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Intel Skull Canyon NUC: When size doesn’t matter

The days of big beige boxes consuming an inordinate amount of already scarce work desk real estate could soon be a distant memory. This is thanks to a growing number of micro PCs launching that are small enough to bolt onto the back of a PC display.

Intel have long been strong proponents of the micro form factor PC with their Next Unit of Computing (NUC) micro PCs. 

Uncluttered desks are always a good thing. If there is a downside, it is this. Most mini PCs lack the raw grunt to do anything beyond basic office productivity chores. Heavy duty tasks like multimedia editing or gaming were well out of bounds - At least until now.

Now Intel are back. They’ve gone all out and beefed up the power of their latest NUC, the NUC6i7KYK (Kind of rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?). Question is, does it deliver?

The NUC6i7KYK hasn’t inherited the looks of its earlier siblings. Where previous NUCs resembled an Apple TV with a steroid habit, the NUC6i7KYK is flatter and more squarish. These changes aren’t just skin deep. The NUC6i7KYK  comes apart, allowing you to add in your own RAM and storage. It isn’t much of a looker, but then it is designed to be hidden away.  

Under its hood the hardware includes Intel’s latest quad-core i7 CPU. The usually anemic Intel integrated graphics got a serious dose of steroids. The result is a pint-sized widget that can handle compute and graphics intensive tasks. 

Throwing a crucial 750GB SSD and DDR4/2133MHz memory helped the Nuc along. Boot up was almost instantaneous. With the addition of Steam, plus a few wireless game controllers, I had the makings of an invisible PC games console once it was plugged into my telly. 

Performance doesn’t come cheap. This is reflected in the NUC6i7KYK’s steep RRP ($1,089). Add to that the cost of RAM, storage and an OS (unless of course you choose LINUX) and things soon add up.

That said, you do get a surprising amount of compute in the NUC6i7KYK’s tiny footprint. Powering things is a 2.6GHz Core i7-6770HQ quad-core Skylake CPU. With turbo boost, it clocks in at a pleasing 3.5GHz, giving the NUC6i7KYK  more grunt than a bacon farm. 

Also included is Intel’s Iris Pro Graphics 580 which has 128MB of eDRAM. It ran photoshop and even better still, a bunch of games with passable frame-rates.

The NUC support SATA 6Gbps and can run two drives in RAID 0 or RAID 1. Tucked away in the NUCs Swiss watch-like interior is a Wireless card which supports 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2, and Wireless Display 6.0. Two RAM slots sockets take up to 32GB RAM. 

The connectivity options are surprisingly plentiful for such a small box. There’s several USB 3.0 sockets plus a USB C port which also supports Thunderbolt 3 and 10Gbps USB 3.1. For extra storage Intel have added an SD card slot. 

Networking options are also flexible thanks to the addition of a gigabit Ethernet port. Multimedia gets covered by a 3.5mm audio jack, SPDIF, mini DisplayPort, and 4k friendly HDMI 2.0 port. 

In keeping with previous NUCs. Intel included an infrared receiver on the NUC6i7KYK's front. Pairing this with Kodi and a spare windows media centre remote worked, making my invisible PC games console into a solid yet invisible media centre too.

Thunderbolt support allows the NUC to connect to an external and more powerful GPU. Trouble is there aren’t all that many thunderbolt external GPUs kicking around yet.

So how good is the NUC6i7KYK’s integrated graphics for gaming? Compared to a dedicated system with a high end graphics card, the NUC6i7KYK was always going to under whelm. For those wanting a compact home theatre PC that’ll do a passable job playing games, the NUC6i7KYK didn’t perform too bad at all.

Older, less demanding games such as Serious Sam, delivered a playable experience. More complex titles required graphics settings were dropped down a few notches. Tomb raider managed just a still playable 40fps with graphics set to high. This soared to just over 60fps when graphics were set to low.

With previous NUCs gaming just wasn’t doable. There wasn’t enough CPU juice, nor was there enough GPU grunt. It is pretty impressive to see how far Intel’s integrated graphics have come.

So if that’s the good, what’s the not-so-good? There isn’t a lot to fault with the NUC6i7KYK. As a media box its performance and compact form factor make it hard to beat. 

While it works for gaming, detail settings often need to be tweaked downwards. For not much more money, some may find a bigger PC with a dedicated graphics card delivers more. 

That said, as a photoshop or video editing machine, it is impressive. Being able to drop the NUC6i7KYK into a laptop bag without worrying about a hernia is pretty cool. The only real negative with the NUC6i7KYK is that its fan can get noisy when it operates under load.

The NUC6i7KYK is Intel’s first stab at a performance NUC and showcases just how far they've come.

Here's hoping that the NUC6i7KYK isn't a one-off. Either way, it’ll give competitors a wake up call to kick their own Micro PCs up a notch. Either way, it’s a definite win for end users.

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