The “Skull Canyon” Intel NUC Gaming Mini-PC…A Computer I Can Get Behind

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Amazing that computers of the future (in the case of the above picture, that was the year 2010, from the movie of the same name) were theorized to be these giant monstrosities. Fortunately, while having massive computers (and supercomputers) is a choice today, they’re not the only computers “on the shelves”.

Unfortunately, however, the name of the modern computer that is bucking the “go big or go home trend” is called: “NUC”. Not as in disastrous explosions, but as in, “Next Unit of Computing” from Intel. These very real and available mini computers (measuring in single digit inches) are–I think–a proof of concept from Intel. NUCs are Intel’s way of telling you that this is the next generation of desktop, and they are definitely designed to replace said desktops.

Right down to the fact that they are not just mini-PCs, but also mini-kits. You need to do open it up and do a little “building”. The hard parts are included–CPU, GPU, ports, etc.–but you need to add the RAM and hard drive. And they’re fairly powerful, coming with the latest Skylake Core i7 (if you like), and the ability to add M.2 SSDs, and so on.

And honestly, I think they’re stunning. Many reviews have come in on these mini machines, and people are largely able to replace their massive desktop machines and even laptops with these little NUCs (that’s still weird to say in my head). Just connect one to a giant monitor and you have a fantastic computing experience.

Well, that’s unless you’re a gamer.

Well…until now…

Intel has announced that they are releasing a “gaming NUC” called: Skull Canyon. No, this 8″ x 4″ x 1″ mini-PC for gaming doesn’t have a dedicated NVIDIA or Radeon card, but it does have the latest Skylake version of their Iris Pro series, that being the Iris Pro 580. And it doesn’t have a bit of a badass look for a mini-PC, and yes, Mr. Wayne, it does come in black (unlike the dull grey of the regular NUCs).nuc1

Not a bad looking machine at all. And again, it is tiny, especially for a gaming machine (even smaller than the AMD/Sapphire mini-gaming PCs from a couple of years ago). And it will play–perhaps not at the highest settings–just about any game you throw at it. And the base model (again, no RAM, no hard drive, no monitor, etc.) only costs $650. To me, that’s incredible. I want this thing to have my children.

But how do the rest of the specs measure up? Much better than the already fairly-equipped “regular” NUCs. Let’s break the Skull Canyon version down…

  • Processor: 6th generation Intel Core i7-6770HQ (45W).
  • Graphics: This NUC still uses integrated graphics, albeit a higher-end Intel Iris Pro graphics 580 chipset.
  • Connectivity: As you might expect, these NUCs provide higher-end ports, including 40 Gbps Thunderbolt 3 with USB 3.1 and DP1.2 over USB-C. There are also four USB 3.0 ports (including one charging port) and a full-sized SD slot.
  • RAM: You have to buy it separately, but up to 32 GB of DDR4 memory is supported. Amazing.
  • Storage: This puppy offers dual M.2 slots for SATA3/PCIe x4 Gen 3 NVMe/AHCI SSDs. Nice!
  • Video out: Full-size HDMI 2.0 and miniDisplayPort 1.2 with support for 8 channel audio (7.1 surround sound).
  • Networking: Gigabit LAN, dual band Wireless-AC 8260 Wi-Fi (802.11 ac) and Bluetooth 4.2.
  • Operating System: This doesn’t come with an OS. So you can either install Linux (a good idea), or you’ll have to “purchase” a copy of Windows.
  • Form factor: The Intel NUC NUC6i7KYK features a unique case design with two lids—one with a skull logo, one plain matte black—and of course supports third-party lids. And again, it’s 8″ x 4″ x 1″. Small is beautiful.

nuc3I want one of these babies. Bad. Personally, I love the idea of a gaming rig that I could fit in my “murse” (yes, I proudly carry a “man purse”) that I use for all of my Android accessories. And I love the idea of just slapping this thing onto the back of a giant 21:9 monitor and going to town on some classics from GOG.com or for getting serious sound editing done and gaming development.

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The past year has seen the return of a couple of my favorite PC form factors from about a decade ago, neither of which were spearheaded by Intel, but by one of the top manufacturer’s in the world: ASUS. The EeePC and the EeeBox have both effectively made a return. The EeePC was the start of the “netbook craze”, which netbooks were the first laptops that I ever took seriously, because it was finally a feature-complete (screen, trackpad, and all), genuinely portable and lightweight computer. While severely underpowered by almost any time’s standards, it was a computer that in the late 00s would not have been able to easily recognize that it wasn’t just some hardcover book. And you may laugh, but you could bring an EeePC netbook into a bathroom stall, and at the time no one would have thought it strange (not something that you can say with most laptops). Also remember, tablets weren’t really a thing yet.

SIDE NOTE: The netbook has been replaced, not by the iPad (as much as Apple would like you to believe), but by Google’s Chromebooks, the Macbook (go figure, Apple finally made a netbook and acted like no one ever had before!), and the Windows-based Cloudbooks. And these machines have varying advantages, but I must admit that the Cloudbooks in particular are now everything the netbooks of days past should have been, and it does it well. The one at the top of the Amazon Wish List for my podcast Sovryn Tech is particularly impressive by most reviews. And now many of these netbooks-in-everything-but-name are even more stealthy…because they’re beautifully fanless!

The EeePC and other netbooks were so popular at the time that ASUS decided to release the EeeBox, which was a netbook stuffed into an even smaller frame that replaced (or tried to) your desktop computer. It didn’t have a monitor (though it did come with a monitor mount that could attach to the back of a screen), and they would sell them with USB keyboards and mice, but it was just one tiny lightweight desktop machine, just like Intel’s modern NUCs. These EeeBox’s were a step in the right direction for computers, in my opinion (we even use a 4-year-old one in the “Stephanie Murphy Studios“), and I’m glad that Intel is taking the charge back up.

SIDE NOTE: I imagine the success of the Raspberry Pi mini-PCs and of the various “stick computers” (of which Intel is making models of, as well) as inspired Intel to get out in front of this, otherwise they risk being completely out-competed by ARM-based or NVIDIA Tegra-based machines. And keep in mind, Intel can “lose”. AMD, with the release of the Athlon64 processors, was eating Intel’s lunch for a few years at one point.

Intel has a winner here with their entire NUC line, not just Skull Canyon. While these machines aren’t going to outcompete something with a full-on NVIDIA or Radeon card installed, there is a serious market out there for these kinds of computers. Just look at the success of NVIDIA’s own SHIELD TV Android-based box. NVIDIA is making devices from start to finish in-house, and it’s a winning strategy (and I think it’s only a matter of time before NVIDIA releases its own Tegra-based smartphone, which I approve of). I applaud Intel getting in on the same game. Why? Because Intel generally open-sources the shit out of everything they do. If you wanted to install Linux on a Skull Canyon NUC, it will likely work out of the box without a second thought. Not many PCs can share that claim, and this advantage is due to it being an Intel machine from stem to stern. I’m not saying Intel is a “good company” per se, but they definitely make life easier if you want to take real control of your computer (AMD does a fine job of this, as well, mind you).

I loved it even when Apple tried to get in on this game, long before anyone else. The Mac G4 Cube is still my favorite computer to date, and it’s over a decade old (and for owners of it…it impressively still works). But it was a powerhouse for its day, and it was a beautiful little machine. So my desire for machines of this kind has been long-held, the NUC is just the latest iteration. And other companies were even trying it before Apple, but now I’m just waxing nostalgic. Back to launching the NUCs (woops…that’s poorly phrased)…

SIDE NOTE: The company OCZ, known for the RAM and SSDs, used to sell laptops that were the equivalent of NUCs. They were shells of a laptop, and you had to put in your own RAM and hard drive (and some, even the processor), but was sold at a significantly lesser cost than a comparable high-end laptop with all the trimmings. I loved these things, and I wouldn’t mind if Intel took the NUC line to the laptop space in the future with similar ideas.

There isn’t a clear release date for the Intel Skull Canyon NUC, but when it does come out, I can say this: I want one, and I wouldn’t blame you for wanting one, too.

Carpe lucem!

 

donate_svtDISCLAIMER: The ZOG Blog is the part of this site where Dr. Brian Sovryn can talk about anything. From pop culture, to philosophy, to just sharing updates with what’s going on at Zomia Offline Games and with other projects.