Intel’s “Raptor Canyon” NUC is a compact gaming PC without the stress – Ars Technica

Intel's new
Enlarge / Intel’s new “Raptor Canyon” NUC Extreme (rear) is a lot larger but also a lot more capable than previous NUC Extreme boxes (front).

Andrew Cunningham

Intel’s NUC (Next Unit of Computing) desktops rose to prominence about a decade ago by being small; they were essentially laptops without screens or batteries, crammed inside a tiny box.

But in the years since, Intel has flirted with larger NUCs. They have always been relatively small, but as they graduated from dedicated laptop GPUs to regular dedicated GPUs to even-larger dedicated GPUs, the NUC Extreme PCs have steadily grown to the point that they’re now encroaching on do-it-yourself desktops built around mini ITX motherboards, small SFX power supplies, and other size-conscious components.

Enter “Raptor Canyon,” the latest and largest in Intel’s line of desktop PCs. It replaces the “Dragon Canyon” NUC design and improves upon it by making room for longer triple-slot GPUs—up to 12 inches (or just over 300 mm) long. That’s not enough space for one of Nvidia’s massive RTX 4090 and 4080 cards, but it can fit just about anything else.

Raptor Canyon might appeal to people who want a powerful gaming desktop without putting in the legwork, research, and trial and error that comes with building a computer inside a tiny case. It’s a desktop that won’t make sense for everyone, and there are still some trade-offs you’ll make if you buy it. But the ability to fit more powerful GPUs means it will make a little more sense than the middle-of-the-road Dragon Canyon box did.

Maximizing space

The Raptor Canyon NUC Extreme box is just shy of twice the size of the old NUC Extreme—it looks like two old Dragon Canyon boxes stacked on top of each other. And Intel is using a lot of the same tricks to save space.

The heart of the NUC Extreme is the “Compute Element,” a proprietary motherboard with an LGA 1700 CPU socket, along with room for two laptop-sized DDR5 SODIMM sticks and three PCIe 4.0 M.2 slots for internal SSDs. That Compute Element plugs into the top of a separate proprietary board, which also has a PCIe 5.0 slot on the bottom for connecting the dedicated GPU (the old NUC Extreme also used a go-between board like this, but with the GPU slot next to the Compute Element slot instead of on the opposite side of the board).

Intel makes some allowances for standard parts; the unit’s 750 W power supply appears to be a standard SFX model that could be swapped out for another one, as are the 120 mm case fans that vent hot air out of the system’s left side. The side, top, and bottom panels are all mostly made of mesh for airflow’s sake. Our review unit had three 8-pin PCIe power connectors pre-installed and a 12VHPWR connector rated at 300 W. This isn’t quite enough power for an RTX 4080 or 4090, not that one would physically fit inside the case in the first place.

An audio jack, two USB-A ports, and a USB-C port on the top of the NUC Extreme.
Enlarge / An audio jack, two USB-A ports, and a USB-C port on the top of the NUC Extreme.

Andrew Cunningham

The Compute Element also has the majority of the computer’s ports, aside from the outputs on whatever GPU you use: one 2.5 gigabit Ethernet port, one 10 gigabit Ethernet port, two Thunderbolt 4 ports, audio jacks, an HDMI port (for integrated GPU output), plus six USB-A ports. Headers on the motherboard provide connections for a USB-C port, another pair of USB-A ports, and an audio jack on the top front of the PC for easy access.

One last upgrade over the old Dragon Canyon NUC design (for people who want even more storage than the M.2 slots can provide): An empty drive tray on the computer’s left side can fit a pair of 2.5-inch SATA drives or a single 3.5-inch SATA drive

What Raptor Canyon gains in functionality, it loses in flair. The Dragon Canyon box had some built-in LED lighting in the form of a glowing skull logo on the front (which I could take or leave) and glowing LED strips on the sides and front (which I think look nice). There are no LEDs on Raptor Canyon other than the white one around the power button. But the Compute Element does have four 4-pin addressable RGB headers on the same side of the board as the GPU slot, for people who want to switch the plain 120 mm fans on the side for RGB versions. I like the understated look, but people who want their PCs to light up with LEDs will need to put in some extra work.

Update: A previous version of this review stated that the NUC Extreme didn’t have addressable RGB headers. This has been corrected.

The joys and drawbacks of the mini ITX gaming PC

The Raptor Canyon NUC next to a custom-built PC in an SSUPD Meshlicious case. The Meshlicious is a bit taller and wider, but it's not as deep.
Enlarge / The Raptor Canyon NUC next to a custom-built PC in an SSUPD Meshlicious case. The Meshlicious is a bit taller and wider, but it’s not as deep.

Andrew Cunningham

When I build PCs these days, I almost exclusively gravitate toward mini ITX motherboards and space-efficient towers, partly to save desk space and partly because the challenges that come with these builds register as “fun” in my brain. My current build lives in an SSUPD Meshlicious, which is a good comparison to Raptor Canyon, but I’ve also built inside the original version of the NZXT H1, the Cooler Master NR200P, plus a couple of older, shoe-boxier ITX case designs.

Having built in all of those cases, the nice thing about Raptor Canyon—and probably its main selling point—is that Intel does the hard part for you. The processor, the cooling fan, and all the tricky cable routing are already figured out. No cables are too long or too short, no fans are obstructed, and no internal pieces need to be moved around to make space. You get a fairly diminutive, fairly powerful PC, and as long as you’re comfortable popping in an SSD, RAM, and a GPU, you don’t really need to think about anything else.

Some ITX cases, like the NR200P or NZXT’s H210 series, are still fairly straightforward to build in. As in an ATX or micro ATX case, there’s a bit of room for cable management, the GPU plugs into the motherboard, and there’s enough space for CPU coolers and other components that you don’t need to do a lot of measuring or fussing (you should check the maximum supported GPU length before you buy a graphics card, but that’s advice I would give to anyone these days). But the footprint of these cases also isn’t that much smaller than typical desktop towers.

The trick to most small gaming PC cases is mounting the GPU parallel to the motherboard rather than perpendicular. Intel uses a separate board as an interconnect; most DIY cases use
Enlarge / The trick to most small gaming PC cases is mounting the GPU parallel to the motherboard rather than perpendicular. Intel uses a separate board as an interconnect; most DIY cases use “riser cables” that essentially serve as extension cords for your PCIe slot. The cases that mount the motherboard and GPU back to back, as the Meshlicious does, are sometimes called “sandwich-style” cases.

Andrew Cunningham

Once you get into aggressively small cases like the H1, the Meshlicious, or pricier boutique options from the lines of Sliger, DAN Case, or FormD, you need to make sure you’re doing a lot of advance planning to ensure success.

Will you be using air cooling? You’d better check the combined height of the heatsink and fan and ensure you have room to install other case fans. Prefer an AIO loop instead? Make sure you’re buying the right size for your CPU and one that will physically fit in your case, and it doesn’t hurt to dig around in PC building Reddit boards to make sure other people have fit the exact AIO you want into the case you want (fitting in a big radiator and routing tubing can be unpredictable). What power supply size does your case support, and if you use something larger—say an SFX-L instead of a standard SFX, and surely you know the difference—does it leave you with an unworkable amount of room for tubes and wires and other components? You’ll also need to be precise with your cable routing because anything that’s hanging loose or sloppily can block a fan from spinning in close quarters.

These are considerations you might want to keep in mind whenever you build any PC, but for a larger PC, you don’t need to worry about it as much because there’s plenty of room for everything. Building inside tiny cases requires more patience and trial and error because you’re trying to cool powerful, hot components in a much smaller space. It’s one reason I prefer the Meshlicious (the version with all mesh panels instead of glass) to cases with glass windows; mesh maximizes airflow and minimizes temperatures, while glass panels do the opposite.

All that’s to say there’s real value in what Intel has done here—making a case that can stand up against the smallest mini ITX enthusiast cases while not making you think about any of that stuff. But you’ll pay for the convenience in money and performance.

A quick cost comparison

The NUC Extreme offers a nice selection of ports, but you can find standard motherboards with similar port layouts.
Enlarge / The NUC Extreme offers a nice selection of ports, but you can find standard motherboards with similar port layouts.

Andrew Cunningham

The worst thing about Raptor Canyon is the same thing that’s been tough for all the NUC Extreme boxes—a lot of what you’re paying for is the convenience and size, in that order. In terms of raw performance, you’re getting less value for the money than you can get with something you build yourself—or with a more traditional desktop from HP, Dell, or Lenovo. Let’s show our work with some quick cost comparisons.

The retail listings at B&H say that a Core i5-13600K version of Raptor Canyon will run you $1,439, the i7-13700K version costs $1,650, and the i9-13900K version (our review unit) starts at $1,940. To that, you need to add an SSD (at least $100 for 1TB), DDR5 RAM (at least $75 for 16GB or $130 for 32GB), and a GPU (anywhere between $400 and $1,000, excluding RTX 4000-series GPUs that won’t physically fit).

Conservatively, that means you’re paying at least $2,000 and possibly more than $3,000 for a midrange to high-end gaming PC. This is not unheard of for a pre-built PC. But it’s still on the high end.

Let’s compare it to a self-built PC in the Meshlicious case, which isn’t too much larger and is readily available to buy. You’d be looking at around $160 for the case with a PCIe 4.0 riser cable, $300 or $340 for the i5-13600K, and between $155 and $185 for a 750 W SFX power supply.

$140 will buy you a solid NZXT Kraken X63 AIO cooler that will fit the case and provide far better cooling than Raptor Canyon’s air cooler is capable of, though you’ll pay closer to $50 for a good low-profile air cooler (I use and like Scythe’s $50 Big Shuriken 3 in my build). Consider adding a pair of 120 mm or 140 mm case fans to the front if you go the air cooling route; you’ll pay between $30 and $60 for the set from a reputable company.

You could go many different ways with the motherboard; the $350 ASRock Z790 PG-ITX/TB4 comes close to matching Raptor Canyon’s feature set, including a pair of Thunderbolt ports, DDR5 support, and three M.2 SSD slots. But the $150 ASRock Z690M-ITX/ax is a decent minimum-viable product if you don’t do much overclocking.

At most, that brings us to $1,175 before adding the RAM, SSD, and GPU, more than $250 less than the cheapest Raptor Canyon box. With the cheaper component options we’ve highlighted, you could pay closer to $850. You could go even lower with a less-expensive CPU like the i5-12400F, though at that point, we’re getting too far from an apples-to-apples comparison. The point is that the extra flexibility in component selection also gets you some flexibility in price.

Of course, going the DIY route will require more of your time, and your time has value! If enduring some trial and error to put together your own little PC box sounds like work to you, the NUC is the way to go. But if it sounds like fun rather than work, you can get a cheaper computer that can accommodate more mini ITX upgrades in the years to come rather than forcing you to stick with Intel’s proprietary motherboard for as long as you want to use the computer.


Our Raptor Canyon review unit used the exact same i9-13900K processor we reviewed last month. But pairing Intel’s fastest, most power-hungry CPU with a low-profile heatsink and fan (rather than a larger fan or liquid cooling system) has drawbacks.

Core count and clock speed are still the most obvious ways to compare the relative speed of different processors, but as core counts and power usage have increased, the CPU’s power limits have also become important. Intel uses two values, PL1 and PL2, to define (in watts) how much power a CPU can use under a sustained load and how much it can use in short bursts for more typical tasks (respectively). Most motherboards, including the Raptor Lake Compute Element, let you define these numbers, either manually or via different performance presets. And especially for high-end CPUs, you can dramatically change a chip’s performance and power efficiency by nudging these numbers up or down.

By default, most motherboards will use 253 W values for both PL1 and PL2 for an i9-13900K (and sometimes more). This tells the CPU, in effect, to use as much power as it can without getting too hot. This is fine in our normal CPU testbed because we have a 280 mm AIO cooler that keeps the chip from running too hot and throttling speeds to keep cool. In the Raptor Canyon NUC, this setting is too much for the computer to handle. Under a sustained workload, the CPU quickly gets so hot that it has to throttle. In our video encoding test, the i9-13900K in the NUC ran 16 percent slower than it did in our normal testbed, all because it has less cooling capacity.

Smartly, Intel acknowledged this reality by setting lower power limits for the CPU in the Raptor Canyon NUC by default; the default “Balanced” setting in the BIOS uses a 150 W PL1 and 250 W PL2. There is still a little throttling going on during sustained high-intensity workloads, but the CPU runs nearly as fast as it does at 253 W while running 12° C cooler. And because performance doesn’t scale linearly with power consumption, these settings ensure that the CPU is also more power-efficient, using 18.5 percent less power to do the exact same video encoding job while only taking 5 percent longer.

Of course, the CPU is rarely the limiting factor when playing games at 1440p or 4K—your GPU will have much more to do with how well your games run than your CPU power settings. We don’t have graphics benchmarks here because the performance you get will depend on the GPU you choose, but the kinds of graphics cards that will physically fit in this case are not generally fast enough to make your processor the problem.

I bring this up mostly as a roundabout way of complaining about the price again—Intel is selling you a pricey overclocked K-series CPU that you can’t take full advantage of because it can’t be overclocked without overheating. Assuming Intel wanted to launch this PC before the holidays, K-series CPUs are still the only 13th-generation CPUs available. But nevertheless, the result is expensive overclockable CPUs inside a box that isn’t equipped to take advantage of them. It’s just another reason why building your own PC can be cheaper—you pay for the CPU you need instead of the one Intel wants to sell you.


The NUC 13 Extreme, also known as
Enlarge / The NUC 13 Extreme, also known as “Raptor Canyon.”

Andrew Cunningham

As a small-desktop enthusiast, there’s a lot I like about the Raptor Canyon NUC. It’s impressively small, it’s reasonably quiet, and it can fit a wide range of GPUs of up to 313 mm in length. That includes many RTX 3090-series CPUs, as well as the upcoming Radeon RX 7900 series, though most RTX 4090 and 4080-series cards won’t fit. And you don’t need to deal with all the little fiddly odds and ends that come with building a standard mini ITX PC in close quarters.

The biggest downside, as is usual with these NUC Extreme PCs, is the price. You’ll just pay more for this than you will for an equally capable mini ITX PC, and Intel’s proprietary motherboard means fewer opportunities to upgrade in a few years when you want to change out the processor for something else. You’re also paying extra for an expensive K-series CPU that you can’t really take advantage of because of the smallish fan and heatsink—in a custom-built PC, you can install a more capable fan or an AIO loop that is better suited for those components, or you can just buy a cheaper processor in the first place and use that money on a better graphics card instead.

But for people who want a cute-but-powerful PC and are willing to pay for something relatively easy to set up, the Raptor Canyon NUC is a solid option. And its extra size and expanded GPU compatibility make it quite a bit more appealing than the NUC it replaces.

The good

  • A compact gaming desktop that does most of the hard work—researching and choosing components, installing them, routing tubes and cables—for you
  • Will fit most large GPUs, including RTX 3090 models and the upcoming Radeon RX 7900 series
  • Three M.2 slots and a drive bay for 2.5- or 3.5-inch drives give you tons of room for storage
  • Good port selection and wireless connectivity
  • Pretty easy to open and work on

The bad

  • Not enough room for exceptionally huge GPUs like the RTX 4090 or 4080 series
  • Smallish air cooler is OK for the i9-13900K at its default settings, but it throttles when run at full power
  • Proprietary motherboard means you won’t be able to swap it out for a different one when you’re ready to upgrade

The ugly

  • More expensive than comparable DIY builds and way more expensive than DIY builds that opt for a cheaper motherboard or CPU

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *