The Intel NUC line started off as a low-power and very compact line of desktop PCs. As a result, they power everything from conference room IT, to personal desktops, to even portable proof-of-concept demos for high-end data center software. Starting from modest roots, Intel is taking the next evolution of these with the NUC 9 Pro kits codenamed “Quartz Canyon.”
Intel sent us a unit powered by an 8-core Intel Xeon E-2286M to review and when we got it, the first thing that popped into our mind was not how revolutionary it was. Instead, it was just how similar this is to another Intel product we used in 2015 that never saw public introduction. In our review, we are going to talk about the capabilities of this NUC kit, as well as give a bit of a history lesson on where this may have come from within Intel.
Intel NUC 9 Pro Video
If you want to hear more about this platform and some of the background commentary, you can check out the video we have that accompanies this review:
As usual, we have a lot more detail in this review, but we are going to offer that video as an option for those who want to listen instead.
Intel NUC9VXQNX “Quartz Canyon” Overview
The Intel NUC9VXQNX is a fairly compact unit measuring 9.37″ x 8.50″ x 3.77″ or 238mm x 216mm x 96mm. For some context, that is only a bit smaller than a HPE ProLiant MicroServer Gen10 Plus based on a socketed Xeon E-2200 series processor.
Unlike the MicroServer Gen10 Plus, this has an internal 500W power supply in that space.
In terms of front I/O there is a front panel audio header along with two USB 3.1 and two USB 2.0 headers. There is even a SDXC (UHS-II capable) slot.
On the rear there are two 1GbE NICs. One is Intel i219-LM chipset based and the other is an Intel i210-AT port. There are four USB 3.1 Gen2 ports on the rear of the system. One also gets an HDMI 2.0a output as well as two Thunderbolt 3 ports and an audio/ optical combo port.
Something that is apparent from the rear is that the unit looks as though it is four PCIe expansion slots wide. That is because it essentially is.
Opening up the system the first step is removing the top which has two fans.
One can then remove the sides. Inside we can see our unit has a PNY NVIDIA Quadro P2200 GPU. This 5GB GPU offers four DisplayPort outputs which are important to drive multi-monitor setups.
When we remove the GPU, we can see that it is sitting in a PCIe x16 slot. There is also a PCIe x4 slot next to the x16. That allows one to use a double-width GPU and Intel says that the chassis can take up to an 8″ deep 225W GPU powered by the internal 6+2-pin and 6-pin power cables.
The 8″ depth means one needs to be vigilant shopping for GPUs of that size since many standard desktop GPUs are much longer. Using a double-width GPU covers up the PCIe x4 slot.
One can also see one of the more unique features of these Quartz Canyon NUCs, there is a PCIe card with the CPU, memory, cooling, and two NVMe SSDs. We are going to go more into that module in a moment, and why we have seen something like this before.
After unplugging a myriad of cables for front panel I/O as well as power and even the Wi-Fi 6 AX200 2.4Gbps and Bluetooth 5 antenna leads, we can remove this Xeon branded compute module just as we would a PCIe GPU.
Indeed, it has a PCIe 3.0 x16 connector that feeds the rest of the system with PCIe lanes for up to 16 combined.
Underneath the module, we can find a PCIe x4 M.2 slot that can handle up to M.2 22110 (110mm) NVMe SSDs.
Opening the side cover of the module, we can see the copper cooling solution for the 8-core Intel Xeon E-2286M.
This 45W TDP Xeon we often see used as a high-end notebook part. We saw it, for example in our Dell Precision 7540 with Intel Xeon and ECC Memory Review. That means we get an integrated Intel P630 GPU which drives the onboard display outputs.
The Intel Xeon E-2286M is also one of our least favorite product names. The “6” digit in the rest of the Xeon E-2100 and E-2200 series lines means 6 cores. Here we still have 8 cores but at a lower 2.4GHz-5.0GHz clock speed range and TDP. This is a great CPU that we just wish could be renamed.
Next to the CPU on one side, we see two DDR4 SODIMM slots. These slots can support up to DDR4-2666 as well as DDR4-2400. We also get ECC support with the Xeon part. In terms of capacity, we can hit up to 64GB in this NUC at DDR4-2400 or 32GB at DDR4-2666.
On the opposite side, we find two M.2 NVMe SSD slot. One is a M.2 22110 (110mm) slot where we have an Intel H10 Optane plus NAND combo SSD installed. The other slot is a M.2 2280.
One item we wanted to mention is that since the compute module connects to the rest of the system via a PCIe Gen3 x16 link, that poses a challenge. There is a M.2 NVMe slot, a PCIe x4 and PCIe x16 slot on the expansion board. As a result, we have 16 lanes to the compute module and 24 lanes worth of device slots on the board. As we will discuss in the topology section, we either get 1x PCIe x16 or 1x PCIe x8 + 2x PCIe x4 (M.2 and x4 slot.) While we have been primarily showing the GPU config, we also had a PCIe x8 25GbE NIC plus Intel Optane DC P4801X setup that allowed us to have 25GbE connectivity along with four NVMe SSDs in the chassis which makes for a very unique proposition.
Overall, the package has room for the 8 core/ 16 thread CPU, three M.2 SSDs, 64GB of ECC memory, and a double-width GPU making it extremely compact. The next question is whether this unit, at a list price of around $1565 without RAM, a SSD, memory, or a GPU, it worth this premium price tag.
Many are calling this completely revolutionary, but Intel has been putting Xeons of this class on compute cards with PCIe Gen3 connectivity for years. Next, we are going to take a look at some of that history before moving on with our review.