Intel hosted its GDC media conference at The Box meeting venue in San Francisco, and the company demonstrated its commitment to the gaming community. Intel sees gaming market as a leading entertainment revenue driver by 2019-2021 (in alignment with predictions by Jon Peddie Research, Gartner, Gaming Business Review, DBI Intelligence etc.), and is making steps to make gaming pervasive entertainment experience.
The company reorganized its desktop division last year and instituted new executive team that focuses on improving the gaming experience. One of results of those moves were focusing on human resources and bringing talented engineers back from mobile and other business divisions. We discussed this newly found focus with key Intel people, and we could say that 2016 is going to mark the ‘return of the skull’.
Meet the Skull Canyon
The result of this concentrated effort is Skull Canyon. This gaming system is probably the smallest powerful gaming PC we’ve seen so far. Just 0.7 liter capacity (for our metric-impaired readers, that’s less than a single Big Gulp) packs an 45 Watt mobile Core i7-6770HQ processor. This is a top-of-the-range Skylake-S processor with Iris Pro P580 graphics, which our readers also know as GT4e. So far, the P580 graphics was only present in a limited number of high-end Xeon E3 processors.
The processor packs four CPU cores with HyperThreading and 72 GPU cores (Execution Units in Intel’s nomenclature). This Multi-Chip Module (MCM) also brings a 128 MB of dedicated eDRAM. Introduced with the previous Broadwell architecture, the 128 MB of eDRAM accelerates the graphics processor, or becomes an L4 cache if the iGPU is disabled. For Skylake architecture, Intel significantly improved functionality of the built in eDRAM which no longer operates as an L4 cache. Instead, the 128 MB eDRAM acts like a DRAM buffer and is completely invisible to the software. We were unable to confirm were there any improvements to the eDRAM bandwidth. On previous Broadwell processor, 128 MB offered 50GB/s bi-directional bandwidth (100 GB/s total).
If you are a gamer, then this eDRAM functionality will the one which you will use the most. Skull Canyon comes with Thunderbolt 3 and full support for the recently introduced AMD XConnect technology.
Intel Befriends AMD Through Razer
When AMD introduced XConnect technology, the company said they worked hand in hand with Razer and Intel. By developing driver technology which enables ‘hot plugging’, XConnect can power an internal display on a laptop (through Thunderbolt 3), or an external display through built-in connects on the graphics card. Razer priced its enclosure at steep $499, quite higher than Alienware’s Amplifier, a $299 upgrade. However, Razer’s Core eGPU is system agnostic and will work on practically any Thunderbolt 3-equipped system you can find.
In its barebone configuration, Skull Canyon will set you back for $649.99. Adding SO-DIMM memory, M.2 SSD and an operating system will raise the price upwards of $1000. AMD’s XConnect graphics upgrade is a combination of $499.99 for the Razer Core and $459.99 for XFX R9 Nano (undoubtedly the best value card for VR you can buy today) or $469.99 for GigaByte’s overclocking-friendly R9 Fury. Still, this solution will last for generations to come – and you can simply upgrade Intel’s tiny boxes and keep AMD’s XConnect nicely upgraded – start with Hawaii, Tonga ili Fiji, and then move to Polaris / Vega / Navi.
Upcoming Skull Canyon is definitely the most powerful NUC so far – and one of most powerful compact gaming rigs on the market. It is as big as your home modem or a compact Wi-Fi router, yet packs scorching performance. Processor – best Intel can make at this point in time. Memory opens the market for ultra-fast, auto-clocking SO-DIMM memory modules, such as DDR4-2666 HyperX from Kingston. Storage can go from M.2 modules which pack the same speeds as the SATA ones to extremely fast drives like the HyperX Predator or Samsung 950 Pro.
In any case, it is borderline crazy how small this system is. It is not for everybody, but it is impressive to see how much effort Intel is putting into eSports and gaming as a whole. From another point, it seems like the whole industry is coming together, and in these partnerships everyone wins (or loses): Intel will sell more processors, Razer can sell more Core eGPU’s, and AMD gets a prime position with its powerful Radeon graphics.