​Intel’s Skull Canyon Pushes the Limits of Processor Based Graphics

“Integrated graphics” are two words that don’t typically elicit much excitement in conversations with gaming enthusiasts, but the Skull Canyon Intel® NUC for Game Developers may play a key role in changing the idea that a dedicated GPU is necessary...
August 24, 2016, 3:45pm

"Integrated graphics" are two words that don't typically elicit much excitement in conversations with gaming enthusiasts, but the Skull Canyon Intel® NUC for Game Developers may play a key role in changing the idea that a dedicated GPU is necessary for a proper gaming experience.

The Skull Canyon is small–really small. At just 8 inches long, 4 inches wide, and about an inch deep, it packs the latest 6th Generation Intel® Core™ i7 processor with Intel® Iris™Pro Graphics, offering the highest end integrated graphics solutions out there. There's a performance, size, and power envelope advantage to having a CPU and GPU on the same physical piece of silicon that allows the system to be super thin, making it even smaller than most laptops, and significantly smaller than any of the major gaming consoles currently on the market.

Motherboard spoke to Intel's Mitchell Lum to learn how the latest generation of the Intel® NUC (code named Skull Canyon) represents the next evolution of extremely powerful, small form factor, desktop PCs.

MB: Hey Mitchell. Thanks for speaking with us. We're really excited about this tiny but powerful little unit. Can you give us a little background on the latest Intel NUC project?

The Skull Canyon product is the latest version of our Intel® NUC (Next Unit of Computing)–strictly speaking Skull Canyon is a code name. A number of years ago, a team at Intel said "Hey, we think we can do better with really, really small form factor PCs, and drive a new usage model and new market." In particular, these units are great for a little media PC.

The earlier versions of the NUCs, inspired Gigabyte to do a system called the Brix Pro, which used our 4th generation Intel® Core™ i7 with Iris™ Pro graphics, and in 2014, Intel, in conjunction with Valve, did a hardware seeding at their Steam Dev Days event where all of the devs that attended got one of these machines as a Steam OS dev kit.

These products were really popular with game devs. Many of them, realistically speaking, either dual booted them or just put Windows on them. What the devs really liked them for was for going to trade shows. So, if you're doing a festival or trade show, and you need a reasonably high powered PC, you'll usually take a big desktop computer, which is difficult to travel with, or a laptop, which you'd still want an external monitor with. So devs have been traveling with these Gigabyte Bricks Pros, and they're great little machines. But that was 2 years ago, and we now have 2 generations of newer machines–and that's where we are with the Skull Canyon.

Skull Canyon Intel® NUC

MB: So what's currently in this machine? How has it been updated from those previous versions?

Just like the previous version, this has the Intel® Iris™ Pro graphics in it. It's a 45w processor, and it should be highly competitive with some of the mobile discrete graphics cards. It's able to play Just Cause 3.

If you look at the price point for this product, if you looked at building one of these systems out, in comparison with building out a small form factor traditional desktop, it's almost the same price. If size and space is at a premium for you as a user, this product is something you should definitely consider. Whether that's game developer traveling, or people using it as a living room gaming console.

MB: So, obviously small form factor systems like this limit your ability to modify or upgrade as time goes on and hardcore gamers are probably not your target market for this sort of thing. But for a casual gamer like myself, and someone who lives in a small apartment where space is at a premium, the idea of having a versatile living room PC that can play some AAA gaming titles at good frame rates is very attractive.

This is more of a niche product. It's definitely something that can be attractive for casual gamers, and it can be viewed as more of a secondary PC that you can put in your living room–a PC-based console alternative. For many people, it wouldn't necessarily be a primary system, but if you're a hardcore gamer and you have your big, gaming rig in your office or spare bedroom–having one of these Skull Canyons and a big TV in you living room is pretty unbeatable for local multiplayer party games. Going over to a friend's place and having a game system for a group gaming session is something that a lot of people enjoy, and the PC can offer a lot of options that a console can't.

There are also other folks looking at this for video processing as it offers pretty competitive performance, especially when considering this form factor. While it doesn't have a big hard drive in it, it can support 2 M.2 blazing fast NVMe SSDs (today shipping at 512GB sizes) that can be raided if desired. And in addition, with Thunderbolt 3 you can add virtually unlimited external storage over a 40Gbps bus–adding a lot of versatility.

Skull Canyon Intel® NUC

MB: But at the core of the project, you really see this as being a great product for game developers?

Absolutely. We'd like to think game developers will see this as a pretty exciting, fairly high-end performance system. It doesn't necessarily represent tens of millions of users as an install base for them if they're targeting it, however, with the lead times that big studios have, and some indies, if they're targeting this type of performance and hardware today, we'll see that type of performance in more mainstream products in the future. Every year our performance gets better. What you can buy on a 15w Ultrabook today would have been extremely high end in terms of integrated graphics in desktop parts a few generations ago–what you see with this NUC will be commonplace in a few years. We think the opportunity is really nice for developers and users are going to get a good experience out of this.

Skull Canyon Intel® NUC

MB: So, by looking at the technology in this generation of NUC, developers will have great insight into the next generation of integrated graphics that we'll see in mass-market consumer products in the near future?

Right. We think that Skull Canyons are one of the most exciting pieces of hardware to come out of this generation. The performance that they'll see out of it will be really exciting, and by making sure that their games work really well on Intel integrated graphics means, downstream, they'll have access to a larger install base of end users who will be able to play these games.

For end users, we think people that use this will approach it as something of a console-like experience, for living room gaming, local multiplayer party style games, or just delivering a console-like experience on a big screen.

What we're doing is two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, this is great for game developers to create great content that will run on the machine, but on the other side we want consumers to enjoy the content that the developers are making.

The Skull Canyon may just be a glimpse into the future of small form factor PCs with discrete GPUs becoming a viable alternative to big, hulking gaming rigs for a generation of casual gamers.

To learn more about Intel® Game Dev resources, go to software.intel.com/gamedev.

Start your own Intel® Game Dev journey here: software.intel.com/gamedev/journey/ideate**_.**_