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Intel Ghost Canyon NUC9i9QNX review: The first modular NUC heralds a new future for mini PCs


The NUC 9 Extreme NUC9i9QNX (also known as Ghost Canyon), like its forebears, showcases Intel’s latest, cutting-edge tech—and the most unpronounceable product names. It continues a tradition begun in 2016 with Skull Canyon and its 45-watt quad-core processor, followed in 2018 by Hades Canyon and its unique integrated graphics capable of modern 1080p gaming.

This time, the newest Next Unit of Computing challenges preconceptions of mini PCs by swinging away from the silicon and over to its housing.

Modularity is Ghost Canyon’s star attraction. Other tiny computers have soldered parts with restricted upgrade options, but not this NUC. Built around Intel’s Compute Element, it comes apart as big, easy-to-swap components. When you outgrow your processor, you simply replace the entire Compute Element with a more modern version. The same applies for the GPU, because you can install an off-the-shelf graphics card from the get-go.

Yes, that’s right. This NUC can be overhauled and upgraded like bigger PCs, and in mere minutes.

Design

Ghost Canyon NUC9i9QNX surrounded by other Intel mini PCs Alaina Yee / IDG

Ghost Canyon surrounded by Skull Canyon, Hades Canyon, the Intel Compute Stick, and a Broadwell-era NUC. Don’t be fooled by the picture—Ghost Canyon is considerably bigger than all of them, measuring 9.37 x 8.5 x 3.78 inches (238 x 216 x 96mm).

To give Ghost Canyon its modular flexibility, Intel did have to supersize it a bit. All three flavors of this NUC—Core i5, Core i7, and Core i9—use the same five-liter chassis.

In other words, our NUC9i9QNX review unit towers over all of Intel’s itty-bitty PCs, past and present. It looms like Godzilla over the pocketable dongles and little 4 x 4-inch square boxes. Even next to the larger Skull Canyon and Hades Canyon models, it remains imposing. Ghost Canyon’s only visual tie to other NUCs is the skull graphic printed on its two side panels. (Sadly, you won’t find any panel variants or RGB lights like before.)

Given its size, you could mistake Ghost Canyon for a standard small-form-factor (SFF) build. But pop it open and you’ll find a decidedly unconventional interior.

Top down view of Ghost Canyon NUC9i9QNX with top panel off Alaina Yee / IDG

A top-down view of our NUC9i9QNX. Its RTX 2070 is toward the bottom of the photo, with the Compute Element above it.

Instead of a motherboard populated with a CPU, CPU cooler, RAM, storage, and a discrete GPU, you’ll instead find those parts divided among a few primary modules. One, of course, is the Compute Element, which contains the CPU and its cooling, along with slots for M.2 SSDs and RAM SODIMMs, system ports, and the wireless connectivity card. You pull it out as a single unit and open it up only to install SSDs and RAM—the CPU is soldered on.

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