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Intel Hades Canyon NUC: Benchmarks

A few weeks ago, Intel sent us a pre-production sample of their new NUCi7HVK, codenamed “Hades Canyon.” We posted our initial impressions of the next-gen NUC recently, but behind closed doors, we’ve been putting our Hades Canyon through its paces. Honestly, we’ve kind of gone off the rails with all the video ports it has.

We’ll get to the benchmarks shortly, but first let’s take a minute to review what makes Hades Canyon worth talking about; the revolutionary hybrid GPU/CPU chip at the heart of the device. The NUC8i7HVK and NUC8i7HNK are largely the fruits of a partnership between Intel and AMD, designed to integrate the former’s proficiency for compact, efficient CPUs with the latter’s penchant for powerful but discrete graphics technology.

This pairing, enhanced by the power of Intel EMIB (Embedded Multi-die Interconnect Bridge) PCB design, allows for a gaming grade graphics package to share the same silicon as a top-end consumer CPU. This match-up paves the way for a power to physical-size ratio that hasn’t been possible in a consumer oriented computer thus far.

Not Exactly Bare Bones

Like many other devices in Intel’s NUC lineup, the NUC8i7HVK comes as a kit, and our preview sample was no exception. In NUC terms, this means that the purchaser usually has to supply RAM, a storage device, and an operating system. The advantage is that this method gives the buyer some flexibility in budgeting. Simply buy the additional components that meet your price point and needs.

We wanted our Hades Canyon to have enough support to fully leverage the power of the 8809G (the CPU present in the NUC8i7HVK) and its embedded Vega M GH GPU, so we added in 16GB (2x8GB) of Ballistix Sport LT DDR4-2400 RAM and a WD Black 512GB M.2 SSD for our installation of Windows 10 Pro. Keep all that in mind, as it may affect some of our testing.

It’s incredibly impressive that a discrete, embedded GPU like the Vega M GH built into the the 8809G CPU can even approach the power of a dedicated graphics card.

There are a few things worth noting when it comes to cracking open the NUC8i7HVK. Firstly, there are two M-keyed M.2 slots, both capable of transmitting via NVMe protocol, as well as one E-keyed M.2 slot that comes with a preinstalled WiFi module. Like most other laptops and NUCs, there are only two SODIMM slots available, so choosing quality memory modules is important.

With those specs fresh in mind, let’s talk benchmarks.

NUC8i7HVK: Objective Performance Benchmarks

The GPU technology in Hades Canyon seems ready to change the way we think about performance in NUC’s and computer systems at this size. While writing this article, I kept grabbing my colleagues from around the office and having them play a few rounds of Overwatch. Few of them believed the NUC could deliver a real gaming experience until sitting down to try it themselves.

We started off with the 3DMark Cloud Gate benchmark, as that’s where most of the other NUC’s that we’ve seen have classically performed well. We knew that Hades Canyon would perform a level above any other NUC out there, but we were blown away by the results:

The result here is pretty obvious. Out NUC8i7HVK setup absolutely smokes Cloud Gate on the graphics test, staying well above 100 frames the whole time which nets a combined graphics score of 33825. By way of comparison, the Skull Canyon NUC6i7KYK only scored 9515 on the same test, more than 20,000 points lower. At this point, we’ve already seen that pairing an embedded GPU with an Intel Core processor nets an astronomical leap in graphics performance.

Determined to push our Hades Canyon to its limits, we moved up a step to the 3DMark Skydiver test, which is designed for mid level gaming systems and gaming laptops with discrete GPU solutions.

Once again, the Vega M GH GPU handles the benchmark we threw at it with ease. Framerates on the graphics tests remain well above 100FPS, and even on the most intense physics test, the framerate stays at a playable ~34FPS.

We really wanted to see what could give the NUC8i7HVK some real trouble, so we went up another step to 3DMark Firestrike, which is meant to challenge high-end single-GPU gaming rigs. It looks like Firestrike was finally able to slow down Hades Canyon’s integrated GPU, but not to austere levels. Take a look:

On graphical tests, we’re still seeing 40-plus FPS, which would still be considered on the cusp of playable for most games. Physics and Combined testing show further drop-offs, which are to be expected, considering that Firestrike can even be considered taxing on some standandalone GPUs.

Temperature, of course, is another key datapoint for measuring GPU performance, and our Hades Canyon unit kept pace in this arena as well. While there are points of variation, tracing the temperature graphs across all three tests revealed a common trend. Generally speaking, temperatures for both the CPU and embedded GPU seemed to stay in the 60℃ to 70℃ range, with a notable increase during loads involving physical calculations. This impressive thermal regulation is due to two fairly robust blower fans on the bottom of the unit. 

NUC8i7HVK: Usage Impressions

After compiling all of the hard benchmarking data, I went on to the next logical step, which was to put our Hades Canyon unit through some rigorous real-world use. Around here, that means some marathon gaming sessions. All of the stats in this section are what I call “impressionistic” rather than scientifically objective. There was a frame counter running during all of our gameplay, and the results here are observations of the counter, along with an impression and general feeling of the system’s performance while using it.

Our impressionistic testing was done with a Roccat Nyth mouse, a Logitech G710, and one of Acer’s Predator gaming monitors.

Our first test was with Heroes of the Storm, as we’ve tested a number of other Intel NUC’s with this title. From the get go, Hades Canyon delivered gameplay experience vastly superior when compared to its peers. Whereas previously, we could only really get away with running on HotS on medium settings, the NUC8i7HVK handled the game on Ultra settings and still maintained a solid framerate between 170 and about 200FPS. Obviously, the largest dropoff occurred during five versus five player team fights, but even with several ability effects popping off simultaneously, the game still ran super-smoothly.

Knowing that Hades Canyon could handle a MOBA title with ease, I wanted to see how it would do with some more demanding titles. Overwatch is one of our go-to FPS games around here, due to it’s consistent level of popularity and high level of graphical fidelity. Blizzard also has made sure that it’s supremely well-optimized, and thus, a great fit for systems where power might be in question. We very quickly found that the Vega M GH GPU exceeded all expectations.

We started our Overwatch session on High settings, which netted us a stead 110-160FPS, depending on particle effects, number of characters in-frame, and them amount of debris reacting to physical effects. I felt that the FPS rates we were seeing here were excellent, and I wanted to know if our unit could handle more pressure. I upped the settings to the Ultra preset, and played a few more rounds.

On Ultra, I saw an expected dip down to between 100-130 FPS depending on game conditions, and when I again raised the settings to the maximum Epic preset, the Vega M GH graphics still delivered a solid and completely playable frame rate between 50 to 80 FPS. The other interesting aspect here is the temperature. At no point during our gaming session did we see the temperature of the GPU exceed 62℃, which is impressive for a unit this size.

The last game we spent some serious time with was Tom Clancy’s The Division. This is one of those titles that pulls out all the stops in terms of graphical techniques, stopping just short of full TressFX implementation. We spent a few hours playing the game on High settings, which finally slowed Hades Canyon enough to satiate my curiosity. In intense firefights, I noticed a framerate of about 30-40 FPS, with smoother looking ~70 FPS while just exploring the ingame version of NYC. Again, it’s worth noting that the GPU temperature stayed right around the 60℃ mark, which seems to be the norm for the system under load. The Division’s ingame-benchmark backed up out impressionistic results, reporting a median rate of ~50 FPS.

We mentioned before that the Hades Canyon has an HDMI port mixed in with the rest of its front I/O, so obviously our first question was whether or not the NUC8i7HVK was robust enough to handle VR. After the not-so-brief hardware setup and software installation process for the HTC Vive, we booted up Steam VR, and we were greeted by SteamVR Home’s familiar hilltop cabin. We didn’t get an exact frame count here, but messing around in the cabin seemed smooth and non-clunky. Background elements (such as birds flying overhead) and particle effects created by VR Home’s various tools all flowed fluidly.

NUC8i7HVK: A Self-Contained Gaming Solution

After analyzing our data from these benchmarks, as well as factoring in our impressions from practical testing sessions, we arrived at an admittedly bold hypothesis: We’d go so far as to claim that the level of performance we’ve observed and experienced from our Hades Canyon NUC8i7HVK is on par with a similarly equipped system complete with an entry-level GPU. We designed one final benchmark see if we could turn hypothesis into theory.

The above data shows our benchmark from what we felt was a comparable system we could build with the parts on hand. The keystone of this build was another AMD GPU, a Radeon RX 480. Our assumption was that this GPU would deliver a similar render performance to the Hades Canyon’s Vega M GH graphics set under the same 3DMark Firestrike test. For easy reference, here’s our Vega M GH Firestrike results again:

For this comparative analysis, we’re mostly interested in the overall scores for the 3 different categories of Graphics Score, Physics score, and Combined Score.

On the Graphics test, our RX 480 scored 14168 while the Vega M GH earned a 10170. While a >4000 point difference isn’t exactly neck and neck, I would say that both GPU’s are at least running the same race. The Vega M GH pulls even closer on the physics test, with a separation of around 2000 points, and less than even that on the combined test.

So while obviously the Vega M GH didn’t strictly beat out the RX480, I’m confident saying that they’re playing in the same ballpark. It’s incredibly impressive that a discrete, embedded GPU like the Vega M GH built into the the 8809G CPU can even approach the power of a dedicated graphics card. We didn’t have any on hand, but I know I’d be very interested to see how Vega M GH stacks ups against some of the other entry-level AMD GPUs, such as an RX 470 or 460, and I sincerely hope that we get the chance to do such a comparison at some point in the future.

Hades Canyon

Hades Canyon NUCs are important for a simple reason: as our benchmarks and experiences show, these systems offer an alternative to PC gamers concerned about the increasing prices of mainstream GPUs. So far, it seems like both of the Hades Canyon NUCs offer hardware powerful enough to absolutely smoke highly optimized e-sports games, and can even take on some of the more demanding titles out there. Moreover, they accomplish this while still being self contained and more compact that almost anything of equivalent power.

The model featured in this preview, the NUC8i7HVK (with Vega M GH graphics) will have an MSRP of $999 for a barebones kit, which the NUC8i7HNK (with Vega M GL graphics) will start at $799. It’ll be interesting to see what the realistic cost for one of these units will be once RAM, storage, and an OS are factored in, but the great part of buying a kit is that these other parts can be acquired according to consumer budget and need.  A full, ready-to-go NUC8i7HVK out of the box is expected to cost somewhere around $1399.