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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  • JohnGalt1717 - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Can someone tell me if they have been able to run 4x 4K monitors (i.e. HDMI hooked to one, mDp hooked to another and then 2 mDp hooked via adapter to the Thunderbolt 3 port)?

    Looking to replace my desktop but need 4 screens.
    Reply
  • DanNeely - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Unfortunately while you'd have the connectivity to do so, I think Intel's IGP itself is still capped at 3 displays. Reply
  • BurntMyBacon - Tuesday, May 24, 2016 - link

    @JohnGalt1717: "Can someone tell me if they have been able to run 4x 4K monitors ..."

    I just tried it with a slightly different setup, but it was still an HQ processor with Iris Pro 580 (i7-6870HQ). It looks like DanNeely is correct. The IGP is still capped at 3 displays even without considering 4K.
    Reply
  • JohnGalt1717 - Wednesday, May 25, 2016 - link

    too Bad :< Reply
  • xchaotic - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    What is the expected market for this? For both my professional and personal uses, lack of proper dGPU support is a deal breaker - for anything from games, through movie and photo enhancements to machine learning and graph stores all being accelerated by DGPUs, I suspect this will have a very limited to a very small subset of hardcore enthusiast Reply
  • blahsaysblah - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    I had the NUC5i7, the machine was just too loud when used in professional manner. And it was ridiculous, they had space to put a better cooler.

    I had my doubts when initial mockups flew around internet. This is again another useless NUC. Crazy who has final say over design on this at Intel. They just keep shooting themselves in the foot. Seriously. They are afraid of success.
    Reply
  • JoeyJoJo123 - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Not every game requires a dGPU, as many popular MOBAs play just fine without it, and there are people who play competitively for these games on worse hardware.

    This is nice as a HTPC, a thin-client, an emulation station, or a monitor/TV mounted PC for grandma or grandpa.

    Understandably, this isn't a product you need, but do keep in mind that others on the market do want mini-PCs and can find a use for them.
    Reply
  • JoeyJoJo123 - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Oh, also, the inclusion of Thunderbolt 3 means this could be a PC you can velcro to a external graphics card dock (like the Razer Core) to have a very portable LAN PC. Reply
  • LostWander - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    It's mentioned in the article that the external graphics dock likely won't work because the thunderbolt port isn't given enough bandwidth Reply
  • LostWander - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    won't work well*
    The link is only at a maximum PCIe 3.0 x4 under ideal conditions and it is separated from the CPU so the performance gain won't be optimal.
    Reply

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