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Hands-on: Intel Hades Canyon NUC

Our love of compact computing, especially Intel’s NUC lineup, is well known, and we recently did an overview of a handful of NUC models here on Unlocked. So it stands to reason that we’ve been drooling over the next big thing in NUC systems, 60 watt and 100 watt models which go by Intel’s “Hades Canyon” codename. We covered Intel’s CES 2018 announcement of the two new NUC models, and have eagerly been awaiting a chance to go hands-on with one of these new systems.

These 8th Generation NUCs are not just the next iteration of what Intel has been offering for years. They're actually an example of one of the more surprising team-ups in the history of the industry: a partnership between Intel and AMD, which has already borne fruit in the form of a revolutionary GPU/CPU hybrid chip.

Intel sent us an early production sample of the 100W TDP NUC8i7HVK kit to take a look at ahead of the product's release.

Why is Hades Canyon such a big deal?

To really understand what the fuss about the Hades Canyon is, grasping the underlying technologies at play is essential. Hades Canyon, ultimately, is the sum total of its constituent parts, and the different aptitudes AMD and Intel brought together in forging the unique circuitry that powers it.

The nexus of the system is an Intel CPU, but one that defies some common conventions. According to the diagnostic tool we used on our sample unit, our sample devices lists its processor as an 8th Generation CPU, specifically a Core i7-8809G @3.10Ghz with a “Kaby Lake” codename.

I can hear the masses already: “Kaby Lake?” they exclaim. “You fool! Everyone knows Kaby Lakes are 7th Gen chips!”

It’s true. The nomenclature here is somewhat of an anomaly among Intel’s CPU, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. Yet even Intel’s Ark subsite lists the 8809G, and the other G-suffixed CPUs (the G referring to an embedded discrete graphics component) are listed as “Products Formerly Kaby Lake G.” By way of comparison, the always popular 7700K is similarly listed as “Products Formerly Kaby Lake.” It seems that Intel is classifying its discrete graphics line as 8th gen CPUs, most likely due to development of the G chips around the same time.

Many stats of the 8809G do closely rival other top-end 7th Gen CPUs. Most notably, the 8809G has four cores, eight threads, and runs at 3.10GHz. It also has 16 PCIe lanes; however, eight of those lanes are permanently allocated to traffic from the integrated graphics package. The total power draw of the 8809G is 100W for the whole assembly, which will make sense once you understand what truly makes this processor stand out.

AMD’s contribution comes in the form of a Radeon Vega M GH GPU that is embedded onto the same physical PCB as the CPU. It’s a little hard to envision, though the official image below helps. Essentially, the chip is a rectangular shape, with a cluster of what can generally be described as ASICs (Application-Specific Integrated Circuits). These are likely the GPU itself, as well as the attached VRAM. It then stands to reason that the other microchip, off by itself, is the CPU.

Vega M GH

The AMD-supplied GPU is based on the same microarchitecture as the rest of AMD’s Vega lineup. The Vega M GH GPU built into the 8809G has 4GB of HMB2 memory, a base clock speed of 1063Mhz, and 24 compute cores. In addition, all modern graphics APIs such as Directx 12, OpenGL, and Vulkan are supported.

There’s one other critical component to the whole 8809G package, which is Intel’s new Embedded Multi-die Interconnect bridge. Explaining exactly how EMIB works and what it is could be an entirely separate article. For now, the important things to know are: EMIB refers to a new and novel way to connect different dies (microprocessor circuitry patterns) together on the same PCB during the manufacturing process. Dies are traditionally linked together via copper wiring, occasionally interrupted by interposers. Instead, EMIB employs densely-packed heterogeneous pieces of silicon that directly link one die to another without any interrupts, which ensures a much more direct, and consequently far faster, form of connection.

EMIB is key here because it links together the 8809G CPU and the Vega M GH GPU in a way that makes the speed of transmission as fast as possible, and also offers huge space savings. It’s hard to understate how impressive the size savings is, especially compared with a traditional mobile PC setup, which is typically based around a mobile-grade CPU connected to a separate "discrete" mobile GPU solution. Using EMIB alloys for a level of compactness that makes fitting this much power into something as small as a Hades Canyon NUC possible.

Overview and Features

At first glance, the form factor of the Hades Canyon bears an undeniable resemblance to its Skull Canyon predecessor, more abstrusely known as NUC6i7KYK. Both NUCs are wide, flat rectangles with some tempered corners and some other angular design elements. Both also heavily feature stylized hexagons, mostly as grids covering large, otherwise blank areas, or over exhaust ports. The power button, too, fits into this pattern.

While the Skull Canyon was striking for the cyber-skull logo engraved into its top plate, the Hades Canyon takes the motif to a new level. While powered off, the top plate is blank and totally unassuming. Press the power button, and blue cyber-skull outline blazes to life on the case. Give Hades Canyon a moment to cycle through its POST and boot sequences, and the skulls eyes flare to a deep red, unmistakably ready for action.

For being so compact, Hades Canyon also has more I/O options than you can shake a stick at. Let’s cover what it offers for connectivity:

Front I/O:

  • Power Button
  • SD Card Slot
  • USB 3.1 Port
  • USB 3.1 High Voltage Port
  • HDMI Port
  • USB-C port
  • 3.5mm Headset/Microphone Jack

Rear I/O:

  • 3.5mm Audio Jack
  • 19V Power Port
  • 2x Thunderbolt 3 Ports
  • 2x Mini Displayports
  • 2x RJ45 Ethernet Ports
  • 4x USB 3.1 ports
  • HDMI Port

This is a staggering amount of connections, more in line with what you’d see on a full tower PC than on a smaller system like a NUC.

One of the standouts here is the front panel HDMI port: Yes, Hades Canyon supports VR. In addition to a VR headset output, the rear panel I/O has three more standard video options, in the form of two Mini Displayport connections, and another HDMI port. The Vega M GH GPU is strong enough to support simultaneous video feeds from all three of these, meaning the Hades Canyon NUC makes for a suitable core for a multi-screen desktop setup.

There are also two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the rear panel, which means you could potentially add even more connections by using TB3 docking stations. Or you can use them for direct-attached-storage devices, EGPU enclosures, or even as additional USB-C ports, if necessary. 

Hades Canyon

Intel’s new Hades Canyon NUCs should offer an incredible size to performance ratio by leveraging the power of some brand-new technologies, and by making the most of an unexpected partnership between Intel and AMD. These two new NUC devices, the NUC8i7HVK and NUC8i7HNK, redefine what’s possible in a PC this small by embedding a ferocious little AMD Vega M GPU alongside a high-end Intel Core-i7 CPU, and then connecting them with a revolutionary new die bridging solution.

The different models and kits are currently expected to ship in April of this year. The model featured in this preview, the 100 watt NUC8i7HVK (with Vega M GH graphics) will have an MSRP of $999 for a barebones kit, while the 60 watt NUC8i7HNK (with Vega M GL graphics) will start at $799.

Keep your eyes on Newegg's NUC page for more information and pre-orders when they are available.