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Intel's "Dragon Canyon" NUC 12 Extreme is an impressive bit of engineering – cramming a huge amount of hardware capability into a package that is roughly 1/4 the size of a standard ATX desktop. Not only is it capable of housing a powerful discrete GPU like the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080, but it can have up to 64GB of RAM and multiple M.2 NVMe storage drives.
However, while you can fit an impressive amount of hardware in this small package, it does have a number of things that will make it less powerful than full-sized workstations. First, it is still using DDR4 RAM, while most Intel 12th Gen desktops (ours included) have largely switched over to DDR5 as price and availability have improved. Second, the Intel Core i9 12900 that is used in the NUC we are looking at today is actually much less powerful than you might expect given the official specifications.
|CPU Model||Core i9 12900||Core i9 12900K|
|Max Turbo Frequency||5.1 GHz||5.2 GHz|
|P-Core Max Turbo Frequency||5.0 GHz||5.1 GHz|
|E-Core Max Turbo Frequency||3.8 GHz||3.9 GHz|
|Processor Base Power||65 W||125 W|
|Maximum Turbo Power||202 W||241 W|
At first glance, the Core i9 12900 is an extremely powerful CPU that is right on par with the Core i9 12900K. It has just as many Performance and Efficient cores as the 12900K, and the turbo frequencies are only .1 GHz lower. If those were the only two factors in play, that would mean that the 12900 should perform within 2% of the 12900K in most cases.
Unfortunately, modern CPUs are much more complicated than just core count and frequency. In the case of the Core i9 12900, the big thing that is going to affect performance is the lower base, and maximum, turbo power draw. While the maximum turbo frequency is an impressive 5.1 GHz, the lower power draw (combined with the more limited cooling you get in a compact package like the NUC) is going to mean that the 12900 is going to be able to maintain that speed far less often than the 12900K can.
And that is what brings us to the main goal of this article: to discover just how much of a performance difference there actually is when using the NUC 12 Extreme rather than going for a more traditional mATX or ATX sized desktop.
Listed below are the specifications of the systems we will be using for our testing:
|12th Gen Intel Core Test Platform|
|CPU||Intel Core i9 12900KS 8+8 Core ($739)
Intel Core i9 12900K 8+8 Core ($589)
Intel Core i7 12700K 8+4 Core ($409)
Intel Core i5 12600K 6+4 Core ($289)
|CPU Cooler||Noctua NH-U12A|
|Motherboard||Asus ProArt Z690-Creator WiFi|
|RAM||2x DDR5-4800 32GB (64GB total)|
|Intel Dragon Canyon NUC 12 Extreme System|
|CPU||Intel Core i9 12900 8+8 Core ($519)|
|CPU Cooler||Included in NUC|
|Motherboard||Included in NUC|
|RAM||2x SODIMM DDR4-3200 32GB (64GB total)|
*Latest drivers, OS updates, BIOS, and firmware as of March 31st, 2022
In order to see how the Dragon Canyon NUC 12 Extreme – with an Intel Core i9 12900 and NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 – compares to a more standard desktop, we will be looking at it compared to the full range of CPUs from the Intel's 12th Gen, and AMD's Ryzen 5000 series. We aren't exactly sure where the 12900 will fall in terms of performance, so we wanted to be able to look at it compared to the full range of current-generation offerings.
From a pricing perspective, the Core i9 12900 is closest to the Intel Core i9 12900K and the AMD Ryzen 5900X, although a direct pricing comparison like that is somewhat misleading since the NUC itself includes a number of other things like the chassis, motherboard, and cooler.
In fact, due to the current pricing of DDR5 memory, motherboards, power supplies, and other hardware components, the total cost for a fully built Dragon Canyon NUC 12 is about on par with one of our Puget Systems mATX desktops using either an Intel Core i5 12600K (which is below what we actually list on our systems) or an AMD Ryzen 5900X. The large difference between Intel and AMD is largely due to the current pricing of DDR5 memory, and as the price falls (and it is already starting to do so), you are likely going to be looking at more like the Intel Core i7 12700K as a comparable CPU as far as total system pricing goes.
For the tests themselves, we will be primarily using our PugetBench series of benchmarks using the latest versions of the host applications. Most of these benchmarks include the ability to upload the results to our online database, so if you want to know how your own system compares, you can download and run the benchmark yourself.
Adobe Photoshop: Intel NUC 12 Extreme Core i9 12900 vs Core i9 12900K
Starting off with Photoshop, we get our first peek at what you might be giving up in order to have an extremely compact system. Photoshop is only lightly threaded, so we had hopes that the Core i9 12900's lower power draw and the NUCs more limited cooling wouldn't come into play too much.
Unfortunately, even in Photoshop, the performance of the Core i9 12900 is about 19% lower than the Core i9 12900K. Even compared to the Core i5 12600K, you can expect around 8% lower performance in Photoshop. Keep in mind that this is comparing the NUC 12 Extreme using DDR4 memory to the other Intel 12th Gen CPUs using DDR5, so part of this performance gap should disappear if/when we get a DDR5 capable NUC.
The good news for the NUC is that it is only about 4-6% behind the AMD Ryzen 5800X, 5900X, and 5950X. That means that in terms of price-to-performance relative to AMD, it isn't too bad at all. And when you factor in how compact the NUC 12 Extreme is, we would actually give the NUC the edge for most users as far as a total package goes.
One of the issues for Photoshop is that since it doesn't take advantage of higher-end GPUs, that removes one of the big draws of this specific NUC 12 Extreme. The CPU performance isn't anything special, so for strictly Photoshop usage, there are better ways to get similar performance.
Adobe Lightroom Classic: Intel NUC 12 Extreme Core i9 12900 vs Core i9 12900K
Lightroom Classic is a pretty similar story to Photoshop when we look at the NUC's overall performance. The performance relative to the Core i9 12900K (and the i7 12700K) is a bit worse at about 20% slower, and it comes in at about 10% slower than the Intel Core i5 12600K. Compared to AMD, the NUC is about 10% behind the AMD Ryzen 5900X and 5950X, although it manages to almost exactly match the AMD Ryzen 5800X.
For this benchmark, we also want to point out some of the sub-scores in order to dive a bit deeper into some of the nuances of our testing. In the second chart above, we are looking at the performance for "Active" tasks like scrolling through images, switching module, etc. Here, Lightroom Classic doesn't scale well with more CPU cores, which often means that the performance across multiple CPUs is fairly close. Intel tends to have a lead for these kinds of tasks, and while the NUC with a Core i9 12900 was the slowest Intel CPU we tested, it is only behind the other results by 4-7%. And, compared to AMD, it is actually 2-% faster.
Passive tasks (chart #3) like exporting and generating previews, however, are where the NUC really falls behind. These tasks can use more CPU cores and are simply more intensive than active tasks, which brings the power and thermal limitations more into play.
In other words, the Intel Dragon Canyon NUC is actually a pretty good option for Lightroom Classic if you spend most of your time culling images and applying edits, but it falls behind for things like importing, exporting and generating previews.
Adobe After Effects: Intel NUC 12 Extreme Core i9 12900 vs Core i9 12900K
After Effects is another test where we want to dive a bit deeper into the results than just the Overall Score. However, that score is likely to be the most relevant for the average After Effects user, so that is still where we want to start.
In terms of overall performance in After Effects, the NUC ended up being 24% slower than the DDR5 desktop running a Core i9 12900K, or 13% behind the Core i5 12600K. So, once again, the NUC is definitely at a disadvantage compared to an Intel-based DDR5 mATX/ATX desktop system.
Performance compared to AMD, however, is a lot more in line with what you might expect based on the MSRP of each CPU. It is certainly a bit slower than the higher-end Ryzen CPUs, but only by 7-12%, which puts it about on par with the AMD Ryzen 5800X.
One of the sub-results we wanted to specifically look at is the Multi-Core Score which is generated based on compositions that take great advantage of the new Multi-Frame Rendering feature in After Effects. We should point out that this is probably one of the worst-case scenarios for the NUC since not only will it load the CPU to 100%, but for projects like this, you really want to have more than the 64GB of RAM that the NUC is capable of.
What is interesting about the Multi-Core score is that the NUC ended up being about 17% faster than the Intel Core i5 12600K and the AMD Ryzen 7 5800X. It still fell behind the Core i7/i9 and Ryzen 9 CPUs, but considering the thermal and power limitations, the performance is actually fairly decent here. As we mentioned, the 64GB RAM limit is probably the biggest thing holding back the NUC for this kind of workflow, but at least from a pure performance standpoint, the performance isn't as bad as we expected.
Adobe Premiere Pro: Intel NUC 12 Extreme Core i9 12900 vs Core i9 12900K
In Adobe Premiere Pro, the NUC moves up a few spots on our performance charts – ending up with an overall score that is just a hair higher than the AMD Ryzen 5900X and 5% lower than the Ryzen 5950X. The main reason for this is due to the fact that the Core i9 12900 includes a feature called Intel Quick Sync, which is an alternative (and typically faster) way to utilize hardware decoding for H.264/HEVC media compared to using your GPU. Because of this, Intel CPUs with Quick Sync support tend to have an inherent advantage in Premiere Pro.
This makes the NUC a great alternative to an AMD-based system for Premiere Pro, but it is still quite a ways behind the more standard Intel Core desktop processors. Even the Core i5 12600K is almost 20% faster than the 12900, and the 12900K is closer to 40% faster.
DaVinci Resolve Studio: Intel NUC 12 Extreme Core i9 12900 vs Core i9 12900K
DaVinci Resolve Studio is known in the industry for being able to take advantage of higher-end GPUs, but it also often requires a fairly powerful CPU to match. That makes the NUC 12 Extreme, in theory, an interesting option for Resolve since it is capable of using up to an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 GPU. Unfortunately, like many of the other applications we tested, the Core i9 12900 holds back performance quite a bit, resulting in scores that are very near the bottom of our performance charts.
It does still manage to sneak past the AMD Ryzen 5600X, but compared to the other Intel and AMD CPUs we tested, you are looking at anywhere from 4% to 20% lower performance. Compared to the desktop Intel Core CPUs, that is actually a smaller performance delta than what we saw in many of our other tests, so in many ways, this is actually somewhat of a best-case application for the NUC in terms of straight performance.
A large part of the reason is due to the NUC being able to use an RTX 3080 GPU (chart #2). The lower power of the CPU and the entire NUC platform does lower the GPU performance by around 8%, but that is still one of the reasons that the NUC was able to perform within a (long) stone's throw of more powerful CPUs like the Core i9 12900K.
V-Ray: Intel NUC 12 Extreme Core i9 12900 vs Core i9 12900K
Oddly enough, while the NUC’s Performance in V-Ray doesn’t really compare to desktop CPUs at a similar MSRP, this is one of the few cases where it was able to pull ahead of the Core i5 12600K. However, is still roughly 30% slower than the similarly named i9 12900K, or nearly 20% slower than the i7 12700K.
As of the time of writing, a similarly priced AMD mATX system would allow for a Ryzen 5950X, netting you over 50% faster renders. Although, it is worth pointing out that it is highly unlikely that anyone is buying a system as small as a NUC for CPU rendering. Single-threaded performance is fairly good with the NUC; slower than Intel's desktop CPUs, but faster than AMD’s. This makes for a decent small form factor 3d modeling system, just be prepared for longer renders or to send that work out to a dedicated render node.
Cinema 4D: Intel NUC 12 Extreme Core i9 12900 vs Core i9 12900K
CPU-based rendering is not well suited for this small form factor due to its need for sustained heavy load. Despite that, the i9 12900 NUC is able to barely match the desktop equipped with an i5 12600K when it comes to multi-core performance. However, that is still over 40% slower than the desktop i9 12900K. If CPU rendering is a top priority for you, then a full-sized desktop makes much more sense.
When it comes to single-threaded tasks, such as modeling or some physics simulations (chart #2), the NUC stays behind its Intel desktop brethren but manages to jump ahead of AMD’s current Ryzen offerings. This means that the NUC is actually a fairly capable modeling workstation as long as you plan to render your final scenes elsewhere.
Unreal Engine 4.26: Intel NUC 12 Extreme Core i9 12900 vs Core i9 12900K
Unreal Engine development favors lots of cores for most of its tasks. However, even though the NUC’s i9 12900 has the same number of cores as the desktop i9 12900K, the lower power usage – plus still being on DDR4 instead of DDR5 – really holds it back. It trails the lowest-end Intel CPU we tested, the i5 12600K, in almost every test
Even in tests such as compiling shaders (which highly favors Intel’s 12900K), the NUC is 60% slower. This is a very common task in Unreal, and over the course of a project, the difference in performance will really add up. The NUC is best suited to developers working on smaller projects where compile times aren’t too long, but anyone working on larger projects is likely going to want to stick to a larger, more traditional, desktop.
Is the Intel Dragon Canyon NUC 12 Extreme good for Content Creation?
Before talking about performance, it is important to make clear that the Intel Dragon Canyon NUC 12 Extreme (and any other NUC) is not expected to be in the same class as a standard desktop. This NUC in particular is interesting since it can use up to an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 GPU, but the CPU is closer to a mobile product than a desktop one. The main draw of the NUC is how compact it is (roughly 1/4 the volume of most mATX or ATX systems), with performance as a secondary consideration.
That said, even if straight performance isn't the main selling point of the NUC platforms, we feel it is extremely important to know just how much you may be giving up in order to get a system that is this compact.
And, as it turns out, you definitely are going to be giving up quite a bit of performance. The Dragon Canyon NUC uses an Intel Core i9 12900 NUC with DDR4 memory, which in terms of straight pricing for an entire system, should be somewhere in the range of an Intel Core i5 12600K with DDR5 memory, or an AMD Ryzen 9 5950X with DDR4 memory. Once DDR5 settles down, however, the closest Intel CPU in terms of total system pricing is likely to be closer to an Intel Core i7 12700K.
Compared to an AMD-based desktop, the Dragon Canyon NUC fares pretty well in some cases, but worse in others. In applications that are not heavily threaded (Photoshop, Lightroom Classic, Premiere Pro, DaVinci Resolve, and After Effects), the NUC is only about 8% slower than a desktop system with a Ryzen 5950X. Considering the much small footprint of the NUC isn't too bad of a tradeoff in terms of performance. On the other hand, for heavily threaded workloads like CPU rendering, the NUC is as much as 35% slower than a similarly priced AMD Ryzen system
For the Intel desktop CPUs, you are going to be giving up a bit more in terms of performance. Even with the higher cost of DDR5 RAM giving the NUC a price parity with a modest Intel Core i5 12600K desktop system, you are looking at an average of about a 10% performance drop by going with the more compact NUC. And in this case, the more heavily threaded workloads like CPU rendering actually help the NUC a bit since it has more total cores than a Core i5 12600K. However, for the workloads you are more likely to want to use a NUC for (Photoshop, Premiere Pro, etc.), you are looking at up to a 20% drop in performance.
Lastly, compared to the similarly-named Intel Core i9 12900K, you can expect close to 30% lower performance on average, which is fairly evenly spread across all the workloads we tested.
If you are looking for a very compact system that is still capable of housing some decent hardware, the Intel Dragon Canyon NUC 12 Extreme is a great little system. The biggest thing about it is that you need to manage your expectations for how fast the system is going to be compared to a more standard desktop. The specs of the Intel Core i9 12800 look great on paper – roughly on par with the Intel Core i9 12900K for things like core count and boost frequencies – but the much lower power draw makes a bigger difference for performance than many may realize. This is why, in reality, it is closer to 30% slower than the Core i9 12900K processor, and in most cases is going to be around 10% slower than even an Intel Core i5 12600K.
If you are in the market for an ultra-compact desktop, be sure to check out our product page for the Intel Dragon Canyon NUC 12 Extreme as we are currently taking (and shipping) orders.