Their chassis may be small, but mini PCs have become a sizable part of the desktop world. These compact PCs are often small enough to slip into a pocket or backpack, but the best of them offer a near-full desktop experience with relatively few compromises. The Intel NUC 12 Pro (starts at about $650 for a bare-bones version; $1,064 as tested) exemplifies how far these little desktop PCs have come, offering plenty of capability in its tiny square case. As part of Intel’s NUC lineup, the new Intel NUC 12 Pro (dubbed with the code-name “Wall Street Canyon” in development) will set the tone for the next wave of super-small PCs, and delivers enough raw performance and flexible connectivity to earn it our Editors’ Choice award for mini PCs.
From the Beginning: What Is a NUC?
Back in 2012, Intel introduced its first “Next Unit of Computing,” shortened to NUC (rhymes with “Chuck”), a line of ultra-small desktop PCs designed to showcase the power of Intel processors. These tiny PCs leverage laptop-grade processors and components—save for the Intel NUC Extreme line—to pack a lot of capability into tiny, fanless mini PC designs. With a consistent 4-by-4-inch footprint, these mini PCs are Intel’s answer to the Mac mini, and over the decade since they were first announced, Intel has updated them annually with new processor options, reflecting the latest Intel CPU offerings. And it’s been a relative success, not only as a standalone product, but as the inspiration for an entire category of mini PCs from other makers.
(Credit: Kyle Cobian)
Intel has also expanded the lineup beyond the basic 4×4 design to include compact gaming PCs, powerful compact desktops that are closer to small-form-factor PC-case designs than mini PCs, and even NUC laptop reference designs. But the basic NUC design remains relatively unchanged, with a square compact chassis that can be held in the palm of the hand.
The small enclosures are themselves a modular and expandable part of the system, with slim case designs that accommodate just the included motherboard. Taller designs add room for a 2.5-inch drive bay, and different lids that add extras, such as an additional Ethernet port or Qi wireless charging.
(Credit: Kyle Cobian)
With production codenames that use the “Canyon” naming scheme—similar to the “Lake” naming scheme Intel uses for processors—the latest version is called “Wall Street Canyon,” inspired by a canyon of the same name in Barstow, Calif. However, the desktop also appears tailor-made for professional applications, like data entry and even some multimedia editing. It’s an interesting step forward for a system line that has been used in a range of use cases, such as home theater streaming PCs, low-powered signage, hobbyist builds, and industrial installations.
Intel sells the NUC 12 Pro as a bare-bones system, which means you’ll need to provide your own storage and memory. While these machines are all capable of running Windows, you’ll also need to provide an operating system, whether that’s a Windows license, or your favorite Linux distro (like Ubuntu or Mint). Or perhaps you want to roll your own ChromeOS machine with Chromium.
(Credit: Kyle Cobian)
Though this NUC was initially only available as a bare-bones system, you can buy pre-built systems today through Intel and several retailers, which add the necessary storage, RAM, and operating system into a single, ready-to-go package.
Our test unit (model number NUC12WSKi7) is generally sold as one of these bare-bones systems, suggested to start at around $650 by Intel, for the motherboard and soldered-down Intel Core i7-1260P processor, along with the compact enclosure. As configured, our sample has an included 512GB M.2 SSD and 16GB of DDR4 RAM (sold pre-built for $1,064), and you can configure it with up to 8TB of storage and as much as 64GB RAM (sold for $3,213, fully stacked out) or build it yourself with separately purchased hardware. If you get a pre-built configuration, be ready to spend an additional $120 to $180 to include your preferred version of Windows.
A Study in Mini PC Design
This NUC’s design looks nearly identical to past NUC mini PCs, measuring 2.1 by 4.6 by 4.4 inches, and not offering a whole lot to look at, aside from a collection of ports on the front and back of the machine.
Made of simple plastic, the small footprint of the NUC 12 Pro means that it can be mounted on the back panel of a monitor, tucked into a drawer, or otherwise secreted away into whatever environment you want to use it in, from a home theater to a public sales kiosk.
You’ll need to provide your own keyboard, mouse, and monitor for the NUC, as well as your necessary RAM and storage drives. The chassis itself is easy to open, whether you’re unscrewing the bottom plate to add RAM and an SSD, or unsnapping the lid to add a functional lid upgrade. These diminutive dimensions don’t leave room inside for a power supply, so the system does need a separate power brick to plug in, but it’s neither large nor heavy, so it’s a negligible issue.
On the front of this NUC are two USB 3.0 ports, one of which stays powered with the system off for charging phones and other devices. Next to these you’ll find a 3.5mm headset jack and a power button.
(Credit: Kyle Cobian)
On the back is an additional USB 3.0, along with a slower USB 2.0 port for connecting peripherals like mice and keyboards, which don’t require the extra bandwidth of USB 3.0. Additionally, the NUC 12 Pro has two full-size HDMI outputs, dual Thunderbolt 4 ports, and a 2.5Gbps LAN port.
(Credit: Kyle Cobian)
And don’t worry about wireless connectivity: The NUC 12 Pro has Wi-Fi 6E. On the side of the small chassis is a physical case lock slot, so you can tether it to a desk to prevent anyone from pocketing the tiny PC.
Testing the Intel NUC 12 Pro: Professional Performance in a Tiny Package
When it comes to mini PCs like the NUC line, the old adage about judging a NUC by its cover has never rung so true. Even with a collection of similar-looking black boxes, all influenced by the now-standard NUC design, the components within, and the performance they deliver, is incredibly varied.
For this review, we naturally turn to the previous member of the NUC Pro family, the Intel NUC 11 Pro Kit (starts at $450 as a bare-bones model), which has one of last year’s 11th Generation Intel Core i5 CPUs inside. We also look at the Geekom IT8 Mini PC (starts at $439.99; $549.99 as tested), which also uses an Intel Core i5 processor, albeit an older 8th Generation model.
We also looked at pretty much every NUC-like mini PC we’ve reviewed in the last year, from the Celeron-powered Beelink GK Mini (starts at $299; $319 as tested) and the Pentium-based ECS Liva Z3 (starts at $220; $250 as tested), up to the muscular HP Z2 Mini G9 workstation (starts at $1,209; about $3,000 as tested), which ramps up the compact design with a desktop-class graphics card and powerful processor. This is meant to demonstrate the huge range of performance capabilities and prices within the mini PC market.
Our main productivity benchmark is UL’s PCMark 10, which simulates a variety of real-world productivity and content-creation workflows to measure overall performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheeting, web browsing, and videoconferencing. We also run PCMark 10’s Full System Drive test to assess the load time and throughput of a laptop’s storage. (See more about how we test laptops.)
Three benchmarks focus on the CPU, using all available cores and threads, to rate a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads. Maxon’s Cinebench R23 uses that company’s Cinema 4D engine to render a complex scene, while Primate Labs’ Geekbench 5.4 Pro simulates popular apps ranging from PDF rendering and speech recognition to machine learning. Finally, we use the open-source video transcoder HandBrake 1.4 to convert a 12-minute video clip from 4K to 1080p resolution (lower times are better).
To round out the test gauntlet, our final productivity trial is workstation maker Puget Systems’ PugetBench for Photoshop(Opens in a new window), which uses the Creative Cloud version 22 of Adobe’s famous image editor to rate a PC’s performance for content creation and multimedia applications. It’s an automated extension that executes a variety of general and GPU-accelerated Photoshop tasks.
Looking at the benchmark scores for the NUC 12 Pro, a very clear pattern emerges: Aside from the workstation HP Z2 Mini G9, the Intel NUC 12 Pro is the most powerful mini PC of the bunch. While some of this lead may be influenced by variables such as memory and storage—which aren’t going to be standard in a bare-bones kit, since you provide those yourself—the CPU performance is a huge improvement over little NUC-likes. As well it should be, with a 12th Gen Intel Core i7 inside.
And this is where it’s worth remembering that Intel initially codenamed this NUC “Wall Street Canyon.” This box isn’t made for small projects, like digital signage or streaming movies in your home theater. It’s made professional productivity, used for everything from writing up reports and spreadsheets to handling financial analysis and day trading. You can even do some light video editing on it, as evidenced by the respectable Handbrake times in our video transcode test.
We test Windows PCs’ graphics with two DirectX 12 gaming simulations from UL’s 3DMark: Night Raid (more modest, suitable for laptops with integrated graphics), and Time Spy (more demanding, suitable for gaming rigs with discrete GPUs).
To further measure graphical prowess, we also run two tests from the cross-platform GPU benchmark GFXBench 5, which stresses both low-level routines, like texturing, and high-level, game-like image rendering. The 1440p Aztec Ruins and 1080p Car Chase tests, rendered offscreen to accommodate different display resolutions, exercise graphics and compute shaders using the OpenGL programming interface and hardware tessellation respectively.
As with processing, the graphics performance of the Intel NUC 12 Pro stands head and shoulders above the rest, with the glaring exception of the far pricier HP Z2 Mini, which leverages an Nvidia A-series workstation GPU to blow past all of these system’s integrated graphics. But, in a category where integrated graphics are the rule, the NUC 12 Pro’s Core i7 and Iris Xe Graphics lead the competition by a large margin. Unlike most tiny desktops, the NUC 12 can handle everything from simple media streaming to light (light) gaming and media editing.
Verdict: The Intel NUC 12 Pro Means Business
While inspired by a naturally occurring canyon, Intel’s “Wall Street Canyon” works doubly as a euphemism for professional productivity. With an Intel Core i7 and Iris Xe graphics inside, this is the mini PC to get if you want enough power for the office in a very small box, avoiding the bulk of a larger desktop tower and the cost of additional…
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