, while yes it offers ‘console’ levels of gaming performance, its power tilts more towards professional orientated tasks such as video encoding, image rendering, etc. Scenarios and tasks which demand razor sharp drivers. Drivers which have yet to be developed and released. Once again, such a tweak to Enthusiast blueprint would have gone a long way towards justifying the ~150 USD uplift over the previous generations already high asking price.
For the most part we are fine with these caveats. Yes, they do needlessly limit the NUC 12 Enthusiast abilities. Yes, the MSRP increase makes an already expensive NUC model even more expensive. However, the NUC 12 Enthusiast has noticeably broadened the horizons of this series and given it a much needed does of value. Enough that we personally will be removing many of Lenovo’s SFF models from our list of recommended products… and replacing them with the NUC 12 Enthusiast edition. Color us impressed and we eagerly await to seeing what the 13th Generation NUC Enthusiast edition brings to the table. Something we would never have thought possible before this model’s release.
Intel 12th Generation NUC
Thanks to a massive leap in performance in both the GPU and CPU performance, this generation Enthusiast edition makes a lot more sense. On the CPU front, the new Alder Lake-H i7 is more than up to 90-95 percent of tasks the typical home, small office, and home office user will run into. Arguably it is going to be overkill for many - as it not only comes with 20 cores with a PL1 TDP set to 75 watts but comes with a PL2 set to 95 watts (for 48 seconds). That is a lot of processing power. Enough processing power that if you are using a 3-year-old desktop i5 based system this 14c/20t CPU will run circles around it. All the while coming in a package small enough to easily fit on the back of a 20-inch monitor.