In life we are often told that you can’t have everything, life is a balance. Settle and compromise the sensible amongst us insist, this is the secret to happiness they say. You can’t have looks and personality, the perfect job always has a downside, the perfect home will have an annoying neighbour and even the prefect computer will be compromised in some way. Here at Highpants its time to upgrade our trusty work-horse computer and we are once again faced with picking our way through this compromised reality.
Yes, even in the world of computing this logic has been bandied about like the punchline in a bad film, the perfect computer for any situation has always been a compromise. But damn it if Intel haven’t decided to challenge this long-heralded rule, yes you can have a powerful gaming machine in an unnaturally small form factor they scream, while holding the Hades Canyon NUC high in the air.
The requirements for our new silicon workhorse included being as compact as possible, space is at a premium, along with being low power and quiet. Of course, if these were the only requirements life would be simple but adding to these primary requirements is the need to test/play new release games and applications, do daily duty surfing the web, cranking out articles and developing software. These two sets of contradictory requirements usually led to a compromised decision.
Beginning this journey to find our new number cruncher all options were considered, self-build, pre-built compact machine and even laptops. Intel’s NUC (New Unit Computing) had always caught our eye with their diminutive size but the use of Intel’s integrated graphics chip excluded them as an option for us as they couldn’t handled the demanding requirements of the latest games. Until now this meant our only options were a water-cooled gaming PC or a gaming laptop, both of which took up substantial amounts of space and carry a hefty price tag.
The Hades Canyon NUC8i7HVK provided us with a third option, an option that promised to let us have it all. High frame-rate gaming, the latest high-performance technology, all in a super compact computer no larger than a paperback novel. The illuminated skull logo atop the case sealed the deal. Have we found the exception to the rule? Can this unholy union of Intel processor and AMD graphics really deliver on the dream?
Ordering, Unboxing & Assembly
With our mind made up, it was time to order some new toys. There are 5 models available in the Hades Canyon family of NUC’s, the base model (8305G) includes an i5 processor and cut back Vega graphics processor while the top of the line (8809G) includes an i7 processor, more powerful Vega graphics and higher clock speeds for only a few hundred dollars more, this was the model we settled on. The top of the line 8809G also brings with it the ability to overclock and adjust all of the speeds via a multitude of BIOS settings, a very rare thing in the world of miniature computing.
Being a barebones system you will need to order storage, RAM and an operating system to get the beast running. To fill these empty slots we ordered the Samsung 970 EVO M.2 NVMe SSD, 16GB of Corsair 2400Mhz Vengeance RAM and Windows 10 Pro.
With all of the parts on our workbench the fun of unboxing and assembly could begin. Continuing the skull embossed theme, the Hades Canyon’s box is adorned with a skull watermark. Inside the compact black box you’ll find the NUC itself, power supply, instructions, monitor mount to attach the NUC to the rear of your monitor and the tools to open the case so that you can fit the SSD and memory, a fairly simple process that requires removal of six screws and a shielding plate to access the motherboard.
With all of the hardware in place it was time to setup the operating system and drivers. Installing Windows via USB stick gave the first clue as to the speed of the new system, a process that was so fast it caused a double take moment. In the blink of an eye the Windows options screens appeared, and shortly after I was at the familiar desktop wondering if it had actually installed everything.
Being a unique piece of hardware the drivers for the Hades Canyon aren’t a part of the Windows install so you will need to download the latest drivers from Intel’s site (start here). There is already a second version of the graphics driver for the Vega graphics processor, to use it you will need to install the initial version first and load the update over the top. There is also a new Vega driver available direct from AMD but Intel don’t recommend using these drivers until it has released them through the Intel download centre. You can also download the LED manager software from the Intel download centre that allows you to customise the illumination of the skill logo. Remember to bookmark and read the Intel page for the NUC here.
Under the skull illuminated hood the Hades Canyon NUC is powered by the Core i7-8809G processor which includes an eighth generation i7 Kaby Lake CPU (4 cores/8 threads @ up to 4.2 GHZ), AMD Radeon RX Vega M GH graphics chip (24CU / 1536 SPs @ 1190 MHz) and 4 GB of HBM2 RAM (204.8 GB/s) all within the same package. Technically this does make it an integrated solution which have historically tended to be on the slow side. This was due to the integrated solutions having to use the CPU’s memory for both system memory and graphics memory which makes them incapable of fast gaming. The inclusion of the graphics RAM in the 8809G makes this a different beast, providing massive amounts of memory bandwidth (over 200GB/sec) for the Vega graphics chip, which translates to high frame rate gaming goodness.
While the machine may be tiny the I/O options are aplenty, in fact there are more connectors than many full-sized desktops. Front and rear HDMI, two Display Link ports and USB-C connectors allow up to 6 displays to be connected. Intel are marketing the Hades Canyon as VR ready and the display connectors and performance back up that intention. Other ports include dual Thunderbolt, 6 USB, dual network, optical audio out, headphone jack and an SD card reader. The multitude of connection options give the NUC8i7HVK a distinct advantage over other NUC’s and laptops.
Internally there are two SO-DIMM memory slots that take laptop RAM, two NVMe slots to install the new style M.2 SSD and 4 USB headers for expansion. The NVMe cards that go into these slots actually look more like memory sticks than an old school hard drive and are crucial to the systems performance by providing far faster transfer rates than the traditional SATA ports for hard drives and SSD’s of the past. The Samsung 970 EVO used in our case provides 3200 Mb/sec read and 2400Mb/Sec write speeds which is roughly 50 times faster than a mechanical hard drive.
It’s quick, and not just quick for what it is, the system (as a whole) is well balanced and everything from daily tasks like unzipping and installing apps to crunching images and playing games feels snappy. Even after the first week it still surprises as it eats its way through new tasks that are thrown its way. Of course, if you were to use a cheaper SSD and slower RAM this would probably not be the case.
Testing using the latest 3D Mark put the Hades Canyon 50% behind a 4K gaming PC with SLI, just below a gaming laptop (Nvidia 980 GPU) but 5 times faster than your typical notebook and 10 times faster than a desktop you might use at work.
Graphics performance is close to gaming rigs equipped with a Nvidia GTX 1060, or between an AMD RX 560 and RX 570. This gives it enough grunt to run the latest titles in full 1920×1080 HD. You won’t get the frame rates that the top end video cards such as a GTX 1080 can provide but the entire Hades Canyon is smaller than a GTX, and cheaper too. Sparing no expense we next tested with the free to play Fortnite. The hugely popular and highly addictive game looks spectacular and is able to maintain 60 frames per second at 1920 x 1080 with Epic settings enabled. Now I just need to avoid becoming addicted to this battle royale classic.
While our Hades Canyon NUC is destined to be a desktop replacement PC it would fit in very nicely with any home theatre setup. As home theatre PC it provides snappy performance and impressive image quality but the lack of support for a number of 4K codecs does stop us from saying that it is the perfect 4K HTPC (see TechReport review link below for more information).
Day to day performance is exceptional, the Intel/AMD hardware combined with the Samsung’s 970 EVO provides instant responsiveness, applications load without any perceptible delay and it boots so fast the Windows animation often doesn’t have time to animate. Everyday tasks such as unzipping and installing applications just fly by, it makes a liar out of most of the time estimates that often show as minutes but are done in seconds. All around this is a very slick machine that can game, provide plenty of desktop application power and do it all while being quiet, sipping on power and taking up no space.
Initially the system was a little unstable with Windows crashing randomly. After experimenting with various driver combinations switching off the Intel graphics in the BIOS made all of the difference and now system stability seems pretty good. A number of users have had driver issues that were caused by installing an older version of Windows so to make your life easier install the latest version of Windows and turn off the Intel graphics chip using the BIOS settings, you’ll only need it if you want to use more than 2 displays.
Keeping in mind the biggest challenge for this upgrade was the contradictory requirements, there are faster PC’s if you have an unlimited budget and space is no issue. There are also more compact and cheaper machines available. However if budget and space are a concern and you want a powerful PC that can game then the Hades Canyon is a solid option. It looks cool, takes up no space, is nearly silent, provides good mid-range gaming capabilities and is abundantly fast with desktop applications. Here at Highpants we have to say we are very impressed with what Intel has put together, this unholy alliance of Intel and AMD seems to just work. Which makes us wonder why can’t we all just get along, it seems to produce surprisingly good results when we do.