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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  • KurtKrampmeier - Tuesday, May 24, 2016 - link

    Can Undervolting achieve significantly better thermals and less cpu throttling? And if so, by how much? I want to use this as a 24/7 load and very small and light portable cpu package. Thank you! Reply
  • Drazick - Tuesday, May 24, 2016 - link

    Ganesh, When will we have high TDP (65W and above) CPU with Iris Pro?

    I would even go farther, I'd like to see Extreme Edition CPU's with Iris Pro.
    I hope Core I7 7820K will also have a configuration with Iris Pro and 128MB of eDRAM.

    It's time Intel to bring Iris Pro to the high end desktop chips.
    Reply
  • sharath.naik - Wednesday, May 25, 2016 - link

    Not sure about the price. At this price isnt it just better to buy a Laptop with discrete graphics and remove the display if you donot want it? Reply
  • Eva Green - Thursday, May 26, 2016 - link

    The PC provides cutting edge hardware to run the best games ->
    http://www.gamernode.com/the-pc-power-and-money-in...
    Reply
  • cm2187 - Saturday, May 28, 2016 - link

    Just received mine. It is quite noisy, even when idle. Reply
  • Madpacket - Monday, May 30, 2016 - link

    Neat computer but niche. I'll wait for the fire sale on this one. I could see uses as a dev / portable VM box with the m.2 PCI ports (raid striped). As a gaming machine this thing is about as useful as a A10-7870K or even less for driver reasons. But at least it can do some low end gaming however you would be much better off with an Alienware Alpha which is still tiny and packs a real GPU and is about half the price. Reply
  • gue2212 - Saturday, June 4, 2016 - link

    "Connecting the Thunderbolt ports on the two machines and allowing the PCs to talk to each other automatically creates a 10Gbps network adapter."

    Can anyone shed some light: When TB3 can transfer 40Gbps (bundle the 4 PCIe 3 lanes), why do we end up with 10Gbps USB 3.1 Gen2 speed for networking?

    Well, woulda been too good at 40, but I guess I´ll abuse the NUC6i7KYK as an external storage (partition backup) for my Dell XPS 9550 until I see a TB3 SSD with the Samsung T3 SSD form-factor. ;-)
    Reply
  • mystikmedia - Thursday, June 9, 2016 - link

    I have this NUC. I am very happy with it overall. I can't seem to get the Thunderbolt port to work, though. I bought a USB 3.0 hub that has a Type C connection. I figured I might as well put that Type C port to use and not waste an existing USB port. But, it doesn't seem to work. Should it? I had assumed the USB 3.1 aspect of it would be backwards compatible with 3.0, as has been the case in the past. Is that incorrect? TIA Reply
  • gue2212 - Saturday, June 18, 2016 - link

    Hey mysticmedia,
    I don´t understand what you´re trying to accomplish. You got 4 USB 3.0 ports on the NUC6i7KYK. Why in heaven would you hook up a USB 3.0 hub to the TB 3?
    Reply
  • gue2212 - Sunday, June 19, 2016 - link

    How are the connectors / headers supposed to be used (left back cut-out in the metal under the top plastic cover)?
    According to the circuit schema they are internal USB 3 and 2, NFC and LPC Debug.
    Reply

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