Intel Beast Canyon NUC11BTMi9 review: A bigger footprint shrinks this gaming PC's appeal
- 29 July, 2021 23:00
The gaming variants of Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) mini-PCs have always been expensive. For the price, you got unique, compact, and ultimately turn-key options for a portable desktop PC. You might pay out the nose, but you couldn’t replicate the experience as a DIY builder. That’s what justified the cost.
With the launch of Beast Canyon—officially known as the NUC11BTMi9 or NUC11BTMi7, depending on which version you get—the high cost is harder to justify.
Admittedly, the audience for these gaming PCs wasn’t large to begin with. But Beast Canyon is a surprisingly harder sell than I expected.
Once upon a time, Intel’s gaming NUCs were tiny. That’s not so with Beast Canyon, which is an eight-liter small-form-factor (SFF) PC—or roughly the size of an eGPU enclosure.
Like its predecessor Ghost Canyon, its strength lies in its easy CPU and GPU upgrades. Rather than a separate processor, motherboard, and cooler, you’ll instead find Intel’s newest Compute Element inside Beast Canyon. It contains your choice of a Core i7-11700B or a Core i9-11900KB, the cooling for the CPU, slots for RAM SODIMMs and M.2 SSDs, system ports, and a wireless module. You pull it as a whole unit from the system and only ever open it up to install storage and/or memory, as the CPU is soldered on.
When you outgrow the processor, you simply buy the latest version of the Compute Element, switch over RAM and storage drives as applicable, and then swap the old Compute Element for the new one. The idea is that you can upgrade your system like a DIY system, but in a mere handful of minutes. No need to deal with parts lists, chipset compatibility, or BIOS updates.
Similarly, your GPU is whatever two-slot, off-the-shelf graphics card you get your hands on. And with Beast Canyon, you can fit a full-length video card up to 12 inches long. Ghost Canyon, which was a daintier five liters in size, could only hold small-form-factor cards eight inches or shorter.
Intel cuts off the self-service there. The other components like the power supply, power cables, and baseboard are proprietary. The power supply in particular is a mildly bitter pill to swallow, as it looks like an easy swap for a retail SFX model. But it has a custom power cable hardwired into it that routes to the back of the case, which makes it difficult to replace. When asked, Intel said that it does not provide guidance for using off-the-shelf PSUs, as they could violate regulatory certifications. If you want to cobble together your own higher wattage PSU swap, you're on your own.
In theory, working within Beast Canyon should be straightforward. You have just two components to deal with when trying to maneuver parts in and out of this NUC. However, I found getting into the case more frustrating than expected. Ghost Canyon tore down easily, with few tricky spots to navigate and sturdy material. In contrast, Beast Canyon has more plastic (and fragile plastic clips holding panels in place), plus a very specific order for disassembly. Go off script and you might break one or more of those clips by accident.
Intel has labeled some sections to give disassembly clues, but you’ll want to watch the official teardown video to protect such an expensive purchase.
Perhaps as compensation for its more complex layout, Beast Canyon does boast RGB lights, with a default rainbow pattern. The front panel showcases an image of a glowing skull, while the USB ports and the underside of the case have accent lighting. You can change the light patterns, colors, and even the image itself if you so choose.
Price, specs, and ports
As with Intel’s other NUCs, Beast Canyon is primarily sold as a bare-bones kit. You get the case, a pre-installed 650W power supply with pre-routed cabling, and the Compute Element that houses your CPU, its cooling, system ports, and wireless connectivity module. To make it a fully functional gaming PC, you have to still buy and install your own SSDs, RAM, and discrete graphics card. Alternatively, you can buy Beast Canyon as a pre-configured PC through stores like Simply NUC, but you’ll pay extra going that route.
Our review unit is the higher-end option, the US$1,350 NUC11BTMi9, which sports the BNUC11DBBi9 version of the Compute Element. Inside is an 8-core, 16-thread Core i9-11900KB with a base frequency of 3.3GHz, a Max Turbo frequency of 4.9GHz, and an "Intel Thermal Velocity Boost" frequency of 5.3GHz. (The Thermal Velocity Boost clock speed only applies if CPU's temperature is below 50 degrees Celsius.) This 65W Tiger Lake H chip is very similar to the Core i9-11980HK, which has near-identical TDP and clock speeds. Note that if you choose to overclock this chip, which is only possible through Intel's Extreme Tuning Utility, you lose the protection of Intel's warranty should something go sideways.
If that’s too rich for your blood, you can opt for the US$1,150 NUC11BTMi7 and its BNUC11DBBi7 Compute Element, which features a Core i7-11700B with a base frequency of 3.2GHZ, a Max Turbo frequency of 4.8GHz, and an Intel Thermal Velocity Boost frequency of 5.3GHz. That’s as cheap as it gets—Intel isn’t offering a Core i5 version of Beast Canyon.
Aside from which Compute Element they come with, both of these NUCs are otherwise the same. You can install up to three M.2 SSDs (two slots support either NVMe or SATA drives, and are compatible with RAID 0 or RAID 1, while the third is NVMe only), and all slots are compatible with PCIe 4.0 drives. The Compute Elements also support Optane SSDs and memory (M10, H10, and H20), as well as up to 64GB of dual-channel DDR4-3200 RAM.
For ports, you’ll find six USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps) Type-A ports, two Thunderbolt 4 ports, a 2.5Gb ethernet port, and one HDMI 2.0b on the Compute Element. Two additional USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps) Type-A ports, a 3.5mm stereo headset jack, and an SDXC slot with UHS-II support are available on the front of the chassis. Inside are two USB 3.1 headers and two USB 2.0 headers. For wireless connectivity, Beast Canyon supports Wi-Fi 6E AX210 and Bluetooth 5.2.
Intel outfitted our Beast Canyon sample as you’d expect from a mid-range gaming PC (assuming you could get your hands on a graphics card at a reasonable price)—no Optane drives with eye-watering prices this time around. Our configuration has an Asus Dual RTX 3060 12GB graphics card, 16GB 3200MHz RAM, an Sabrent Rocket 4.0 500GB M.2 NVMe SSD, and a Windows 10 Pro license.
All told, this system comes out to a little under US$2,000, assuming a list price for the GPU. That’s cheaper than Ghost Canyon was at launch, but still on the high side for what you get. So can this machine deliver on performance enough to justify the premium you’ll pay?
Beast Canyon’s competition is pretty much most other gaming machines. And yet, they’re not direct rivals, either.
On one side, you have gaming laptops. Out the gate you already know that you’re looking at reduced gaming performance (due to thermal constraints) in exchange for an included screen and portability. On the other side, you have SFF gaming PCs. Not only can you build a powerful PC in 8 liters, you can also size up to 13 or 14 liters for much more power, greater cost savings, and easier assembly if you’re not set on an ultra-minimal footprint.
As you’ll see, Beast Canyon falls pretty much where you’d expect for a gaming PC that has a mobile CPU but a discrete GPU—making it vulnerable to said competition.
Let’s kick off with a look at how Beast Canyon’s Core i9-11900KB handles itself in tests that focus solely on processor performance.
First up is Cinebench R20, a popular 3D-rendering benchmark. This benchmark takes just a handful of minutes to finish, and generally the more cores you have, the faster it goes. We use it as a way to ballpark how the chip will handle brief periods of full utilization.
As a mobile chip, Beast Canyon’s i9-11900KB has the same constraints as its laptop counterparts, including the i9-11980HK. The size of the laptop (or in this case, the Compute Element) influences the style and amount of cooling, and thus performance. Still, Tiger Lake H is looking pretty good, especially if you already own a Compute Element and are itching for an upgrade to reduce the time of multithreaded, CPU-intensive tasks.
As for single-core performance, you’ll be hard-pressed to find fault with Beast Canyon’s mobile chip. Many games don’t make full use of all available cores and threads on higher-core count CPUs, so if you’re considering Beast Canyon for gaming, it holds up pretty well—as you’ll see more concretely in the gaming benchmarks.
Content creators intent on having a small, portable PC may be less convinced that Beast Canyon is the right choice for them, though. In our Handbrake test, which involves transcoding a 4K video formatted as an MP4 file to a 1080p MKV file, Beast Canyon’s i9-11900KB chews through it pretty quick...but is still 15 percent slower than the 5900HX. Pick up a heftier laptop with an, ahem, beastly Ryzen 9 5900HX and you can tear through encodes faster—with the benefit of having a truly work-from-anywhere machine, to boot.
We already know from Ghost Canyon that Intel lets its top-tier mobile chips stretch their legs adequately within the Compute Element, allowing them to post strong numbers in games. Beast Canyon’s CPU benchmarks don’t contradict that, but how much performance do you sacrifice compared to a DIY gaming PC?
We’ll start with one of 3DMark’s well-known synthetic benchmarks. In order to include some laptops from our older reviews, I’ve looked at the results for the Fire Strike test, which simulates DX11 1080p gaming on Medium settings. I’ve also included results from a couple of older games, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, both to give a general sense of how our Beast Canyon review unit handles itself and to show what’s changed between it and Ghost Canyon since my review of the latter.
In these first few charts, the only machines with desktop graphics cards are Beast Canyon and Ghost Canyon. And they fall right where I’d expect—mobile discrete GPUs typically perform at about one level down compared to their desktop equivalents. The main benefit to Beast Canyon here is that you can easily swap out that RTX 3060 for a beefier, more powerful GPU in minutes. (In a world where GPUs can be widely found at list price, that is.)
These charts also show that upgrading Ghost Canyon with Beast Canyon’s Tiger Lake H-based Compute Element isn’t really worth the cash, if you only use that NUC for gaming. As our review of the RTX 3060 showed, its performance is about on par with the RTX 2070, and that bears out here. In games that lean more on the CPU, the gap in performance begins to widen, but not by a lot.
You can see that in a few of the more punishing benchmarks that I ran, where our Beast Canyon unit went up against Ghost Canyon with the same RTX 3060 card. Shadow of the Tomb Raider had the largest margin, with Beast Canyon pulling ahead by about 15 percent compared to Ghost Canyon when using the same graphics card in both systems.
Since games vary in which components they hit hardest, it’s not a surprise to see the PCWorld benchmarking desktop PC (which sports AMD’s powerhouse 5900X and a full-length RTX 3060) pick up a clear lead in one title—and very little in another.
For the most part, that’s really how you can boil down Beast Canyon’s performance. Depending on the game, it’ll outperform laptops that have similar or even better specs on paper when those systems are constrained by available space for cooling, while sometimes being able to hang with bigger desktop PCs with more powerful CPUs.
In previous NUC reviews, I’d comment on both how loud the unit would get and how much power it would draw. Unfortunately, the PCWorld staff is still working predominantly from home, so as with with Ghost Canyon, I didn’t have the meter I need to test power draw.
As for noise levels, Beast Canyon stays fairly quiet during regular tasks. It’s more silent than Ghost Canyon was—a benefit of larger case fans. Ghost Canyon had 80mm fans at the top, while Beast Canyon has three 92mm fans.
In games, you’ll hear the fans audibly kick up, so the graphics card you choose will influence the overall sound profile. The two-fan Asus RTX 3060 included with our review unit was on the louder side, but easily blotted out by wearing headphones.
Intel’s gaming NUCs have always carried this air of the ultimate luxury product. Sure, they were expensive, but you couldn’t replicate them as a DIY builder without serious compromises. Even when Ghost Canyon showed up as a much bigger system (relative to those predecessors that could fit into the front pouch of a backpack), it carried on the legacy of being a dead-simple, ultra-compact gaming PC worth its premium price.
But at eight liters, Beast Canyon doesn’t stand as strongly against its competition. Its larger footprint, proprietary power supply, and higher teardown complexity would make me weigh a couple of alternatives before committing to a purchase. Depending on the situation, a laptop plus an eGPU or a DIY SFF gaming PC could work out better. (Were I better equipped in my home testing setup, I would have spent time pitting Beast Canyon against those two options, rather than just gaming laptops and larger gaming PCs.)
But even in the abstract, it’s clear to see the strengths of those two alternatives. You can travel freely with a laptop, without worry about a mobile GPU aging horribly. Yes, you’ll have to deal with some nerfed performance because of eGPU bandwidth limitations, but that compromise is palatable. You can at least upgrade the graphics card down the road.
As for a DIY build—while you will have to play a bit of Tetris getting the parts into the case and routing the cabling, you get much more control over what goes into the machine. You’ll also save money, to boot. When I configured a DIY system similar-ish to our Beast Canyon review unit, it came in between US$1,500 to US$1,700, depending on the processor generation I chose. (The cheaper variant sported a Ryzen 7 3700X; the more equivalent version had a Core i7-11700K.) And that’s including a US$250 Dan A4 7.25L case.
Beast Canyon still represents an option for a thin slice of PC gamers and content creators who want a very small, very powerful, and very simple DIY-ish PC. It does streamline the small-form-factor building experience, and you can bypass even that work by buying a fully built out system.
But unlike with Ghost Canyon (or even older gaming NUCs), I would question someone much more closely if they expressed an interest in Beast Canyon. This NUC best fits someone who prioritizes a small footprint and ease of upgradability over everything.