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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  • Zero Day Virus - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Yep, same here! Would like to see how it compares and if it's worth it :) Reply
  • hubick - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    It would also be interesting to see how the new BRIX like the GB-BSi7T-6500 stack up. Reply
  • Barilla - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    I think it's time to drop the 1280x1024 gaming benchmarks. Virtually no one is going to play at such resolution, especially not with a 1000$ pc if a 22" 1080p monitor can be bought for a hundred bucks and change. Reply
  • MrSpadge - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    If your GPU is slow you HAVE to game at such resolutions, no matter what monitor you have. Reply
  • TheinsanegamerN - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Then test at 720p. Nobody buys 5:4 monitors anymore. Reply
  • MrSpadge - Tuesday, May 24, 2016 - link

    The aspect ratio does not really matter for GPU testing, it's just the number of pixels the GPU has to compute. So performance at 720p will actually be a bit better. Reply
  • cknobman - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Its rather lame that Anand would post up these low resolution benchmarks to try and make the iGPU not look like a total joke (which it is, at least at this price point).

    For $1000 if it can muster a playable framerate at a resolution outside of a decade old standard than this thing is overpriced.
    Reply
  • DanNeely - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Lots of casual gamers do play at low resolutions because they don't have the budget to stay on the high end GPU treadmill. The real issue is that the days of doing so at 1280x1024 instead of 1366x768 are long past. This was brought up the last time gaming benchmarks were updated here; but is even more of a glaring issue as time goes on. Reply
  • DanNeely - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    1680x1050 really should be replaced with 1600x900 too. 16:9 monitors have become ubiquitous; testing at narrower aspect ratios doesn't fit real world usage anymore.

    I could see a case for going wider at the upper end and slotting an ultrawide 3440x1440 test between conventional 2560x1440 and 3840x2180 gaming. Mostly because it looks like the 1080 still falls just short of being able to play at 4k without having to turn settings down in a lot of games; making 1440p ultra widescreen the effective max single card resolution. (An increasingly important consideration with SLI/xFire becoming progressively less relevant due to temporal AA/post processing techniques that play really badly with multi-GPU setups.)
    Reply
  • Barilla - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Yeah, I guess my point was IF you want to test at low res, then test at a more relevant low res - 1280x720, 1366x768, 1600x900 etc. But my other point would be that those graphs looke like they look now cause low resolution is paired with low settings, mid resolution with mid settings and so on. Many games these days don't really slow down that much at increased resolution, but rather at increased postprocessing effects - shadows, antialiasing, DoF, you name it. Before I had my current gaming PC I used to game on a laptop with GT555M inside, which is probably weaker than this IGP by some margin, and I ran most games in 1080p at acceptable framerates by turnig the details down. In general it yielded better fps AND better looks than running non-native res and mid graphics settings.
    But maybe it's just me, I like pixels a lot ;)
    Reply

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