The desktop computing market as a whole has been subject to severe challenges over the last few years. The ultra-compact form-factor (UCFF) PC market that emerged with the introduction of the Intel NUCs (Next Unit of Computing) has been one of the few bright spots. PC gaming has been one of the few other markets that has withstood the overall issues. The small size of UCFF PCs usually made discrete GPUs difficult to integrate, and iGPUs have not impressed the gaming crowd. Therefore, the market has not seen many products targeting the gaming market while also being compact. This year, we have a new entrant in that category - Intel's Skull Canyon NUC, the NUC6i7KYK, places a 45W TDP Core i7-6770HQ with Iris Pro graphics in a chassis around twice the size of the standard NUC.

Introduction

In the course of our coverage of mini-PCs, we have seen offerings from vendors such as ASRock, GIGABYTE and Zotac targeting the gaming market. Usually, 'mini' doesn't fit the requirements of consumers in this space, but the appearance of power-efficient high performance GPUs have made the offerings in the gaming mini-PC space quite interesting. The Intel Skull Canyon NUC6i7KYK aims to go one step further by taking the discrete GPU out of the equation and reducing the size of the system as compared to the ASRock VisionX and Zotac ZBOX E-series units.

Skull Canyon has a slightly bigger footprint compared to the traditional NUCs, coming in at 211mm x 116mm x 28mm (compared to the 115mm x 111mm x 32mm of the NUC6i5SYK). Unlike the plain industrial design of the traditional NUC chassis, Skull Canyon goes for slightly more stylish design. The default lid comes with a skull logo on top (Intel's products targeting the gaming market have traditionally included that logo), though the package also includes a lid without the logo. Additional items in the kit include a VESA mount and screws for the same, as well as a 120W (19V @ 6.32A) power brick with a separate power cord. A quick-start manual provides directions on how to add memory and SSDs to the unit.

Intel provided us with an engineering sample of the NUC6i7KYK with DDR4 SODIMMs and a M.2 SSD pre-installed. The specifications of our review unit are summarized in the table below.

Intel NUC6i7KYK (Skull Canyon) Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-6770HQ
Skylake-H, 4C/8T, 2.6 GHz (Turbo to 3.5 GHz), 14nm, 6MB L2, 45W TDP
Memory Micron 16ATF1G64HZ-2G1A2 DDR4
15-15-15-36 @ 2133 MHz
2x8 GB
Graphics Intel Iris Pro Graphics 580
Disk Drive(s) Samsung SSD 950 PRO
(512 GB; M.2 Type 2280 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe; 40nm; MLC V-NAND)
Networking Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 8260
(2x2 802.11ac - 866 Mbps)
Intel Ethernet Connection I219-LM GbE Adapter
Audio 3.5mm Headphone Jack
Capable of 5.1/7.1 digital output with HD audio bitstreaming (HDMI)
Miscellaneous I/O Ports 4x USB 3.0
1x Thunderbolt 3 / USB 3.1 Gen 2
1x SDXC
Operating System Retail unit is barebones, but we installed Windows 10 Pro x64
Pricing (As configured) $1027
Full Specifications Intel Skull Canyon NUC6i7KYK Specifications

The Intel NUC6i7KYK (Skull Canyon) kit doesn't come with any pre-installed OS. Our evaluation was done with Windows 10 Pro x64, with all the latest patches installed. All the drivers, except for the GPU, were downloaded off the Skull Canyon product page. The latest GPU drivers for the Iris Pro Graphics 580 were downloaded from the GPU-specific page. The gallery below shows the various features of the chassis as well as the teardown pictures for lid replacement / memory / SSD installation.

Important aspects to note in the above pictures include the USB 3.0 header visible in the opening beneath the top lid (perfect for third-party lids to take advantage) and the WLAN antennae glued to the top on the front side. It is heartening to see Thunderbolt back after its first and only appearance in the first-generation NUC. The dual M.2 slots are also interesting, and this brings us to the next topic - the board layout.

Platform Analysis and BIOS Features

The NUC6i7KYK uses a Skylake-H CPU in conjunction with the H170 platform controller hub (PCH). The board layout (how the various I/Os communicate with the CPU) is shown below. Of particular interest is the placement of the M.2 slots and the Alpine Ridge Thunderbolt 3 controller.

It is good to see that the SDXC slot is enabled by a PCIe SD card controller (PCIe x1), and not via a USB 2.0 bridge. Intel specifies support for UHS-I speeds. The two M.2 slots are off the PCH. This is understandable since the SATA links that must be multiplexed with the PCIe lanes are going to come off the PCH and the high-speed I/O lanes are shared.

The disappointing aspect here is that the Alpine Ridge controller hangs off the PCH, and not the CPU. Given that a dGPU can only be attached to the system via the Thunderbolt 3 port, it would have made sense to connect it direct to the CPU. This also means that all the high-speed peripherals that can be attached to the NUC6i7KYK are bottlenecked by the DMI 3.0 link between the CPU and the PCH when it comes to exchanging data with the CPU. In the Skylake-H / H170 setup, this link is effectively PCIe 3.0 x4 in terms of bandwidth.

Moving on to the BIOS features, the gallery below presents some screenshots of Intel's VisualBIOS for the NUC6i7KYK.

The important default setting to note is that the performance mode is set to 'Balanced Enabled'. Other options include 'Low Power Enabled' and 'Max Performance Enabled'. The user interface as well as other settings are quite similar to what we saw in the Skylake NUC review, except that the Skull Canyon BIOS has settings specific to the second M.2 slot and the Thunderbolt port.

In the table below, we have an overview of the various systems that we are comparing the Intel NUC6i7KYK (Skull Canyon) against. Note that they may not belong to the same market segment. The relevant configuration details of the machines are provided so that readers have an understanding of why some benchmark numbers are skewed for or against the Intel NUC6i7KYK (Skull Canyon) when we come to those sections.

Comparative PC Configurations
Aspect Intel NUC6i7KYK (Skull Canyon)
CPU Intel Core i7-6770HQ Intel Core i7-6770HQ
GPU Intel Iris Pro Graphics 580 Intel Iris Pro Graphics 580
RAM Micron 16ATF1G64HZ-2G1A2 DDR4
15-15-15-36 @ 2133 MHz
2x8 GB
Micron 16ATF1G64HZ-2G1A2 DDR4
15-15-15-36 @ 2133 MHz
2x8 GB
Storage Samsung SSD 950 PRO
(512 GB; M.2 Type 2280 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe; 40nm; MLC V-NAND)
Samsung SSD 950 PRO
(512 GB; M.2 Type 2280 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe; 40nm; MLC V-NAND)
Wi-Fi Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 8260
(2x2 802.11ac - 866 Mbps)
Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 8260
(2x2 802.11ac - 866 Mbps)
Price (in USD, when built) $1027 $1027
Performance Metrics - I
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  • FlyingAarvark - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    All of the Skull Canyon reviews so far online have been relative failures. I hate to bash this work but a few points that need to be said.

    To only test this with 2133Mhz is a shame. Intel stated that 2400Mhz works without a FSB OC and you can run up to 3000Mhz with one. That would change the gaming performance tremendously but not a single site has bothered testing this.

    We just didn't learn anything that wasn't easily known from just looking at this on Newegg. We knew it would be really fast for the size/power requirements. We knew it would be fairly hot on-load due to past NUCs. But we didn't know how it would react with DDR4 2400/2800/3000+.

    The other problem is that there's concern expressed in the review that bidirectional 4GB/sec bandwidth isn't enough. Its been proven and known if you look into it that PCIE 1.0 x16 (4GB/sec) does not bottleneck a GTX 980. Skull Canyon should be closer to 5GB/sec than 4GB as well. This wasn't tested with a Razer Core, but I think there's a really good change this is the fastest stock gaming CPU on the market today when paired with a discrete GPU due to the 128MB L4. It was shown that Broadwell 5775Cs were already holding that crown in the past.

    Considering how incredibly impressive this NUC is already with its small size, low power draw, various Thunderbolt3 options (storage/GPU/docks): both of these points on faster DDR4 and 128MB L4 impact with a dGPU would make it even more impressive than it already is and probably result in slam dunk territory.

    I think everyone in the tech community is massively missing the mark on this one! It just hasn't been properly tested. Intel absolutely nailed this product but is failing to properly instruct reviewers on what to test. Send me a sample, forumemail123 at g mail. I'll do it right.
    Reply
  • jardows2 - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    So, you want this product reviewed in tests that will show it in a better light, and ignore all the standard tests that give it an apples-to-apples comparison, showing that Intel has a long ways to go to provide good value to their customers in this market segment? Reply
  • FlyingAarvark - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Ah an AMD poverty gamer arrives. Apples to apples against what? Older NUCs? There is no other competition for this small of a form factor. Certainly not from AMDone.

    I'm asking that the things that all of us who have been so excited about this product have wanted to see. DDR4-3000 IGP gaming performance and Razer Core FuryX or 980Ti performance.

    As I noted, this review told me absolutely nothing that wasn't already known just through common sense. No one will buy this thing for a ho-hum NUC, there's already plenty of those. We're buying them for the size/performance combo and going to run 3000Mhz DDR4 or Razer Core with it.
    Reply
  • JoeyJoJo123 - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Nobody said anything about AMD, dude. Reply
  • jardows2 - Tuesday, May 24, 2016 - link

    You just showed your true colors. I am anything but an "AMD poverty gamer." I need to know how this device compares to other computing devices, so I can determine if the small form factor benefit is worth the performance hit. Very few people are going to have a demand for a computer that fits a particular small form factor, and are willing to do anything to hit that size requirement. Most people just want the best value, and size is a component to that.

    If we are performing tests that show best case scenario for this unit, then we'd have to do the same for every other bare-bones unit. Then there would be no true comparison, and each piece would be no better than a cnet review bought and paid for by the manufacturer, and we would be no better informed.
    Reply
  • FlyingAarvark - Tuesday, May 24, 2016 - link

    Nice attempt at digging yourself out of that hole: you'd be pissed to see this thing shown in a positive light because as you said supposedly, "Intel has a long ways to go to provide good value". Shows how much you know, just taking the typical fanboy stance on this thing without knowing what you're even looking at- much like this review.

    The point remains: people want to see this used with varying RAM speeds. It affects the gaming performance greatly due to the IGP. Also people want to see it benched with a 980Ti / 1080 to compare to other high end gaming CPUs.
    There's absolutely no reason that's "best case" at all. It's just asking for a full review.
    Reply
  • stux - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    I'm curious if the BIOS supports RAID0/1 and if so, what the performance from dual sm950s in RAID0 is.

    Sounds like that'd be bumping up against the DMI bottleneck.
    Reply
  • revanchrist - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Very dissapointed TBH. i7 5775C performs on par with a GTX 750, so i thought this 6770HQ packed with a much stronger integrated graphics and double the eDRAM will be a monster but instead it performed much weaker, can't even matched a 5675C let alone a 5775C. I guess the power limit and TDP really limit the potential of the iGPU. Sigh. Probably need to wait until 7nm CPU to have a playable 1080p integrated graphics solution. Reply
  • spikebike - Tuesday, May 24, 2016 - link

    Maybe the drivers haven't caught up. Or maybe it's heavily throttled because of heat. Seems very strange that it's not a substantial upgrade from the 5675c or 5775c. Hopefully, something else with a similar form factor will ship with the same CPU. Note the very wide difference between the two gtx 960 based units in this review. Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, May 24, 2016 - link

    This is a 45W TDP part, while the 5775C is a 65W TDP part. That is a substantial difference, as a larger TDP allows more leeway for the GPU than just the 20W difference would suggest.

    Also, not sure why multiple commentators are talking about two GTX 960 / same GPU when it comes to the GB-BXi5G-760 and the MAGNUS EN970. They are not the same GPU at all - the former uses the Kepler GK104-based 870M, while the latter uses the Maxwell GM104-based 970M.
    Reply

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