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Intel Hades Canyon NUC review: Dead impressive

Intel's line of NUC devices are an interesting breed. Standing for Next Unit of Computing, they're compact, barebones PCs designed partly as a showcase for Intel's latest technology and partly as mini-PCs for personal and business use. They're available both pre-configured or as do-it-yourself kits, and the latest model is one of the meatiest and most fully-featured to date.

Intel Hades Canyon NUC review: Design

Designed as an exercise in cramming as much compute performance into as small a space as possible, the Hades Canyon is barely recognisable as a NUC. The original 4in x 4in square of Intel's Next Unit of Computing motherboard layout is nowhere to be found, replaced instead with a wide angular box adorned with a light-up skull decal that glows blue and pinkish-red when the system is powered on - and which, thankfully, can be switched off.

Weighing in at just over 2KG, it's surprisingly heavy for a mini-PC (especially one with no heatsink) and the 222mm width makes it one of the widest entries in this particular category. The upside to this, of course, is that it has allowed Intel to cram it full of ports - which we'll come to shortly.

Intel Hades Canyon NUC review: Specs and performance

The Hades Canyon might be chunkier than its predecessors, doubly so when you take into account the comparatively large external PSU, but that extra bulk helps it shift: when we added our own 16GB of DDR4-2400 memory and a 250GB NVMe SSD in one of its two M.2 slots, this system actually managed a nearly acceptable frame rate in the Unigine Superposition benchmark at 1080p High settings - although with a 21.2fps average, it wasn't the smoothest of experiences.

The chip at the heart of Intel's Hades Canyon NUC8i7HNK is an odd duck: it combines Intel's four-core, eight-thread Core i5-8705G processor with rival AMD's Radeon RX Vega M GL graphics core, creating something more than the sum of its parts. At least, that was the theory behind the companies' partnership.

The Hades Canyon carried itself well in both our image and video editing tests, as well as the multitasking benchmark. It scored an overall total of 136 - although it still found itself slightly at a loss to Asus's similarly sized PB60, which managed 146 overall. That machine's six cores and 12 threads make it more suitable for heavyweight tasks that will take advantage of multiple threads.

All this does come at the cost of power, though. The Hades Canyon is a very power-hungry system indeed, drawing 125W under load, though idling at a more reasonable 15.5W. The machine also relies on active cooling, which thankfully remains surprisingly quiet - even under sustained load and rising temperatures.

Intel Hades Canyon NUC review: Ports and features

Where the Hades Canyon really excels, though, is its connectivity. Its front panel includes no fewer than three USB ports - one USB-A 3.1 Gen 1, one USB-A 3.1 Gen 2 and a USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 - alongside an analogue headset port, a full-size SD card slot and an HDMI port. This latter port can be used simultaneously alongside the HDMI, two mini-DisplayPort, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports at the rear to drive a total of six independent displays. That's even more than the QuietPC Mini Multi Display PC, which is specifically designed as a digital signage system.

The twin Thunderbolt 3 ports are worth a second look, too. Based on the standard that is set to form the heart of USB 4, the Hades Canyon Thunderbolt 3 ports combine USB 3.1 Gen 2 and DisplayPort connectivity with power delivery and PCI Express lanes on a single cable terminated in a USB-C connector. This also means that the Hades Canyon is fully compatible with external graphics card housings, in case the on-chip Radeon graphics aren't doing the trick, or simply used to add high-speed external storage should you fill up the two M.2 slots.

Those who are a little underwhelmed by the performance of the Hades Canyon do have an alternative option to investigate: its bigger brother, the NUC8i7HVK. Marketed by Intel as being "VR-ready", it switches to a faster Core i7-8809G with Radeon RX Vega M GH graphics processor for improved general-purpose and graphics compute performance, albeit for a £130 premium over the model reviewed. In this context, the front-facing HDMI and USB ports make perfect sense, providing an easy way to connect and disconnect a virtual reality headset without needing to start fiddling around the back of the chassis.

Intel Hades Canyon NUC review: Verdict

It's hard not to be impressed by the Hades Canyon, and it's one of the few ultra-compact designs we've seen that could reasonably replace a full-size desktop for basic graphics tasks. It is, however, starting to look a little long in the tooth - as proven by a bundled software offer where the code expired in January 2019. Consequently, with Intel promising to launch new hardware in Q3 2019, anyone looking at the Hades Canyon may want to hang fire and see what its successor offers - but if you're in a rush to buy now, there's little chance the current-generation model will disappoint.

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