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  • Soon Kai Hong

Intel NUC Serpent Canyon (Arc A770M) Review: A Shy Away From Perfection

This right here is a Serpent in a Canyon and it is Intel’s latest offering for their NUC series of small form factor PCs. I mean just look at this thing. The entire chassis occupies just 2.5 litres in volume but yet you still get a 12th-Gen Core i7, Intel’s very own A770M graphics, plenty of RAM and storage, all up to you. And you still get a plethora of ports both in the back and the front. It seems perfect in just about any way to be used as a nifty little gaming PC. Well, if only that were the case.

Before we get into anything, we understand that we're were just a tad late to the game. Or rather, Intel has been dishing out updates so fast that we really can't keep up! Kudos to them on that front. So we know that Intel has since solved quite a lot of issues regarding DX11 and before titles and especially titles that are still enjoyed by many today. Arc performance has certainly improved by leaps and bounds since its first introduction. However, it still isn't perfect. So while what we're sharing might not be the latest driver as of today, it still is shows how much attention Intel is putting towards Arc and it's only going to get better as the days goes by. In any case, back to our review!

What Is A NUC?

If you don’t know what an Intel NUC is, it’s basically a PC that comes in the form of a kit where you can either build it from the ground up or have it fully assembled, all up to you.

The only thing that you can’t really change is usually the motherboard itself which usually houses both the CPU and the GPU, if that’s an option, alongside its own unique cooling solution. Basically, you can really only choose your own RAM and storage option for most part, with a select few having the option to swap out the PSU as well depending on the generation and chassis type.

In short, it’s a compact PC that’s way smaller than most ITX desktop PCs due to the simple fact that the chips used are usually the ones meant for laptops.

Specs & Design

So with this Serpent Canyon, we’re looking at an Intel Core i7-12700H, an Intel Arc A770M. 16GB of RAM and 512GB of PCIe 4.0 SSD storage.

And all that is cooled internally with a cooling solution much akin to those used in larger gaming laptops. In the vertical position, air is pulled through the vents on one side and exhausted out the back while if used in a horizontal position, that same vented side is now facing the bottom. So air will be pulled through the bottom and again, exhausted out the back. It’s very much like a laptop as mentioned.

Of course, that also means that the power supply is external and so you do get quite the heavy brick with this one. It’s a whopping 330W power brick that’ll certainly provide more than enough power for what’s in here but it’s definitely a chonker. But ports is the one thing that vastly separates this from laptops because you’re getting way, way more.

In the front, you’ll have access to two USB 3.2 Gen 2 ports, a 3.5mm headphone jack, a USB-C Thunderbolt 4 port and even a UHS-II SD Card Reader. Move to the back and you get 4 more USB 3.2 Gen 2 ports, a 2.5Gbps RJ45 Ethernet port, another USB-C Thunderbolt 4 port, HDMI 2.1 and two DisplayPort 2.0 ports. Of course, the last would be your power jack for that beefy 330W power brick.

All in all we’ve to say that we’re quite a fan of the design. It’s minimal and really compact but yet you really don’t lose out in terms of any physical functionality. It’s pretty amazing.

But with all that said, that’s not really the focus of this video because gaming performance is what really matters and with this sporting Intel’s very own A770M graphics card, how does it really perform? Is it even good? Well, to give you a little bit of context, we actually had this Serpent Canyon unit with us since November of last year but we decided not to publish our initial review because of how poor Intel Arc was performing at that time and it was also just about the same time when Intel said that they will address those issues.

Fast forward to today and indeed, they’ve managed to solve some of the major performance issues with older DX11 and before titles while also improving performance for titles on DX12. However, while it’s better, it still isn’t perfect.

Gaming Performance

So for a start, let’s tackle 1080P gaming and for now, we will only focus on pure rasterization performance with no form of upscaling technologies enabled and all the following tests are done with Driver 4032.

As you can tell, Intel has certainly fixed the issues with CS:GO and you can now expect extremely high frame rates of over 400 at 1080P High Settings. Apex Legends is also really enjoyable with frame rates nearing 200. Now we didn’t test Dota 2, League of Legends or Valorant and stuff but you can be rest assured that all those games will perform admirably at this resolution. The lacklustre bit starts when we talk about AAA titles such as Cyberpunk 2077 or Modern Warfare 2. Performance isn’t that great, just barely over 60 frames per second on average with 1% Lows well below that. The only exception would be Shadow of the Tomb Raider but even then, just about 120 frames per seconds which puts it in line with an RTX 3060 at best.

Move up the resolution to 1440P and everything takes quite the drastic hit. While CS:GO and Apex Legends still manage really great performance, all the other AAA titles are just barely clinging onto the 60 frames per second mark. Cyberpunk 2077 in particular will see 1% Lows below 30 frames per second. Overall, we would say that 1440P is pretty much the limit for this system.

With that said, we still did test 4K performance and the results are as you would expect. CS:GO and Apex Legends are pretty much still the only two games that are enjoyable, although a higher frame rate will still be preferred for the latter. But the rest will see performance drop well below 60 frames per second on average and that’s even including Shadow of the Tomb Raider which is a much older title.

The DX11 & Before Issue

Okay so we’ve established that this Serpent Canyon is a really capable 1080p gaming machine. You can still push 1440p for some games but 4K is out of the question for sure. Stick to 1080p, that’s our recommendation. But now let’s dive a little deeper and talk about Direct X. Most of the games that we tested were running on DX12 and that is actually essential to the performance of the Arc A770M simply because of how Intel designed the chip. In addition, you must also ensure that ReBar is enabled, in fact it’s a necessity, again due to how Intel designed the chip and more specifically the memory controller.

So what happens when you run an older title that’s DX11 and before and hasn’t yet been addressed by Intel with their patches?

Well, we took Shadow of the Tomb Raider as an example. This is a game that can be played on either DX11 or DX12 and of very obvious reasons, Intel has not done any specific patches for the drivers for this game since it already runs perfectly fine on DX12. Which means if we play on DX11, it can very much show the worst case scenario for DX11 and before games that aren’t well supported with Intel Arc GPUs.

As you can tell from the graph, the performance is vastly worse. The average frame rate drops by 25% across the board at both 1080p and 1440p. At 4K, the drop might be just 10% but 40 frames per second certainly isn’t that enjoyable for sure. But the more important factor would be the 1% Lows. At all resolutions, be it 1080p, 1440p or 4K, it’s a 50% drop. So even at 1440p or 1080p for that matter, the gameplay experience isn’t great at all. It’s honestly really bad.

In short, this is basically a DX12 only gaming machine. If any older DX titles aren’t specifically addressed by Intel, don’t expect good performance even if it may be playable.

Intel XeSS vs AMD FSR

But now speaking about DX12. In most titles, you’ll get either access to Intel XeSS or AMD FSR. If you have the option to enable either of these technologies, we would highly recommend doing so.

In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, simply enabling XeSS yields significant performance improvements to the point that even 4K is plenty enjoyable with a pretty smooth 60 frames per second on average.

In Cyberpunk 2077, while 4K is still going to be tough, the slightly higher frame rates in both 1080P and 1440P can definitely be appreciated.

The more interesting game here however is Modern Warfare 2 where you get access to both Intel XeSs and FSR 1.0. With Intel XeSS, there’s already a sizable performance improvement across all three resolutions and that’s great. But surprisingly, using FSR 1.0 yields yet higher frame rates and in our opinion, provides a much better visual experience too. For the case of Modern Warfare 2, we would highly suggest FSR 1.0 over Intel XeSS.

It's Not Perfect, But It'll Get Better And Better

So all in all, what can we say about this nifty little Serpent?

Honestly, it’s pretty fantastic for gaming at both 1080p and 1440p, which are arguably the two most popular resolutions for gaming nowadays. To add on, despite the compact form factor, temperature and noise levels are kept under control. Even in a demanding game like Modern Warfare 2, the GPU temperature never exceeded 72 degrees celsius while the CPU temp never exceeded 83 degrees celsius and that’s with the fans spinning moderately. It really isn’t loud at all, much quieter than any gaming laptop that’s for sure.

But we still can’t recommend it.

The first reason is simply because of Intel Arc support. As of right now, it still isn’t great and it’s still definitely going to take some time before Intel really can get it going. If you’re someone who wants to play older titles to catch up on your backlog of games, it really is a hit or a miss and you never know.

The second would be the price. This specific configuration will set you back S$2,499 or roughly US$1,399 depending on where you look at. For what it is, it is pretty expensive. And even if you just get the barebones kit where you need to get your own OS, RAM and SSD, it’s still going to set you back S$2,199.

For that price, you can build a decent ITX PC that’ll run circles around this and not worry about incompatibility and more. It’s quite the shame for we actually quite like the Intel NUC 12 Serpent Canyon and even the Arc A770M was pretty promising. But when we take a look at things realistically and especially when such a PC is considered an investment for most people, we just can’t recommend it. Not now, that’s for sure.

Here’s hoping that Intel can fix all the issues as soon as possible.

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