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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  • ragenalien - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Could we get a comparison between this and the iris pro 6200? Seems like there isn't much difference performance wise, but there should be. Reply
  • defaultluser - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Skylake gets much better GPU performance/watt than Broadwell did, as evidenced by the NUC with 48 EU 64MB eDRAM being fed by just 23w continuous. That's a huge improvement form the 45w this beast used to take!

    I think the only surprise for me was just 40% performance improvement over the 4770r. I always assumed the 4770r was bandwidth-limited, but I guess the eDRAM cache was enough to keep things fed.

    But yeah, pointless product continues to be pointless. Intel charges a premium for these things because they take up more die space and require dedicated eDRAM cache to feed them...just like discrete GPUs take up more die space, and require dedicated DRAM to feed them. Where is the efficiency gain in this crap?
    Reply
  • defaultluser - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Oh, I just noticed the review uses 2133 DDR4, which would account for the 40% performance increase we saw. I thought for sure a "premium gaming" platform like this would ship with z170, so I didn't give the test setup a second glance.

    I guess Intel cheaping-out with H170 has forever doomed this machine to mediocrity. Too bad, dropping ten bucks more on the Z170 would have allowed some much more interesting memory configurations. With DDR4 2133 we're probably castrating performance.
    Reply
  • tipoo - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    "Our only concern is that the cooling solution keeps the temperature of the cores too close to the junction temperature during periods of heavy CPU load."

    My rMBP 15", Iris Pro only model, routinely hovers at the tJunction max at load. Is this a real concern? Or is it designed to do this?
    Reply
  • BrokenCrayons - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    There's probably a little wiggle room built into the processor's design by its engineers, but according to Intel's site here: http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/support/pro...

    "Tjunction Max is the maximum temperature the cores can reach before thermal throttling is activated. Thermal throttling happens when the processor exceeds the maximum temperature. The processor shuts itself off in order to prevent permanent damage. Tjunction Max (Tj Max) is also referred to as TCC Activation Temperature in certain processor datasheets."

    Basically, reaching the Tjunction means the CPU is close to shutting itself off to prevent damage. That might mean there are longevity implications related to brushing up against that upper ceiling on a regular basis, but I haven't seen any statistical data regarding a meaningful sample of processors put under such conditions failing more often during their few years of useful life due to CPUs going bad just because the OEM decided to implement a cooling solution that allows the processor to wander up to the Tjunction temp when it's working hard.

    I think a bigger concern might be looking into whether or not the rMPB in general will approach Tjunction under load or if that's abnormal. Abnormalities might point to some sort of problem with your specific laptop. I don't know what's status quo for your hardware so its hard to say if that's something you should worry about.
    Reply
  • tipoo - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Yeah, that's something I looked into, Anandtechs own retina macbook pro 15" review only pegged them at going up to 76 ish celsius if memory serves, but that was the older dGPU model with the 650M. From the threads I'm seeing, the Iris Pro model does regularly hover at 99-101C, I'm guessing since the GPU grunt is right beside the CPU on a single die so heat isn't spread wider like the dedicated GPU model.

    I don't see any reports of this model failing though, so I'd hope they tested extensively at 100 degrees and found it was fine, and so allowed the processor to keep its boost long enough to get there.

    I do wish they could have just added another few mm so that the cooling was better and the CPU and GPU could stay at boost longer, and with that room they could have added some mm to the keyboard too (which I consider the absolute minimum in key travel now).
    Reply
  • tipoo - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Plus they also only tested Half Life 2, which probably allowed the CPU and GPU not to be at max all the time as it's so old. Reply
  • 8steve8 - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    give us a 65W CPU with iris pro , add a couple inches in height... and use the stock retail CPU cooler. Add USB-c in the front. Use USB power delivery usb-c for power.

    Done, the perfect little pc.
    Reply
  • TheinsanegamerN - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Except the niche NUCs fill dont want a NUC the size of a MINI-ITX case. Not to mention intels stock cooler is not the quietest nor the best cooler in existence. Reply
  • 8steve8 - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    well a couple inches of height would not put it near the average mini-itx case size.
    It's impressive that these NUCs are small, but they goes a bit extreme when they use laptop chips and cooler designs meant for laptops. We can get a very small desktop without sacrificing CPU performance and acoustics/thermals.

    Use 65W+ chips w/iris pro, full size intel retail heatsink, usb-c power delivery... no wasted space with expansion slots. 1 m.2 should be the only internal slot.
    Reply

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