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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  • Ratman6161 - Tuesday, May 24, 2016 - link

    True, but for the uses this machine would be well suited for, the i7 CPU is way overkill. Grandma and Grandpa would be well served by an i3 Reply
  • jwcalla - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    "What is the expected market for this?"

    There is none. Especially at that price.
    Reply
  • JoeyJoJo123 - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    I'd agree that it is overpriced by a fair margin, particularly compared to other mini-PCs on the market. Yeah, it does have the best CPU package amongst them, but you'd expect that to be mated with a good GPU solution as well. Given that the GPU solution is awful once it's fully configured (at a retail price of ~$1000 all together), there isn't much of a value.

    If it had two LAN ports, it'd have the niche of being a great PfSense or router box.
    Reply
  • jecs - Tuesday, May 24, 2016 - link

    I think this machine is great, not perfect or ideal, for light to medium graphic design work including web graphics. It is fast enough, small, look nice, once configured most designers won't open the machine ever, it can be used with an entry level profesional monitor, plug an external hard drive and add a great keyboard and mouse. It is not for me anyway, but I appreciate this initiative as in the future it may become powerful enough for more demanding work. If I can dream I wish it could have dual mobile high-end graphics and at least 32 gigs of memory, even if it gets bigger. With faster thunderbolt may be a hit. I will keep an eye on this form factor. Reply
  • FMinus - Sunday, August 7, 2016 - link

    I've actually visited a cartoon animation studio the other year, of which 80% was running on Intel NUCs, think it was i5, and everyone had hooked a Wacom Cintiq to it and they worked like little bees, without much issues. They had more powerful machines for more demanding tasks and a render farm in the back, but most work was done on these little boxes.

    The reality is, if you're not playing video games, you really don't need a dedicated GPU for the majority tasks you do on a PC. That being said, this skull canyon part is interesting, yet overpriced in my opinion to really pick up.
    Reply
  • oasisfeng - Tuesday, May 24, 2016 - link

    I am buying this as a portable computer for software development, which can be put into pocket to be carried between office and home. I don't like laptop for software development due to constrained keyboard and display. Reply
  • BurntMyBacon - Tuesday, May 24, 2016 - link

    Is there a reason you can't use the same display/keyboard you are using for the NUC on a laptop and at least get the benefit of a built in UPS? You'd also have a display and keyboard and the ability to run off the wall should you ever have an emergency, but I do understand your desire for a better keyboard/display. I feel its a bit too expensive for me, but I can still see some viable uses and you seem to have one. In any case, if you decide to get it, let us know how it works out for you. Reply
  • Gadgety - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Looks impressive for such a small integrated GPU package. Perhaps it's too early though as the GPU still doesn't have full HEVC 10b decoding for HTPC. Doesn't AMD's Carrizo, and upcoming Bristol Ridge sport this? Reply
  • monstercameron - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Carrizo only supports 8bit hevc, stoneyridge allegedly supports 10bit. Reply
  • Texag2010 - Monday, May 23, 2016 - link

    Can you please add the Intel D54250WYKH nuc as an option to the comparative PC configuration? For people who are upgrading from the best nuc available back in the day... Reply

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