If you’re looking for a small, unassuming, yet surprisingly powerful mini PC to hide some gaming prowess in your living room (or, yawn, provide a new level of horsepower for your 8K corporate signage), the Intel NUC 11 Enthusiast Kit (NUC11PHKi7C) could be the petite desktop for you. This NUC, while not the most powerful we’ve ever tested, punches well above its size class, walking that fine line between bulk and brawn with finesse. Among mini PCs, it’s in a class by itself if you need both serious discrete-GPU power and exceptionally flexible display output in a PC that’s barely there. Just mind the total cost of components and OS if you go the kit route. (You can buy it as the $1,075 bare-bones model tested here, or as a slightly costlier preconfigured unit.) Either way, it’s a dynamo and our new Editors’ Choice pick for power-user mini PCs.
A Top Performer, Depending on Your Parts
NUC stands for “Next Unit of Computing,” Intel’s longtime brand designed to push innovation in (and the limits of) small desktop PCs that can employ its mobile processors. Dubbed the “Phantom Canyon” NUC during its development and based on the company’s newest CPUs (the 11th Generation “Tiger Lake” mobile chips), this new NUC we tested is Intel’s model NUC11PHKi7C. It is Intel’s top-end bare-bones version in this line.
Laid flat, the body measures 5.7 inches front to back, 8.75 inches wide, and 1.6 inches high. You can also perch it in an included vertical stand, reducing the desk footprint to almost nil. Intel is also offering a fully configured Windows 10-equipped option, dubbed the “NUC11PHKi7CAA,” which comes with an Intel Optane Memory H10 SSD (with 32GB of caching and 512GB of storage) and 16GB of DDR4 3,200MHz RAM.
Our test model, which falls under Intel’s “Kit” brand of NUCs and starting at $1,075 MSRP, lacks storage, RAM, or an OS. As for the parts it does come with, the Intel NUC11PHKi7C is powered by an Intel Core i7-1165G7, a four-core/eight-thread 11th Generation CPU with a maximum boost clock of 4.7GHz. It’s not likely that most NUC buyers should need more cores than this, as this category of PC is usually reserved for displaying content, rather than creating it. But, as you’ll see in our tests, this mighty mite was surprisingly good at bursty, quick tasks like making Photoshop edits.
Though it’s hiding some serious power under the lid, while turned off, the NUC is on-brand with its design. This is to say it looks unassuming, with a low-slung matte-black casing that hides some fun touches underneath once you hit the power switch.
Though the job of most NUCs is generally to not attract attention, the NUC11PHKi7C gets credit for adding some customizable flair quite literally under the hood of the machine, using a light panel that can be blacked out in certain areas to create a glowing customized image. In the tradition of previous-gen high-end Intel NUCs, the NUC11PHKi7C is decked out with the quintessential skull design. However, if you just happen to have a Glowforge Pro laser engraver sitting around, you could theoretically be one craft-store trip away from making just about anything you can come up with.
The Intel NUC11PHKi7C allows for two installed drives, in two types. You get an M.2 slot on the mainboard, which will accept either SATA or PCI Express NVMe drives. (The M.2 slot also supports Intel Optane Memory modules.) Or, you can install an NVMe SSD in the “NVMe only” slot, labeled accordingly on the PCB.
It should be noted that for anyone who plans to build their own, the NUC11PHKi7C is not an easy device to get into. You will need both a specifically-sized hex wrench (for the outer lid) along with a small Phillips screwdriver (for the inner metal panel covering the mainboard) and a whole lot of patience. Given its 11 screws to remove, all told, make sure you get everything re-installed on the first pass before you close it back up. Otherwise, you could find yourself trapped in a loop of screwing and unscrewing that never ends.
As mentioned above, this line of Intel Enthusiast NUCs comes in one of two flavors: preconfigured or barebones. We tested the latter, and filled the open RAM slots with one 16GB stick of SK-Hynix 2,666MHz DDR4 SO-DIMM memory, while the M.2 NVMe PCIe 3.0 slot was occupied by a 512GB Intel SSD 545S Series drive. All told, expect to invest an extra $100 to $200, apart from an OS, into your machine if you buy the barebones Kit version.
Connectivity and Ports
As an enthusiast/professional-grade system, the NUC11PHKi7C comes with host of connectivity options, including two Thunderbolt 4 ports, headset and optical audio jacks, a micro SD slot, an RJ-45 Ethernet jack, a mini-DisplayPort out, an HDMI-out, three front USB ports (two Type-A, one Type-C that’s also a Thunderbolt), and five rear USB 3 ports (four Type-A, one Type-C).
Next to the front USB ports you have your power button, and underneath the matte-black case lid you’ll find chips that enable compatibility with the Wi-Fi 6 AX201 standard, as well as Bluetooth 5.0.
Testing the Phantom Canyon NUC: Revving Up RTX
As a top-end choice in Intel’s latest line of NUCs, it’s no wonder that the NUC11PHKi7C puts up the kind of numbers it did in our benchmarks. The NUC11PHKi7C rounds out the Phantom Canyon line of Intel’s latest NUCs, complete with an 11th Generation Core i7-1165G7 processor. This rather new CPU makes it difficult to compare our test model with anything else current-gen out there on a 1:1 basis, but here are the closest systems we could find in the stable…
Some of these were barebones, others came to us as full-configured PCs. Note that the NUC 9 Extreme Kit is a larger, unique small-form-factor (SFF) model that employs Intel’s Compute Element modular core-component solution. The module installed in our NUC 9 employed a Core i9 chip from Intel’s more potent H-Series of CPUs, rather than the ultramobile-class processor employed in the NUC 11. That Compute Element experiment was not repeated here. The NUC 11 Pro, meanwhile, being reviewed alongside this model, is a NUC in the more classic square vein.
Our first test, PCMark 10, is a holistic performance suite developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). It simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet work, web browsing, and videoconferencing. The test generates a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better.
Here the Intel NUC11PHKi7C performs quite well for its size, keeping near-pace with the bigger, bulkier Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit while also maintaining a wide lead on many of the other mini PCs we have featured in this lineup.
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
The Cinebench results weren’t as impressive when compared to the NUC 9. However, when you factor in the considerable core and power advantage of the H-Series Core i9 inside the Extreme kit (and the bigger size), things start to pull back into perspective a bit.
In the Handbrake test, which measures how quickly (or not, in the case of mini PCs like the MSI Cubi 5 10M) the NUC 11 Enthusiast Kit can convert a video, the NUC performs within spec, though not nearly as fast as the NUC 9 Extreme.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image, timing each operation and adding up the total. As with Handbrake, lower times are better here. The Photoshop test stresses the CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost.
On this final productivity test, the Intel NUC11PHKi7C leads the pack we’ve chosen here, albeit by a margin of just a second over the Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit.
To evaluate graphics performance, we ran the Intel NUC11PHKi7C through a series of game benchmarks, as well as one synthetic test using Unigine Superposition.
Though the NUC11PHKi7C may look small, it packs in enough graphics performance to comfortably push a demanding game like Far Cry 5 well past 60fps in 1080p, while just barely clearing the same hurdle in 1440p.
With an RTX 2060, the NUC11PHKi7C also barely skirts the line where VR is possible at a high enough frame-rate to prevent people from getting sick (usually 70fps or more is necessary for the effect to “sell” in our brains). At least before the pandemic, more and more companies were turning to VR at both public and private corporate events to show off one product or the other.
Desktop PC-based VR continues to be the slowest-growing category in the VR segment; the title for fastest belongs to standalone headsets like the Oculus Quest 2, and it’s not a close race. That in mind, one of the core selling points of the Quest is that it doesn’t take up much space, and with USB ports and an HDMI output, petite-yet-powerful NUCs like the NUC11PHKi7C could easily hide away in a living room that doubles as a VR playspace. It could create a secondary gaming option in another part of the house, while not marring the household aesthetics with a bulky PC tower.
Verdict: The NUC Steps Up Its Game
With so much power packed into such a tight space, the Intel NUC11PHKi7C bridges a gap that could bring gamers and professional brick-and-mortar experience builders together like never before. Stood on its side, mounted behind a TV, stuck to a wall, or just plunked down like any other home media device, the NUC11PHKi7C fits all shades, and it could bring a whole new fold of gamers out of their proverbial dens, basements, and caves, into the light of the living room.
If you have a 4K TV, this might not be the console replacement you’re looking for unless you play a title that is DLSS-compatible. The RTX 2060 is famously just around the cutoff point for smooth 4K gameplay above 60fps; however, DLSS 2.0 has shown it can get lower-end GPUs over that limit as long as it’s running in either Performance or Ultra Performance modes.
If you’re strictly looking for something that can play older AAA titles above 60fps in 1440p, though, or serve as a reliable multiplayer machine that could easily stay hidden with the right kind of mounting equipment, know that you’ll be paying a premium compared to some prebuilt (albeit much bigger) PCs that could be shipped by the likes of Velocity Micro or Digital Storm.
As for professional applications, this is the first NUC in a while that suits both roles necessary in the world of cutting-edge advertisements and corporate event experiences: power and stealth.
No matter what your preferred use case, the Intel NUC11PHKi7C is a jack of all trades. Sure, it won’t stand up to the raw power of a true desktop gaming PC, but for those whose primary concern is discretion, with power in a close second, this Phantom should be at the top of your shopping list.
Intel NUC 11 Enthusiast Kit (NUC11PHKi7C, ‘Phantom Canyon’)
The Bottom Line
If you’re okay with sacrificing just a bit of extra heft for heaps more power, the Intel NUC 11 Enthusiast Kit mini PC packs quite a CPU and GPU wallop into its petite chassis.