Convenient: Intel’s NUC 12 Extreme ‘Dragon Canyon’ Kit is compact, powerful and complicated

I have to give credit to Intel. When the chipmaker launched its PCIe card-based compute element in 2019, moving CPU, RAM, storage and more from the motherboard, I was skeptical that the company would stick with the form factor. Yet we continue four years later and the company’s latest ‘Eden’ Compute Item not only packs a 12th Gen CPU, but they come with standard-socket desktop chips this time around, in the form of a Core i7-12700 or Core i9-12900 they sent us, packaged in the company’s complicated but incredibly compact (8-liter) NUC 12 Extreme “Dragon Canyon” kit.

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

First, let’s address the prices. The Compute Element itself is basically a PCIe expansion card with an LGA1700 socket, CPU and two DDR4 SO-DIMM (laptop) RAM slots and two M.2 sockets, plus a surprising amount of ports and of headers, starting at $750. But if you want one with a Core i9-12900 processor, the price jumps to $1450. Keep in mind that these prices are without RAM, storage or operating system. And if you want something to plug your Eden Element into, the complete NUC 12 Extreme kit, basically a case with a daughterboard, three fans and a 650W SFX power supply, a second PCIe slot to install a dedicated GPU, plus the Compute Element with your choice of processor, will sell for $1,150 for the i7 model or $1,450 for the Intel i9 sent to us. However, you can also use it to upgrade previous generation NUC Extreme Kits.

Keep in mind, just like with the card, these prices don’t include storage, RAM, an operating system, or a GPU. And don’t expect to drop into something beefy like a 3080 Ti. The NUC 12 Extreme supports cards up to 12 inches long, but only two slots thick. Anything thicker and you won’t be able to put the side panel on because your fan will be hanging outside the chassis, which is incredibly compact at around 14 x 4.75 x 7.5 inches (LWH). Dimensions are basically the same as last year NUC 11 Extreme, although there is now a USB-C port on the front and a USB-A port, where the previous model had two USB-A ports. Compute element ports are also different, which we will discuss in the next section.

Competition and Eden Compute Element

In terms of packing high-end components into a small space, the closest thing I can think of to the NUC 12 Extreme is Corsair’s One i300. This system is noticeably larger at 14.96 x 6.93 x 7.87, but it’s a vertical tower, so takes up significantly less desk space. It supports high-end CPUs and GPUs, and both are liquid-cooled.

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

The NUC 12 Extreme, on the other hand, has three fans at the top for cooling, a small cooler with a modest amount of fins for its CPU, and surrounding VRMs (to be fair, both CPU options are moderate models of 65W), and a plastic fan duct designed to draw in cool air from outside the chassis. The problem with the latter, however, is that due to the chassis’ five-slot design, the CPU duct intake vent sits right next to your GPU’s rear vent. At the very least, you’ll probably want to avoid fan-style GPUs with this kit. Otherwise, during games or other heavy loads on the GPU, your CPU will suck in the hot air exhausted by your graphics card. Every compact, high-powered system is going to have thermal trade-offs, but that, coupled with the thin CPU cooler, seems less than ideal, especially on the i9 models.

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

That said, the port selection on the Eden Compute Element’s expansion rack is more port-filled than many full-size motherboards. You get six 10Gb/s Type-A ports, two Thunderbolt 4 ports, 10Gb and 2.5Gb Ethernet ports, and a full-size HDMI port. That’s a lot of connectivity in a small space. But it’s also so packed that it will be difficult to use most of them at the same time, unless you only plug in cables.

Disassembly and configuration

With all those details out of the way, it’s worth pointing out just how complicated it is to set up the NUC 12 Extreme Kit. There is a lot of disassembly and very tight clearances.

Since the kit needs storage and RAM, both installed inside the compute element, you need to open the chassis first. To begin this process, you need to loosen four captive Phillips head screws on the back. Then the two mesh side panels detach from the rear section, giving you access to the interior.

But to remove the calculation element, you will need to navigate to the top. While it’s not immediately clear (although parts of the metal frame near the top are labeled “pull”), the entire top, fans and all, lift up from the top outer edge. From there, removing another screw allows you to lift the flap locking the expansion brackets. Removing two additional screws from the brackets finally releases the compute element.

But don’t try to remove the card just yet, because there are still a bunch of cables to unplug. At the end of the board are the eight-pin CPU power connector, two USB connectors on the front panel (there is an additional USB-C and USB-A port on the front, as well as a SD card slot and an audio jack), antenna connection points for Wi-Fi hiding on the top edge of the card (which required pliers for me to get away), and a few others little header catches that you can’t even see because the power supply is in the way. This can be alleviated somewhat by removing the power supply. But for that, you have to remove four screws at the back, then disconnect the other and one of the USB cables from the front panel to the bottom of the chassis (as it blocks the removal of the PSU), then slowly pulling the PSU out of its cramped space in the front of the case. Only you can’t pull it out very far because the PSU’s main power jack cable, which is permanently attached, has about two inches of slack and runs through the three-fan upper case up on the back of the case, where you plug in your standard three-prong power cable.

Once you’ve done all of that and then removed two small header cables on the Compute Element board, you can remove it. And only now, after a complex and careful disassembly, can you begin to disassemble the compute element so that you can install your storage and RAM.

I did this the first time, only without removing the PSU. And because everything was so close together, there were clearly times when pieces were pushing against other parts of the case. But with the Compute Element out, I installed two SO-DIMMs (for a total of 64 GB of RAM) and a 512 GB Patriot PCIe 3.0 SSD. I then reassembled everything, installed an RTX 2060 GPU (the only graphics card I had on hand that was thin enough to hold), and carefully reassembled the whole thing.

Turn on the NUC 12 Extreme (or try to do so)

With everything back in place (or so I thought) and the power supply plugged in, I powered up the system – or at least attempted to. The GPU fans started, but the chassis fans did not, and the system did not boot. After disassembling the NUC 12 Extreme Kit again, I carefully examined the compute element and the rest of the internals, eventually noticing a yellow three-pin jumper, with its three pins still intact, sitting on the bottom of the chassis.

After some back and forth with an Intel rep, they confirmed it was the “recovery jumper”, which is normally found at the end of the board, near a few of those little cables. header that connect bits of the compute element to the front-panel parts of the case. It must have been snagged when I first removed the item. Obviously that was the reason the kit wouldn’t start.

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

Intel sent us a second unit of the NUC 12 Extreme, but it arrived less than 24 hours before launch, so we haven’t had a chance to test it yet. We’re working on it, so stay tuned for some benchmarks.

But one thing I can say is that the NUC 12 Extreme Dragon Canyon is probably the densest, most complicated PC I’ve dealt with in my nearly 14 years of professional consumer tech coverage. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and its setup is much more like what you might expect from attempting to repair stereo gear than building a PC.

That, plus the fact that it’s so expensive ($1,450, with no GPU, storage, RAM, or OS), means most people would be better off going with something like Corsair’s One i300. ‘they want a compact, powerful PC for gaming or other intense workloads. This system is also very expensive, but it offers much better (liquid) cooling for both the CPU and the graphics card. And while it’s a bit taller, its vertical orientation means it’ll take up much less space on your desk or floor than the NUC 12 Extreme. Plus, you’re much less likely to damage the Corsair system during a complicated teardown, because it’s fully assembled and ready to go.

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