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Intel's NUC8i7HVK "Hades Canyon" gaming PC reviewed

A match made in Hades

Back at CES this year, one could say that Hades finished freezing over when Intel revealed the full details of its first products with its own CPUs and Radeon graphics on board. As a brief refresher, eighth-gen Core G-series parts join quad-core Kaby Lake CPUs with a Radeon RX Vega M GH graphics processor and 4 GB of HBM2 RAM, all on one package. Intel added another dash of silicon exotica to G-series CPUs by using one of its Embedded Multi-Die Interconnect Bridges (EMIBs) to snug that HBM2 RAM right up against the Radeon RX Vega M GPU itself.

The Intel Core G-series package.

Intel touted a few design wins for Kaby-G processors at CES, but the most interesting among them was its own Hades Canyon NUC, also known as the NUC8i7HVK. This tiny gaming system displaces just 1.2 L, but it houses the most powerful G-series CPU so far: the Core i7-8809G. With a 100-W package power rating to share between a four-core, eight-thread CPU and Radeon RX Vega M GH graphics, plus fully-unlocked CPU, graphics, and memory multipliers, the i7-8809G is easily the most tantalizing implementation of this unholy union for enthusiasts.

For a system its size, Hades Canyon bristles with more connectivity than even some high-end desktops we've tested. Around front, we get a USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-A port and a USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C port. Digging around in HWiNFO64 shows an ASMedia ASM2142 controller behind those ports, and it's connected directly to the CPU with two of the eight PCIe 3.0 lanes remaining from the CPU (of a possible four from that split). An SD card reader occupies another x1 lane from the CPU, and the remaining three lanes from that bunch go unused. A front-panel HDMI 2.0 port delivers pixels from the Radeon RX Vega M GH. Intel also positions a consumer IR receiver and a quad-microphone far-field array with beamforming on the front of the unit. That mic array should make Hades Canyon useful with voice assistants like Microsoft's Cortana.

On the back panel, buyers get four USB 3.0 ports and two Thunderbolt 3 ports powered by an Intel JHL6540 Alpine Ridge controller that's connected to the HM175 chipset. On top of data transmission, those Thunderbolt 3 ports act as DisplayPort connectors for compatible monitors. They get their pixels from the RX Vega M GH. Two more Mini-DisplayPort 1.2 connectors and an HDMI 2.0 port also run off the Radeon graphics chip. As a result, all of the NUC's dedicated display connections can go hand-in-hand with FreeSync monitors to deliver a tear-free gaming experience.

The lid atop Hades Canyon is easy enough to remove with the included Allen wrench. Doing so reveals a metal frame that supports the RGB LEDs and diffusers beneath this system's customizable skull logo. Only one more screw stands between lifting this frame out of the unit and revealing the user-serviceable parts of the NUC.

Since this is a barebones system, builders will need to bring their own M.2 SSDs and RAM to the party. Our review system came with one of Intel's Optane SSD 800P 118-GB SSDs as its system drive and an Intel SSD 545s 512 GB SATA drive as its auxiliary storage. Some further poking around in HWiNFO64 reveals that Intel hooked up the two M.2 slots inside Hades Canyon to the HM175 chipset, as well. Intel also preinstalls one of its Wireless-AC 8265 cards in the NUC's M.2 E-key slot, and its internal antennas don't clutter up the clean exterior of the unit.

While I would have liked to have shown the cooling system that Intel uses to move heat away from the Core i7-8809G, tearing down the NUC further than we have here is a fraught process thanks to the range of antenna and lighting cables snaking around the edges of the motherboard. The brave folks at Gamers Nexus did fully take apart their unit, however, and their bravery shows us that Intel's heatsink combines a relatively large copper vapor chamber with a pair of fin arrays nestled against a pair of blower fans.

Disassembly challenges aside, I find Intel's PCIe lane routing choices inside this NUC somewhat peculiar. The CPU's PCIe lanes aren't fully tapped even as bandwidth-hungry ports and slots sit behind the DMI 3.0 bus that connects the CPU and chipset. It seems especially odd to me that Intel relegated its gee-whiz Thunderbolt 3 controller to chipset PCIe lanes while putting the SD card reader, of all things, on a direct line to the CPU. Few (if any) games are I/O-bound today, but if gamers ever want to supplement Hades Canyon's onboard graphics with an external graphics card, it'll have to contend with traffic from the other devices hanging off the HM175 chipset.

To power the NUC, Intel includes a massive 230-W power brick that's nearly as large as the unit itself. At 7.8" long by 3.9" wide by 1" thick  (19.9 by 9.9 by 2.5 cm), this brick has to hide somewhere if an owner wants to keep the NUC's desktop footprint to a minimum. This power brick might be the one dent in Hades Canyon's compact cred, although it's not atypical for powerful SFF PCs to require bulky bricks like this one.

Here are all of Hades Canyon's specs, condensed into a handy table:

  Intel NUC8i7HVK (Hades Canyon)
Processor Intel Core i7-8809G
Memory Not included; two DDR4 SO-DIMM slots available
Maximum memory capacity 32 GB
Chipset Intel HM175
Graphics AMD Radeon RX Vega M GH with 4 GB HBM2 RAM
Storage Not included; two M.2 slots with SATA and NVMe support available
Expansion and display outputs Front panel:
One USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-A port
One USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A port with charging capability
One USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C port
One HDMI 2.0 output
One SD card reader
One 3.5-mm combo jack for headphone/microphone
Rear panel:
Four USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A ports
Two Gigabit Ethernet jacks
Two Mini DisplayPort 1.2 connectors
Two Thunderbolt 3 ports
One HDMI 2.0 output
One combo audio/optical mini-TOSLINK jack
Communications Intel Wireless-AC 8265 (802.11b/g/n/ac)
One Intel I219-LM Gigabit Ethernet controller
One Intel I210 Gigabit Ethernet controller
Bluetooth 4.2
Quad-mic far-field array with beamforming
Front-panel consumer IR receiver
Dimensions (W x H x D)  8.7" x 1.5" x 5.6" (221 x 39 x 142 mm)
Power adapter (L x W x H) 230 W
7.8" x 3.9" x 1" (199 x 99 x 25 mm)
OS None included

Intel sells the NUC8i7HVK as a barebones unit without storage, memory, or an operating system pre-installed for $999. That's a lofty price tag, but it's not as high as it might seem at first glance. We put together a Mini-ITX PC powered by an unlocked Core i5-8600K CPU, 16 GB of DDR4-3200 memory, a GeForce GTX 1060 3 GB for roughly comparable graphics performance, and a Mini-ITX Z370 motherboard with Thunderbolt 3 support, all capped off with a 1-TB M.2 version of Crucial's MX500 SSD and a 120-mm closed-loop liquid cooler. Putting 16 GB of DDR4-3200 SO-DIMMs and that same Crucial SSD in a Hades Canyon NUC carries just an 11% premium over those parts, at least at the time we put them together.

What's more, the Cooler Master Elite 110 we chose to house that build has a volume of 15 liters—more than 10 times that of Hades Canyon. Even if you add in the half-liter that Hades Canyon's power brick displaces, a Mini-ITX build will still be larger than this NUC by several times. That exercise suggests it'd be difficult, if not impossible, to match Hades Canyon's potential performance-per-liter with off-the-shelf parts, not to mention that few Mini-ITX motherboards can challenge this system's massive array of connectivity options. On the whole, Intel has put together a uniquely high-end yet truly compact system in this NUC.

What's in a name?
We covered the Radeon RX Vega M GPU's performance potential in depth in our launch coverage, but some questions have arisen recently over just what's in a name with this graphics processor. Gordon Ung at PCWorld noticed that the AIDA64 utility returns "Polaris 22" as the internal code name for Radeon RX Vega M graphics, and that the DirectX feature-level support of that chip hews closer to Polaris graphics cards than it does to Vega products. Further testing by Paul Alcorn at Tom's Hardware suggests the RX Vega M GPU doesn't have Vega's next-generation compute units inside—or at least that they aren't fully enabled—since it doesn't accelerate half-precision workloads with Vega's Rapid Packed Math capabilities in the same way that desktop Vega graphics chips (and Raven Ridge APUs) do.

Intel's response to this line of inquiry is that Vega M is "a custom Radeon graphics solution" that's "similar to the desktop Radeon RX Vega solution with a high bandwidth memory cache controller and enhanced compute units with additional ROPs (Render Output Units)." It's worth taking Intel at its word here, since we don't know just what the blue team's design goals were when it began development of the Vega M GPU with AMD. That said, it would be a bummer if Vega M doesn't actually support headlining Vega features like Rapid Packed Math, the Draw Stream Binning Rasterizer, or the Next-Generation Geometry Path. Those features could become more useful with time, and it'd be a shame if Vega M can't take advantage of their benefits.