Intel’s NUC computers are tiny desktop PCs that typically have laptop-class processors. But the thing about laptop processors is that some of them have gotten pretty good in recent years, offering desktop-class performance in some situations.
For the past few weeks I’ve been using a new Intel NUC 10 mini PC with a Core i7-10710U hexa-core processor as my primary computer, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised just how zippy this computer is.
Intel loaned me a demo unit for the purposes of this review, and I’ve found that it makes an excellent workhorse PC for my both my day job as a blogger/web publisher and my side gig as a podcast editor.
Despite it’s small size (the model I’m using measures just 4.6″ x 4.4″ x 2″), the NUC 10 is probably the fastest computer in my house at the moment. It scores higher than my Dell Vostro 15 7590 in many benchmarks and performs resource-intensive real-world tasks more quickly, despite the fact that the Dell laptop has a more power-hungry processor.
But there are some exceptions — the NUC 10 featured Intel UHD integrated graphics. You can play some PC games or render video using this little computer. But you’re going to be able to those things a lot better on a system with discrete graphics or a more powerful integrated GPU.
An NUC isn’t necessarily the best choice for everyone. The small size makes this little PC easy to fit beneath or behind a monitor. It doesn’t take up much space in your office and wouldn’t look out of place in your living room either. And the model featured in this review has a decent selection of ports and upgrade options.
But one thing you cannot upgrade is the processor — it’s affixed to the motherboard the same way a laptop processor would be. If performance is more important to you than size, then you’d probably be better off going with a larger PC. For the same amount of money you’d spend on an NUC 10 you could find one with a significantly more powerful processor… and a socket that allows you to remove and replace that chip with a higher-power processor in the future.
Intel’s NUC 10 series computers with Comet Lake processors are also known by their code-name “Frost Canyon” and come in a range of options including models with Intel Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 processors which are sold at a variety of price points. Here are some starting prices for barebones configurations:
- NUC 10 with Intel Core i3-10110U dual-core processor for $350
- NUC 10 with Intel Core i5-10210U quad-core processor for $420
- NUC 10 with Intel Core i7-10710U hexa-core processor for $620
The mode Intel loaned me for testing is a top-of-the-line configuration with an Intel Core i7 chip, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, 1TB hard drive, and Windows 10 Home. It sells for around $1,000.
Specs (as configured)
|CPU:||Intel Core i7-10710U|
|RAM:||16GB (2 x 8GB DDR4-2666)|
|Storage:||256GB PCie NVMe SSD + 1TB 2.5″ HDD|
|OS:||Windows 10 Home|
|Wireless:||Intel AX201 WiFi 6 + BT 5.0|
|Front ports:||1 x USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C
1 x USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A
|Rear ports:||1 x Thunderbolt 3
2 x USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A
|Side ports:||SDXC UHS-II card reader|
|Price (barebones):||About $620|
The Intel NUC 10 “Frost Canyon” computer looks a lot like most other NUC systems Intel has released in recent years.
Some of the ports have changed, but much like the “Bean Canyon” NUC 8 I reviewed in 2018, the new model is a small box with a few ports and a power button on the front, a bunch of additional ports on the back, a shiny plastic lid, and a dark metal body.
The Bean Canyon NUC had a microSD card reader and two USB Type-A ports on the front. The newer Frost Canyon model has a full-sized SD card slot and a USB Type-A and Type-C port on the front.
Other than that, the two little computers look nearly identical from the outside.
But under the hood, Intel has switched from a 28 watt, 8th-gen Intel Core processor with Iris Plus graphics to a 25 watt, 10th-gen chip with Intel UHD graphics.
In other words, you get more CPU power, but less graphics performance. That trade-off is worth it if you’re looking for general purpose computing — the new model scores higher in most benchmarks. But if you’re looking for a tiny gaming, video editing, or digital art workstation, you might be better off with the older model.
The NUC 10 comes in two sizes — short and tall. They’re both 4.6″ x 4.4″ across, but the “tall” models are 2 inches high, while the “short” versions are just 1.5 inches thick. The difference is that the taller version has room for both an M.2 solid state drive and a 2.5 inch hard drive or SSD. The smaller versions lack the 2.5 inch drive bay.
While some folks looking for a space-saving computer may also be interested in a silent PC, the Frost Canyon NUC doesn’t fit the bill. Not only does the model Intel loaned me have a hard drive (with spinning platters), but it also has a fan that spins up under heavy load. The NUC 10 is no louder than a typical laptop. But it’s also no quieter than one.
The little computer supports WiFi 6, Bluetooth 5.0, and Gigabit Ethernet and has a Thunderbolt 3 port on the back, as well as an HDMI port.
Intel says you can connect up to three 4K60fps displays, but you’ll need to use a USB-C to dual mini DisplayPort splitter to do that because the USB-C port on the front of the NUC 10 doesn’t seem to support video output.
That said, I was able to connect a 2560 x 1080 pixel monitor and a 1920 x 1080 pixel TV and use both simultaneously without any problems.
While the ports let you add monitors, displays, and even external graphics cards, you can also perform some upgrades by opening up the computer’s case. There are four little stubs on the bottom of the NUC 10 that lift the body of the computer off your table or desk, and each has a screw inside. Loosen the screws with the screwdriver and you can remove the bottom panel.
Under the hood, you’ll find an M.2 2242/2280 slot for solid state storage and two SODIMM slots for DDR4-2666 RAM. If you have a “tall” version of the NUC 10, there’s also a 2.5 inch drive bay in the bottom cover itself.
In the demo unit Intel sent me, all of those slots are populated. But if you opt for a barebones model you can choose your own memory and storage. The computer supports up to 64GB of RAM and SATA III and/or NVMe storage. It’s also compatible with Intel Optane memory.
The top cover of the NUC is also removable, although you won’t find any traditional PC components underneath. But eventually you may be able to replace the cover with a third-party one that adds functionality such as extra USB or video out ports or support for wireless charging.
The NUC 10 also comes with a 120W power adapter that’s almost nearly as big as the computer.
I should point out that while this little computer has a laptop-class Intel Core U-series processor, it’s configured with a 25 watt TDP, which means it can consume more power (and run faster) in the NUC 10 than it would in most laptops (which typically have the chip set to a 15 watt TDP). So I wouldn’t necessarily expect a laptop with the same Core i7-10710U processor to offer the same level of performance.
But what I find most impressive, is that the NUC 10 with a 25 watt CPU often performs better than a laptop with a 45-watt Intel Core i7-9750H hexa-core processor. Like I said, it may currently be the fastest computer in my house — as least in terms of CPU performance. Graphics performance is another story.
Before running a single benchmark, I spent a few days using the NUC 10 as my primary work computer. As a blogger and web publisher, that means I spend most of my day with up to 20 browser tabs open, an image editor or two, and maybe some music streaming from Spotify, Tidal, or YouTube.
Honestly, I didn’t notice much difference in performance when switching between the NUC 10 and my usual work computer, the Dell Vostro 15 7590 (with an Intel Core i7-9750H processor, 16GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD).
Izotope’s Neutron includes a number of utilities for adjusting EQ, compression, and other audio settings, while Izotope RX is a suite of tools for reducing background noise and otherwise improving the sound and clarity of recorded dialog. It’s a powerful took for radio, podcast, and movie post-production, but it’s also one of the most resource-intensive applications I use on a regular basis.
When I was finished editing an hour-long podcast episode recently, I rendered the project on the NUC 10 and the job finished in about 12 minutes, which means it rendered at about 5X real-time speed.
I then loaded the same project on my Dell Vostro 15 laptop and the same job took about 17 minutes to finish (which means it rendered at about 3.5X speed).
Using HWInFO to keep an eye on the CPU speeds and power consumption, I noticed that not only was the NUC able to get the job done more quickly, but it did that while consuming less power:
- Intel NUC 10 – 12 minutes at 3.9 GHz with power consumption averaging 20 watts
- Dell Vostro 15 7590 – 17 minutes at 3.8 GHz with power consumption averaging 37 watts
I got those scores by eyeballing the HWiNFO sensor stats. But if you’re looking for something a little more precise, here’s a chart showing how long it took to run Izotope’s Dialog Isolate tool on a 67 minute audio recording on several different PCs:
The NUC 10 was able to get the job done in less time than any other computer I’ve tested recently (although it’s interesting to see that the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 laptop with a Core i7-1065G7 was a close second, since that laptop has a 15-watt processor. It makes me wonder how that chip would do in these tests if it was configured to run at 25-watts).
Intel’s latest mini-desktop also fares pretty well in other CPU-specific tests including Cinebench and GeekBench. The system is also pretty speedy at transcoding video using Handbrake.
The lack of discrete graphics comes into play when you look at gaming performance tests like 3DMark, or all-purpose benchmarks like PCMark or Passmark that incorporate CPU, GPU, memory, and storage.
In the benchmarks below, you can see that the Dell Vostro 15 7591 holds an edge in these tests, largely due to its NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 GPU.
In a nutshell, you can play some games on this computer, but it’s not a gaming PC. And you can use it for video editing or graphic design, but that’s not its primary purpose. So don’t expect high frame rates in the latest premium PC games, and don’t expect the system to function well for virtual reality or other applications that benefit from hardware-accelerated graphics.
That’s a little disappointing — because while the Bean Canyon NUC doesn’t score quite as well as the newer model on CPU-specific tasks, it does have a 28-watt Core i7-8559U processor with Intel Iris Plus graphics, which allows it to score higher on graphics benchmarks than the newer model.
It would have been nice to see Intel boost the CPU performance while at least keeping the GPU capabilities steady. But Intel doesn’t offer a 10th-gen U-series processor with both Iris Plus graphics and up to 6 CPU cores and 12 threads.
Instead the chip maker split its 10th-gen processor lineup into 14nm “Comet Lake” chips with support for up to the Core i7-10710U hexa-core processor with Intel UHD graphics and the 10nm “Ice Lake” series with support for up to a Core i7-1065G7 processor with Gen11 Iris Plus graphics. You see this represented by the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 in the charts above — the laptop scores higher than Intel’s NUC in graphics tests, but trails in CPU performance.
I’m not much of a gamer, but in addition to running 3DMark, I did install World War Z and play through about 20 minutes of a campaign without any noticeable lag.
I also ran CrystalDiskMark to examine storage read/write speeds. The NUC 10 kit I received has an NVMe SSD and a 5400 RPM hard drive. While the storage is significantly faster than a typical HDD, it’s not all that speedy by modern NVMe SSD standards. You may be able to boost these scores by replacing the SSD though.
Finally, a few notes on power consumption observations. This isn’t the most scientific test, but I did notice that during daily use (10-20 browser tabs, music streaming, and some light image editing), the total system power usage averaged around 20 watts or less.
When I fired up Prime95 to give the CPU a torture test, power consumption climbed briefly as high as 82 watts, before settling down to 60 watts, where it stayed. Unsurprisingly, the fan kicked into high gear during this test, making an audible sound as it spun.
The computer’s power consumption can go as low as 5 watts when idle. But I rarely saw it dip below 15 watts during normal use.
Thanks to an Intel AX201 wireless chip, the Frost Canyon system is also the first member of Intel’s NUC family to features support for WiFi 6 (also known as 802.11ax). That means it has a theoretical top wireless transfer speed of 2400 Mbps. By comparison, the Bean Canyon NUC topped out at 1733 Mbps.
You will need an 802.11ax router and other supported hardware to actually make use of the upgrade though. I don’t have one yet, so I wasn’t able to test this feature. But I will note that WiFi 5 (802.11ac) performance was… less than perfect.
Throughput was fine most of the time. But the NUC 10 loses its connection to my router at least once or twice a day, despite the fact that my router is literally a few feet away from the computer. I’m not enough of an expert on wireless networking to say whether this is due to the NUC, my router, or something else — but I was usually able to reconnect in under a minute by resetting the wireless adapter and/or clicking the WiFi icon in the Windows 10 status tray and choosing “troubleshoot problems.”
Overall, I’m pretty impressed with Intel’s latest NUC. As usual, Intel has managed to stuff a full-fledged PC into a package about the size of a couple of CD jewel cases stacked on top of one another (an increasingly dated reference).
Its compact size makes this a PC that you can put nearly anywhere. It takes up little space on your desk, leaving more room for your monitor, keyboard, or other accessories. It’s smaller than a cable box and not much larger than a Roku if you wanted to put it in your living room. And there’s an infared receiver in the front panel that can be enabled in the BIOS if you want to use a remote control for the computer. There’s also a 4-microphone array for voice controls or video conferencing (although you’ll need to supply your own webcam for the latter).
But despite its diminutive stature, the NUC10i7FNHAA packs enough horsepower to get real work done… as long as your work doesn’t require a discrete GPU or the kind of resource-intensive tasks that led AMD to develop a 64-core desktop chip.
Actually, if you need discrete graphics for work or play, you could theoretically attach a third-party graphics dock and add an AMD or NVIDIA graphics card. The NUC 10 has a Thunderbolt 3 port, so it should work with graphics docks designed for laptops.
But those docks tend to be big, expensive, and power hungry. And I suspect those will all be turn-offs for the sort of folks who are drawn to the NUC 10 specifically because of its small size.
With prices starting at $620 for a barebones model with a Core i7 processor, the NUC 10 is also hardly the cheapest option for desktop computing. A fully configured model with memory, storage, and operating system will set you back even more.
I do think the little Frost Canyon NUC is probably worth the asking price for folks who are willing to pay a little extra and sacrifice a little horsepower for something so small. But obviously not everyone will fall into that category.
Intel does offer cheaper models with Core i3 and Core i5 processors, but I haven’t tested those configurations so I can’t comment on the performance.
The NUC 10 is available now from a number of stores, including: