If the glowing skull isn’t clue enough, know this: The NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK we’re looking at here is the most powerful Next Unit of Computing (NUC) mini PC that Intel has produced to date. What makes this particular NUC model—better known by its codename during development, “Hades Canyon”—unique is its special Intel Core i7-8809G quad-core processor. This chip is the fruit of a first-ever partnership between AMD and Intel that binds a Core CPU with on-chip AMD graphics silicon, in this case the Radeon RX Vega M GH. (That’s right: AMD and Intel occupying the same processor!) The GPU has 4GB of HBM2 memory and can power virtual reality (VR) experiences. It helps make this mini PC an excellent performer overall, and it’s a practical PC, too, thanks to its small footprint, abundant connectivity, and quiet operation. Only its high price keeps us from giving it a fist-pumping recommendation.
Let’s Have a Skull Session?
The “kit” in the name “Intel NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK” indicates that this is a bare-bones PC, as many of Intel’s NUCs are. It rings up at $899 without an operating system, memory, or storage installed. Online vendors do sell preconfigured models of this NUC, or you can buy just the kit and outfit it yourself. Though you can select cheaper parts, the market value of the hardware inside in my test unit topped $1,650. (Don’t forget, you may need to factor a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse into your final price equation, as well.)
At 1.5 by 8.7 by 5.6 inches (HWD), the Intel NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK is small enough to fit inside a large coat pocket. It weighs just 2.4 pounds, but note that that’s just for the unit’s chassis itself. Its large, laptop-style external power adapter substantially increases the bulk. The adapter is a 230-watt beast and about half as large (and almost as heavy) as the NUC itself.
The exterior of the chassis is a combination of metal and plastic. It feels solid in your hand, with no flex evident on top or bottom. Rubber feet keep it from sliding around, or you can use the included VESA plate for mounting it on the back of a monitor.
The body looks industrial and plain until you turn it on. Then, a backlit blue-and-red skull on the top pops up and looks borderline scary. It won’t be everyone’s cup of java. Intel says additional top-panel faceplates for this chassis will be available, but I didn’t see any as I tapped out this review. If it’s like many earlier Intel NUCs, it will be possible to order custom-logo or other specially designed top plates for this model if the machines are ordered in quantity.
The NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK is designed to be end-user configured; hence, you can buy it as just a bare-bones unit. Six screws hold down the lid, and one more the panel under it. The tiny motherboard has two M.2 Type-2280 slots for SSD storage, and two 260-pin SO-DIMM slots for laptop-style DDR4 memory. I’d have preferred a 2.5-inch bay, as well, which would have allowed for some less expensive storage expansion and a really high storage ceiling. With this NUC, however, you’re limited to only SSD storage in the M.2 form factor.
The benefit of going all-SSD is the lack of moving parts (and thus no noise) and better performance, of course, but you’ll have to pony up the bucks for high capacities. Note that the M.2 slots support the PCI Express bus with a full four PCIe lanes each; as a result, you’ll want PCI Express-bus M.2 SSDs here, rather than SATA M.2 models. (See our top picks for M.2 SSDs and PCI Express NVMe SSDs. Those links also explain the bus issue at greater length.)
That’s a Spicy Port Mix
Given the size of this trim chassis, the Intel NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK is simply bristling with ports. It would be hard, physically, to cram any more around the edges. But those who would like to use the NUC Kit as an engine for VR will be gratified by the necessary HDMI out and the excess of ordinary USB ports.
The front edge has the power button, a full-size SD card reader, USB Type-A 3.0 and 3.1 ports, an HDMI 2.0a video-out, a USB Type-C 3.1 port, a 3.5mm audio jack (which also supports Toslink), and a quad microphone array. Intel hardly left an inch bare.
The rear has even more to offer. Left to right, you’ll spot an S/PDIF audio-out connector, the jack for the AC adapter, a pair of Type-C USB ports that also support Thunderbolt 3, two mini-DisplayPort outputs, dual Gigabit Ethernet jacks, a quartet of USB Type-A 3.0 ports, and another HDMI 2.0a video-out. A Kensington-style cable-lockdown notch sits on the left edge.
Thanks to all the video-out connectors, the NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK supports up to six 4K or 5K monitors. Its wireless connectivity is powered by an Intel 8265AC 802.11ac card, which also brings along support for Bluetooth 4.2. This machine could serve, perhaps, as the ultimate engine for a killer multi-monitor video wall, comprising half a dozen ultra-high-resolution displays. The key thing is, though, the two HDMI outs; you can attach an HDMI monitor and a VR headset at the same time.
AMD and Intel…Working Together?
Intel offers this NUC Kit in two basic configurations. The NUC8i7HVK I’m reviewing is the more powerful of the two, based around the Intel Core i7-8809G CPU. A lesser model, the Intel NUC Kit NUC8i7HNK, uses a slightly less powerful Core i7-8705G chip and sells for $749 as a bare-bones unit, or $150 less than the bare-bones version of the unit I’m testing. Both of these “G” class CPUs feature onboard AMD graphics, although the RX Vega M GH chip in the Core i7-8809G is faster than the RX Vega M GL chip in the Core i7-8705G. (It has both a higher clock speed and more compute units.)
With four cores, a 3.1GHz base clock, and a 4.2GHz Turbo Boost clock, the Core i7-8809G handles just about any mainstream productivity task with ease and can do some respectable work on media processing, as you’ll see in a moment. It doesn’t compare to the six-core “Coffee Lake” mainstream desktop chips like the Intel Core i7-8700K, but you’ll need a real desktop tower and its attendant thermal headroom to handle one of those.
What you do get here is very reasonable CPU power and surprising graphics pep given the tight confines of this PC. Coupled with the AMD RX Vega M GH graphics, the NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK is VR-ready and can play the latest AAA-level game titles. Most should run fine at a 1080p resolution, but in some cases not with maxed-out details.
That’s one reason why I find the price of the NUC8i7HVK to be a tad off-putting. For the same $1,600-plus that this test unit ran (once it was outfitted with all of the components it needed), you can get a powerful full-fledged desktop that can handle 1080p or 1440p gaming without sacrificing details. Or you could land a well-equipped gaming notebook.
This NUC supports up to 32GB of dual-channel DDR4 memory. My unit has installed a 16GB dual-channel setup (two 8GB SO-DIMMs) of pricey DDR4-3200 Kingston HyperX memory, which certainly didn’t hurt its benchmark scores. As for the storage, my unit has Windows 10 Pro installed on a 120GB Intel Optane SSD 800p as the boot drive, and, for secondary storage, a 512GB Intel 545s Series SSD. (That latter drive is in M.2 form factor; the drive reviewed at the link is the same, but in 2.5-inch format.) The Optane 800p drive is pricey for the capacity you get; if you’re building one of these NUCs, you can save cash by going with a more mainstream M.2 SSD, or by just sticking with a single drive.
Cooling fans are located in the base of the NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK, sending air straight out the rear…
My ears couldn’t make them out while the unit was idling. The fans became just audible while I was running benchmark tests and straining the limits of the system, but they were in no way loud or intrusive. Fan motor noise was thankfully absent. In short, the thermals here are well executed.
The Fruit of the Alliance: Snappy Speed
And so, on to the benchmarks. The units to which I compared this NUC Kit are, on the whole, much larger (but still compact) desktops, by dint of the fact that you won’t find many PCs of this size that are anywhere comparably powerful.
For starters, an interesting win: The NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK eked out the top spot on PCMark 8’s Work Conventional benchmark, although that general system test far from stresses the capabilities of these machines. In the CPU-limited multimedia tests, including Cinebench R15 and Handbrake, the four-core Core i7-8809G in the NUC couldn’t quite keep pace with the six-core Core i7-8700 in the MSI Vortex G25VR, nor with the overclocked, quad-core Core i7-7700K in the Corsair One Pro. That said, that is how it should be; those machines are all nontrivially larger than the NUC Kit and can handle full-desktop parts.
The 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme subtest, meanwhile, highlights the excellent performance of the NUC’s onboard AMD Radeon RX Vega M GH graphics. It scored nearly 10 times higher than the integrated Intel HD Graphics 630 in the Dell Optiplex 5050 Micro. The NUC’s AMD silicon scored just under half as high as the top-shelf GeForce GTX 1080 GPU in the HP Omen X Compact Desktop. That’s impressive for on-chip graphics, considering the thermal constraints here. It’s a testament to the potency of the Radeon RX Vega M GH graphics here and to the alliance Intel and AMD forged to make this chip possible.
Although the AMD chip performs very, very well for an onboard, integrated-style GPU, there’s no ignoring the fact that you can get a beefy GeForce GTX 1070-equipped desktop or notebook for less than my as-configured NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK. The GTX 1070 will allow you to max out the detail settings in today’s games, which isn’t necessarily going to be the case with the NUC’s onboard AMD chip, especially in the most demanding titles.
Hades Canyon: Surprisingly Welcoming
The NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK is the bleeding edge of compact-PC technology, offering a remarkable amount of performance in a minuscule form factor. Connectivity is first-rate, perhaps even excessive, for this system’s size, but it means you get plenty of options for end-user expansion and VR-headset hookups. It doesn’t disappoint in the looks department, either, even if the backlit skull faceplate is a bit polarizing.
Ultimately, however, you really must have a specific usage case for this NUC model and its trim body to justify the buy. It commands a steep premium for packing top-grade hardware into such a small space. Again, remember that the $899 starting price is for the bare-bones unit only; our PCMag tester topped $1,650, exclusive of a monitor, keyboard, or mouse. You can get lesser components, to be sure, but even a basic loadout (say, a Windows 10 Home license, a 256GB PCI Express M.2 SSD, and 8GB of SO-DIMM DDR4 memory) is still going to set you back at least $250. So you’re looking at a minimum entry point, on this PC, of $1,150 with the $899 bare-bones version.
If you’re purely after gaming performance, the same money can get you a larger graphics-beast desktop or a gaming notebook with substantially better performance. But if you want the most performance possible in the smallest desktop chassis, and VR compatibility to boot, the Intel NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK “Hades Canyon” is one, ahem, heck of a quiet fire-breather.
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