When you innocently say the words "integrated graphics" to those who play PC games, don't expect a positive response. Or for them to not laugh in your face. Graphics processor units (GPUs) that are combined with central processing units (CPUs), often called iGPUs, have a bad reputation, especially when compared with standalone GPU beasts, like Nvidia's latest, $700 Geforce GTX 1080. iGPUs are usually found in portable computers and generally aren't powerful enough to handle the latest games. But Intel is making moves to redefine the expectations surrounding iGPUs and its most up to date offering aims to back up its claims.
This May, Intel has demonstrated how far their iGPUs have come by releasing the newest and fastest generation of their Next Unit of Computing, or NUC. Dubbed Skull Canyon, the box is only eight inches wide, four inches deep, and a little under an inch tall, and is home to a full size i7 quad core processor. Not limited by the delicate power requirements of a laptop battery, the processor can go full bore to rival speeds found in traditional desktop PCs when needed.
"Four and half years ago now, Intel was doing desktop motherboards," said Bruce Patterson, marketing manager at Intel. "We challenged our engineering team with almost a science project: what was the smallest motherboard you could create that had Intel Core processor on it? That was the genesis for NUC."
The magic in the NUC is built into the processor: the Intel Iris Pro 580. It is the most equipped integrated graphics chip from Intel yet. It's the sequel to the Iris Pro Graphics 6200. It boasts way more computing units and has dedicated memory that can be used just for graphics processing—minimizing the need to use slower, shared memory with the CPU.
Intel claims that iGPUs of this caliber can replace the need for low end video cards for many mainstream gamers.
I understand if I wanted the ability to game without the huge footprint, I could get a console. If I wanted to have a small video player, the Apple TV and other media players were options. But nothing could perform the productivity tasks and has the flexibility of a full PC while maintaining a small desk footprint.
Having the option of not lugging my giant tower—which I've always been terrified of dropping— around to LAN parties and maintaining performance beyond a very high end laptop was also really attractive to me.
The Skull Canyon NUC doesn't necessarily change the landscape for big budget, blockbuster releases which bring the best video cards to their knees, but are those really what the vast majority of people play on a daily basis? The top games currently on Steam are Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Team Fortress 2. When I wrote this, that counted for over 1.5 million players.
From my experience with the computer, the games that see the most amount of play worked perfectly. Frame rates exceeded a hundred per second on CS:GO and TF2.
Combined with the two M.2 solid state drive connections and up to 32gigs of DDR4 RAM, this thing boasts the same power you'd find in a full-sized desktop tower. Except for the obvious exception: the lack of a dedicated GPU.
But that is becoming less of a problem as developers are shifting their focus to the lower powered set-ups. I spoke to Blizzard, creators of the new arena shooter Overwatch, which hit 7 million players in its first week.
"Initially when we started Overwatch, our main goal was to ensure that everyone at recommended spec or higher running at high settings would get 60 frames per second (FPS)," said John Lafleur, one of the technical directors who worked on Overwatch. "That left us a lot of headroom for lower-end systems."
Blizzard has always had a history of supporting every type of PC setup. Overwatch certainly continued this trend.
"I actually have a NUC at home," said Lafleur. "I brought it in and we spent a lot of time looking at a wide variety of systems. We wanted to support as much as graphics hardware as we could. We didn't really think we could go as low as we could, but we ended up supporting a decent amount of the Intel hardware out there."
Overwatch was a completely playable 30+ FPS and MOBAs like League of Legends and Dota 2 ran smoothly and reliably on the the Skull Canyon.
A negative of the entire setup is the cost. Even after you purchase the tiny computer, you still need to pick up RAM and a solid state hard drive. That's going to set you back around $1,000 including the NUC, more in Canada where I am. You can purchase a console or a well budgeted, but much larger, PC with a much more powerful dedicated GPU for that price, or less.
Today's mid-range CPUs are more than enough for mainstream games, meaning an effective graphics processor gives you much more bang for buck.
My suggestion for Intel would be to follow a trend in the r/buildapc subreddit: using a low end CPU combined with high-end graphics equipment. If the chip's architecture allowed for a lower end CPU to be combined with the Iris Pro graphics, like a dual core i3 or i5, I think you'd see very similar performance for a lower entry point.
The Skull Canyon NUC was already in development when more chips with the Iris Pro 580, such as the i5-6685R, were released. Rian Lawson, product review manager at Intel, told me over email they could not include it in the NUC, but there was hope for what would come next.
"Assuming market demand exists as we anticipate, we would look to continue to offer similar products in the future and will continue to listen to customer feedback," said Lawson.
We're on the verge of built-in graphics processors becoming a reliable alternative to expensive graphics cards for most gamers. Even now, millions of Overwatch, Counter-Strike, and League of Legends players can get by without a discrete GPU.