Intel Skull Canyon NUC6i7KYK Review

I’ve left this review in limbo for over a month, unsure about whether it truly does the Skull Canyon NUC the justice it deserves. The platform is excellent, but can be so many things it’s difficult to give it the depth and breadth of testing I’d like during a short loan period. That said, it would be a shame to let these words languish in unpublished obscurity. What follows is my opinion of the Skull Canyon NUC platform, a computer I’d really love to own, but could never justify the price.

Not long ago I wrote about my experience with the Intel NUC as a workstation. I’m a huge fan of the form factor and, in fact, the whole idea of ultra-compact computers.

The Skull Canyon NUC brings a slightly larger form-factor to the range with the i7 processor (the i7-6770HQ) and Intel Iris Pro 580 graphics. It’s styled, named and pitched to appeal to gamers, but tends to find its niche as a high-end workstation. Why? Well, low to mid-range gamers might balk at dropping £1000 for a fully configured Skull Canyon system, and high-end gamers aren’t going to be fooled by the “Pro” graphics which, while perfectly adequate for many games (the PC has a back catalogue of decades), just don’t cut it for competitive play in the flavour-of-the-year online FPS titles.

In this sense, the Skull Canyon NUC feels like a solution looking for a problem. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it takes a product like this to forge new paths; the thin end of the wedge for a new market or the evolution of an existing one. In the case of the NUC, it seems to e finding a home among creative professionals who love the compact NUC form-factor but appreciate faster storage and the i7 CPU.

The Skull Canyon NUC offers a few improvements over the lower end form-factor including the aforementioned i7 CPU, a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port and two M2 SSD slots.

Playing the bleeding-edge of games isn’t totally out, though. The Thunderbolt 3/USB-C port supports external GPUs. While the market has yet to produce one I’d consider a sensible and affordable upgrade to the NUC, there is still a surprising array of choice. Between the Razer Core, the AKiTiO Node, the Mantiz Venus, Zotac’s forthcoming enclosure (due Q2 2017) and plenty more obscure choices, there’s enough competition in this market to have a chance of pushing the prices down and making a future graphics upgrade to the NUC viable.

Unfortunately, gigantic enclosures, not dissimilar to the size of a shuttle PC, are the norm here and at several times the size of the NUC itself are an odd match. On top of the £300+ cost of these you’ve also got to purchase and fit your own desktop class GPU. This is definitely a category I’d love to see grow in future with some simpler options. A portable e-GPU with a laptop-grade NVidia inside it? Yes please. Not everyone needs those cutting-edge desktop class graphics, but might appreciate a compact, low-noise, ~£200-£300 all-inclusive bump to the graphics in their laptop or compact workstation.

Let’s get this straight; I love the NUC form-factor and I think the world needs more smaller PCs. Indeed I’ve been fawning over Zotac’s range for countless years, have tested the Alienware Alpha, and ran an Alienware X52 as my primary system for some 3 years. When it comes to the trade-off between performance and size I’m always erring toward the smaller, sleeker and easier to fit into my lifestyle computers. The Alpha was especially fun to review; I tucked it into my bag and took it with us over Christmas so we could enjoy some competitive Sonic & Sega racing fun. Because I travel a lot, I eventually settled upon a gaming laptop in lieu of having any desktop PC at all. I miss having a rig dedicated to gaming, but always having my gaming rig with me is a benefit in itself!

The Skull Canyon NUC is *really* compact, smaller than most Thunderbolt 3 or USB Type-C docks that I’ve tested and yet packing an admirable CPU and the capacity for a RAIDed pair of ultra fast SSDs. That’s a lot of punch for a tiny system that you can literally – albeit uncomfortably – fit into a pocket.

Work on the Skull Canyon NUC

As a productivity system the Skull Canyon NUC punches comfortably above the NUC that served me well as my workstation for a year. Perhaps the biggest difference I felt was the M.2 SSD, versus the traditional SATA3 which sped application launches up subtly, but noticeably, and eased the pain of my constantly shifting focus.

Perhaps more important to my regular workflow was the addition of an SD card slot which I use frequently for writing, modifying and repairing SD cards for the Raspberry Pi test setups I use on a daily basis.

The Skull Canyon NUC also boasts a USB Type-C/Thunderbolt 3 port. If the posts on Gadgetoid haven’t clued you in to how much I adore this humble little port, then I’ll reiterate; it’s the flippin’ future!

This one tiny port opens up a whole universe of expandability for the Skull Canyon NUC, much of which has yet to be properly explored. I’ve tossed out ideas like hot-plugable hard drives which work like NAS and use Gigabit Ethernet over USB-C that fails over to WiFi so you can undock your laptop while copying files. Could they happen? Who knows! Why not?

Back to the realms of the here and now, USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3 already enjoy compatibility (albeit somewhat spotty compatibility) with a growing array of docks which add all the ports and video outputs you could ever want and more. While many of these are larger than the NUC itself, the fact they exist at all means you’ve always got some flexibility with the NUC’s port options that never quite worked over plain ol’ USB2 and 3.

The HDMI port on the back of the Skull Canyon NUC is clearly for the hook-it-to-your-TV gaming crowed, but it also comes with a mini DisplayPort which as I found out recently can drive multiple displays. Indeed, couple the mini DisplayPort out from the NUC with an Multi-stream Transport splitter, or daisy-chainable monitors and you can build a professional multi-head setup. This also works with my regular NUC, which is great since the Dell displays I use hate being driven over HDMI:

Play on the Skull Canyon NUC

If the name doesn’t give it away, the styling will. The Skull Canyon NUC is very clearly pitched at a gaming audience from aesthetics to marketing spiel. The trouble is, is this really what hardcore gamers want? And why would a casual gamer pick this over, for example, a complete Alienware Alpha with a GeForce 960? Or a Playstation 4 for that matter.

When it comes to hardcore gaming I’m not convinced by the Iris graphics at all. Sorry Intel. I guess that’s to be expected. Fortunately, I’m not really a hardcore gamer and my needs, for the most part, are served by the Iris 580.

I found the NUC very capable at running a large variety of the games I enjoy playing casually- from my ongoing love of Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing Transformed, to fun co-op games like Overcooked, to the excellent Hyperlight Drifter, and even Guildwars 2. The Skull Canyon NUC performs, as you might expect, like a high-end laptop. Since most of my PC gaming hours have been spent on just such a laptop (World of Warcraft, chiefly, many moons ago) then its limitations felt familiar.

The lack of discrete graphics, no matter how much Intel might trumpet the Iris 580’s grunt and offer a whole plethora of recommended graphics settings for games, will be a deal-breaker for anyone looking to pick up a small platform to see them through the latest competitive online games. That said, users have reported playable 50-60fps on medium graphics detail in Overwatch

The latest games are only the tip of the iceberg, however, as I’ve said before about the Alienware Alpha, being a PC means it’s got a dizzying back catalogue of games stretching far back to the 1980s. Many of these I’d dare say are far more rewarding and worth playing than the latest AAA nonsense or flavour-of-the-month money sinking MOBA. They’ll probably cost you less than a new virtual hat, too.

So where does the Skull Canyon NUC sit?

The Skull Canyon NUC is a powerful, compact creative workstation that fits nicely into a modern, minimalist lifestyle. It will appeal to people, like me, who’ve grown weary of PCs being fridge-sized behemoths sitting on the office floor and sucking up dust. People, like me, who couldn’t give a monkey’s about component choices, upgrading things, and bolting honking great heatsinks onto eye-wateringly expensive blocks of silicon. People, like me, who just want a computer that’s good-enough, because we know it’ll be replaced in 3-5 years with something smaller, better, faster and quieter.

Custom PCs simply aren’t for everyone, and while the NUC range are largely barebones they narrow the choice right down to “which M.2 SSD and how much RAM do I need right now?” while still, thanks to Thunderbolt 3, not entirely eliminating the option of a discrete GPU later on.

To to summarise, the Skull Canyon NUC boasts:

Two M2 SSD slots
Two RAM slots up to 16GB each
Thunderbolt 3
HDMI
Mini Displayport
SD card slot- actually useful!

And it’ll set you back anywhere from £800 upwards.

£966 with Windows 10 Pro (£140), a 512GB Sandisk X400 M.2 SSD (£152) and a Crucial 16GB 8GBx2 DDR4 SO-DIMM RAM kit (£105) (Ebuyer.com)

£998 with Windows 10 Pro (£132), a 512GB Sandisk X400 M.2 SSD (£144) and a Corsair 16GB 8GBx2 DDR4 SO-DIMM RAM kit (£144) (Scan.co.uk)

And that’s the sticking point. The NUC is glorious, but like other small-form-factor platforms (consider it the ultrabook of the desktop world) it’s a luxury form-factor at a luxury price. Money which could buy a larger, more upgradeable, albeit much less refined platform.

Overall? I love the Skull Canyon NUC. I hope this form factor becomes the new norm, that prices are pushed down, and that it finds a place on my desk in the future.