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Hands on: Intel Ghost Canyon NUC review

Not as spooky as it sounds

What is a hands on review?
Intel Ghost Canyon NUC
(Image: © Future)

Early Verdict

The Intel Ghost Canyon NUC is this tiny but upgradeable desktop PC that's as powerful as you want to make it. It's a barebones system that will take some know-how to get going, but once you do, it should just blend into your entertainment center.

For

  • Easily upgraded
  • Looks great
  • It's so small

Against

  • Kind of expensive
  • Need to know computers to get into it

At CES 2020, the Intel Ghost Canyon NUC is the opposite of what you imagine when you think of a tiny "desktop" PC. A lot of gaming PCs that take on this tiny form factor may look super-nice, but everything falls apart once you start imagining how to upgrade the thing. The Ghost Canyon NUC seems to buck this trend. 

Now, because it is technically using mobile class 9th-generation Intel Core H-Series processors, the processors aren't quite as upgradeable as you'd get on a larger tower, but you can still upgrade them. 

The Ghost Canyon NUC, then, seems to offer the best of both worlds: an aesthetically pleasing chassis hiding a PC that is completely user-upgradeable and serviceable, even down to the fans. 

(Image credit: Future)

Price and availability

Intel is looking to get the Ghost Canyon NUC out to market by the end of Q1 2020, which is good news for anyone looking to get their hands on this elegant solution. What's going to be more complicated, however, is the pricing. 

Because Intel doesn't sell stock directly to retailers, there is no real MSRP for the device. Instead, we have some vague ideas of general price windows that the NUC is going to sit in. For instance, if you want the Core i5-equipped Ghost Canyon NUC, you'll probably be looking at a price point of around $999 – $1,299. Though, you should be aware that this is for a barebones system – RAM, Storage, OS and a discrete Graphics Card are not included. 

That's a high asking price for the hardware involved, but you're really paying for the unique form factor here. 

(Image credit: Future)

Design

When we first saw pictures of the Intel Canyon NUC, we basically said to ourselves "it's a box, so what?" – it looked pretty similar to any other tiny gaming PC. However, when we saw it in person, we got to see its guts, and that's when we were really sold on the thing. 

You can easily fit a normal-sized graphics card in the Intel Ghost Canyon NUC, and the model we got to see was packing an extremely normal-sized Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070. In fact, before being shown this GPU, we asked how Intel planned on supporting this with real graphics cards. The Intel rep then pulled off the top of the device, and we have to admit we were impressed. 

And, wow did that top come off easily. The Intel Canyon NUC is tool-less, which means you can get into the device to upgrade, clean or service without having to go on a scavenger hunt to find your screwdriver. Not that dust should be much of a problem anyway.

As for how you can upgrade the NUC's processor, the CPU is actually located on a PCI-E card that you can replace. Intel says it plans to support the Ghost Canyon NUC with future CPUs in this form factor for years to come, so you don't have to worry about replacing the whole unit in a few years. 

The side panel on the left is mesh, which means it allows for easy airflow to the fans on the graphics card, while catching most of the dust before it enters the system. This is kind of a godsend, because with the little room available inside the Ghost Canyon NUC, dust could quickly become a problem otherwise. 

There's plenty of ports on offer, too. On the front of the chassis, you'll find two USB-A ports, an SD card reader (which we didn't expect) and a headphone jack. Over on the back side of the device, you get two Thunderbolt 3 ports, six USB-A ports, an HDMI and two LAN ports. This is, of course, in addition to the video ports that'll be found on whatever graphics card you install in the NUC. 

We've seen a ton of tiny gaming PCs in our time, and the Intel Ghost Canyon NUC might just be the most compelling one yet. Design-wise, we imagine that a lot of other manufacturers are going to follow suit in the near future. Thankfully, Intel has opened up the spec so that anyone can make a Ghost Canyon NUC: we expect to see plenty of them very soon. 

(Image credit: Future)

Performance

Obviously, we haven't had a chance to get the NUC in for our own internal testing, but we can draw a couple of conclusions based on our limited experience. 

This is a barebones system, so performance is largely going to to come down to the components you throw into the device. We expect CPU performance to fall in line with the best gaming laptops on the market right now, but thanks to full-fat desktop graphics, the NUC will pull far ahead of mobile options, especially at higher resolutions. 

Our advice would be to configure this baby with 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD to start, as the Thunderbolt 3 connection in the back should give you access to some blazing-fast external storage for future expansion. 

We can't wait to get our hands on it for a full review, though, as we want to see just how far it can be pushed. 

(Image credit: Future)

Early verdict

The Intel Ghost Canyon NUC might very well be one of the most interesting computing products at CES 2020. Sure, it's not Intel's first whack at making a desktop system like this, but it really knocked it out of the park this time. 

This is an easily upgradeable device that can blend into your living room, while being able to play games on that family 4K TV. It's going to be a little expensive, and you'll have to possess a bit of computing know-how to get it up and running, but it might just be the perfect living-room PC. We can't wait to get this one in for review. 

  • Check out all of TechRadar's CES 2020 coverage. We're live in Las Vegas to bring you all the breaking tech news and launches, plus hands-on reviews of everything from 8K TVs and foldable displays to new phones, laptops and smart home gadgets.

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.