Introduction, Design Features
Micro- and mini-PCs are the hottest items in the otherwise snoozy 2016 market for desktop PCs. Today, a typical tower-style desktop PC, if you buy it with the right parts inside, will last for many years before feeling dated. So the trend has been toward right-sizing the PC instead, or packing more power into a smaller box.
But what happens once the desktop PC has been reduced in size as far as it will go? Sometimes, bouncing back to bigger is the only way forward.
Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) series of PC kits were some of the chief instigators spurring on smaller and smaller desktops that you could tuck into a wall unit, or mount behind a monitor. The typical NUC was a 4- or 5-inch square, and ultimately Intel was able to get Core i5 and i7 mobile-grade CPUs into the tiny confines of these machines. Beyond the NUC, Intel took things to another level of small with the 2015 Compute Stick, a fully configured, even further shrunken micro-PC that plugged directly into an HDMI port on a display, like an Amazon Fire Stick or Roku Streaming Stick. (Intel has since updated the Compute Stick to a 2016, Windows 10 version with newer Atom “Cherry Trail” silicon inside. And other makers have rolled out their own versions, such as Lenovo with its Ideacentre Stick 300, which we’re in the process of reviewing, or Asus and its VivoStick PC, also on our review radar.)
Indeed, once you get down to the size of the Atom-powered Compute Sticks and their ilk, there’s little elsewhere you can go apart from bigger.
That’s what Intel has done with its new-for-2016 flagship NUC Kit. Code-named the much catchier “Skull Canyon” in the run-up to its launch, the NUC Kit NUC6i7KYK takes the form factor of the typical Intel NUC and runs a steamroller over it, widening and flattening the body to allow for more-potent component possibilities inside. “Skylake” 6th-Generation processors are the order of the day—there was a whopper in our $650 review unit—and Intel also foregoes 2.5-inch hard drives and solid-state drives (SSDs) altogether, instead opting for a pair of slots for gumstick-size M.2 SSDs to save space.
NUCs are astounding for the technology they pack into their small bodies, but to date they have admittedly looked bland. Intel did allow for some of its last-generation NUCs to be bulk-ordered with custom corporate or other logos on top, but this is the first NUC that comes out of the box with a real sense of attitude. Intel’s enthusiast-minded skull logo takes up half the lid, and the overall shape is sportier than any NUC before.
On the whole, the “Skull Canyon” NUC kit is the state of the art in mini-PCs that rely on integrated graphics. It’s not cheap—once you factor in the parts you need to get our review unit up and running, there’s likely a $1,000 hole in your credit card, in total. But if you’re looking for the rare mini-PC that can accept video cards and video-card upgrades without being big enough to house one, it’s worth serious consideration, thanks to its Thunderbolt 3 port and its support for emerging external-graphics-card solutions. Indeed, this NUC has been demonstrated in recent months working with Razer’s new Core external-graphics box. And it has enough CPU grunt to deliver more than enough pep for CPU-intensive productivity tasks and casual-to-moderate media-file crunching.
We mentioned “parts” above. As the “Kit” in the name suggests, the NUC6i7KYK, like all other NUCs, is a bare-bones PC, which requires the user or systems integrator to install parts and an operating system to complete the machine. In this case, the parts you bring to the party are the storage drive or drives (M.2-format SSDs), the main system memory (in the form of laptop-style SO-DIMMs), and a copy of Windows.
As a result, you’ll need to get your DIY on with Skull Canyon to get it up and running. But the hardware installation is easy, and the result is a power-packed mini-PC that can serve as a home-theater PC (HTPC), a monitor-mounted powerhouse, or even a gaming system—once Thunderbolt 3 video-card solutions roll out.
The NUC Kit NUC6i7KYK’s chassis looks a bit like that of an edgy router. Squat and low-lying, it rises just 1.1 inches off the desk and measures 8.3×4.6 inches, about the size of a narrow trade-paperback book. All the ports are concentrated on the front and back edges, with one side and part of the back edge devoted to ventilation.
The distinctive top panel resurrects the Intel skull logo, which debuted years back on some of its enthusiast motherboard hardware. Plastered across the top of the chassis, it advertises that this is no ordinary NUC…
The edgy look may please the enthusiast crowd, but most business or small-office users will probably find the skully sentiment out of place. To address that, Intel includes a replacement cover plate that you can fasten in place of the skull cover. You’ll use a hex key (included) to remove the six hex screws around the edges and swap on the new, plainer lid.
The underside, meanwhile, is also removable, allowing for access to the component slots and bays. This side uses Philips screws, not the hex kind, and these four small screws tend to remain tethered in the bottom panel when it is removed. We’ll get into the slots and component-install nitty-gritty in a bit.
The front edge is not too busy, with an LED-lit power button, an SD-card read/write slot, two USB 3.0 ports, a headphone/headset jack, and a Consumer IR (infrared) sensor arrayed across it, left to right…
You may note that one of the front USB ports has a yellow insert. This port is a charging port, letting you charge mobile gear off the port even with the device powered down.
The rest of the ports are packed tight on the back to the right of a CPU-cooling vent, comprising the power connector, an optical audio out (actually an analog speaker jack combined with a Toslink optical connector), a Gigabit Ethernet jack, two more USB 3.0 ports, a mini-DisplayPort-out, the Thunderbolt 3 we mentioned earlier, and an HDMI 2.0 out…
Most of these are self-explanatory, but the HDMI port detail is key if you intend to attach the NUC6i7KYK to a 4K-resolution HDTV via HDMI, as its 2.0 support allows for refresh rates up to 60Hz at 4K. Note that both the mini-DisplayPort and the HDMI outputs support eight-channel audio over the connection. The ports also support up to 4K output across up to three discrete displays. (Remember that Thunderbolt 3 can serve as a video-out, as well.)
Core i7-6700K commonly included with high-end desktops, the chip that’s the current flagship of the Intel consumer desktop line. The HQ is a laptop-grade variant that is most often seen in high-end gaming laptops. Still, it’s no slouch, supporting Intel’s Hyper-Threading tech, and thus is a four-core, eight-thread-capable chip. Just don’t confuse it with the raw power of the “true” desktop part, which is a 91-watt component. This one is 45 watts, the highest-TDP CPU Intel has rolled out in a NUC so far.
Still, it’s impressive to get even this kind of power in a chassis this small. Usually, when implemented in a laptop, the Core i7-6770HQ has a full 15- or 17-inch-class laptop chassis for system designers to spread the cooling load across. But here, the chip is confined to the right side of the box. A seashell-shaped blower fan vents air from the chip out the right rear, as you can see…
The chassis as a whole lays flat on a desk, of course, but it is also mountable on the back of any monitor with a VESA-compatible backplate, via an included metal plate. You add two provided screws to the back of the chassis, and they protrude and engage with the mounting plate, which itself attaches to the back of a monitor via a separate set of screws…
Beyond the backplate, there isn’t much in the way of accessory clutter in the box with the NUC Kit chassis. The AC adapter is an inch-thick, 6×3-inch brick that’s not too onerous to hide. Beyond that, you get the VESA plate and the alternative (non-skull) lid, and that’s pretty much it.
Inside the chassis, the connectivity on the outside is augmented by 802.11ac Wi-Fi via an Intel Wireless AC 8260 chipset, as well as support for Bluetooth 4.2. The key connectivity item, though, is the Thunderbolt 3 port mentioned earlier.
Thunderbolt 3 is a multifaceted port. (Indeed, this one is also a USB 3.1 connector.) Unlike previous iterations of Thunderbolt, Thunderbolt 3 is no longer a distinctly shaped port of its own, but it piggybacks on the same USB Type-C connector as the emerging USB 3.1 data port. The difference in a Type-C port that supports Thunderbolt 3, though, is the vastly wider bandwidth available when using a compliant device, as well as the potential support for external video-card boxes. We haven’t seen any generically available such boxes yet apart from Razer’s Core external box for its Blade laptops—just models geared toward specific laptop lines, such as the Alienware Graphics Amplifieran Asus external-card chassis meant for some of its laptops, teased at CES 2016.) But we have seen some Thunderbolt 3 docks from HP, as well as laptops with Thunderbolt 3 ports that allow for charging over those ports (see our reviews of the HP EliteBook Folio G12016 Apple MacBookZotac Zbox Magnus EN970, but these are few and far between, and not upgradable.) The NUC Kit NUC 6i7KYK’s Thunderbolt 3 port extends some hope that you’ll be able to do a quantum-leap graphics upgrade down the road—an impossibility with previous mini-PCs anywhere near this size.
We’ll have to see how the external-graphics landscape shakes out, but Thunderbolt 3 could prove to be the biggest future-proofing feature for laptops and small desktops in many a year.