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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: 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.

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.