The evolution of computing platforms has left the traditional desktop PC market in a precarious state. However, the miniaturization trend has provided some bright spots. Compact PCs have been around in the mini-ITX form factor for a relatively long time now. The market segment received a massive boost with the introduction of the ultra-compact form factor (UCFF) machines. It all started with the first Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing) based on a Sandy Bridge processor. Every generation since Sandy Bridge has seen multiple NUCs based on the corresponding U-series processors, and Skylake is no different.

Introduction and Setup Impressions

It is not difficult to identify reasons for the popularity of UCFF PCs and Compute Sticks - performance per watt has seen considerable improvement, and much of the average consumer's traditional desktop work can be done with systems sporting a sub-20W TDP CPU. SSDs are becoming smaller and smaller, first with mSATA and now with M.2 form factors. High speed interfaces such as USB 3.0 have also become ubiquitous, removing the need for dedicating storage space inside the chassis for fast access to large amounts of data. The advent of mobile platforms have also made casual gaming quite popular - and power-hungry discrete GPUs are not needed for those. All these trends have enabled powerful palm-sized computers - the Next Unit of Computing.

Intel has been pushing the performance per watt aspect and GPU performance heavily in the last few generations, making each successive NUC generation more attractive than the one before. We have already looked at multiple Broadwell NUCs. The Skylake NUCs currently come in two varieities - one based on the Core i3-6100U and another based on the Core i5-6260U. The i5 version is marketed with the Iris tag, as it sports Intel Iris Graphics 540 with 64MB of eDRAM.

The NUCs have traditionally been barebones machines - the end-user could choose appropriate storage media for the OS, a mini-PCIe WLAN adapter, SODIMMs and an operating system. Starting with the Broadwell NUCs, Intel introduced some changes in the barebones approach. Only M.2 SSDs are supported (though, select models with the 'H' tag allowed for 2.5" drives). In particular, even though the Broadwell NUCs supported both SATA-based and PCIe-based M.2 SSDs, the PCIe links were only PCIe 2.0 x4. That changes in the Skylake NUCs with full support for PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 SSDs. While the Broadwell NUCs came with the Intel AC7265 WLAN adapter soldered, the Skylake NUCs come with the Intel AC8260 adapter soldered to the motherboard.

The specifications of our Intel NUC6i5SYK review configuration are summarized in the table below. We used the same Samsung SM951 NVMe drive that Intel supplied with our review sample of the Broadwell-U Iris NUC. The Skylake NUCs are the first UCFF PCs to move to DDR4 for the SODIMMs. Corsair provided us with their 2x 8GB Vengeance 2400 MHz DDR4 SODIMM kit (the NUC only configured it for operation at 2133 MHz, though).

Intel NUC6i5SYK Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-6260U
Skylake, 2C/4T, 1.8 GHz (Turbo to 2.9 GHz), 14nm, 4MB L2, 15W TDP
Memory Corsair CMSX16GX4M2A2400C16 DDR4
15-15-15-35 @ 2133 MHz
2x8 GB
Graphics Intel Iris Graphics 540 (Skylake-U GT3e)
Disk Drive(s) Samsung SM951 Series MZVPV256
(256 GB; M.2 Type 2280 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe; 19nm; MLC)
Networking Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 8260 (2x2 802.11ac - 867 Mbps)
Intel I-219V Gigabit Ethernet
Audio 3.5mm Audio Jack (Headphone / Microphone)
Capable of 5.1/7.1 digital output with HD audio bitstreaming (HDMI)
Miscellaneous I/O Ports 4x USB 3.0
1x SDXC (UHS-I)
1x HDMI 1.4b, 1x mini-DP 1.2
Operating System Retail unit is barebones, but we installed Windows 10 Pro x64
Pricing (As configured) $675
Full Specifications Intel NUC6i5SYK Specifications

The Intel NUC6i5SYK kit obviously doesn't come with any pre-installed OS. Drivers are available online only. In addition to the main unit, the other components of the package include a 65 W (19V @ 3.43A) adapter, a US power plug, a VESA mount (along with the necessary screws), user manual and a quick-start guide. The kit also includes a promotion for McAfee LiveSafe, but, thanks to the barebones concept, there is no 'bundled bloatware'.

The gallery below takes us around the hardware in the unit.

NUC6i5SYK Review Sample Issues

In the interest of full disclosure, it must be stated that all the benchmark numbers and usage impressions presented in the next few pages are based on the second unit that Intel sent us. Long story short, our first review sample got bricked due to a botched BIOS update, and Intel sent us a pre-configured unit the second time around. However, all benchmarking was eventually done with our own choice of NVMe SSD and DDR4 SODIMMs.

On the first sample (using SODIMMs and a SSD different from what we eventually used), we were not able to install Windows 10, as the unit ended up BSOD-ing within a couple of minutes of starting the installation process. A search online indicated that we were not alone in experiencing such problems. The BIOS version on that sample (0028) was also quite dated. Fortunately, Intel had already seen such issues and indicated that it was due to the DDR4 SODIMM being based on 2133 MHz Hynix modules. The latest BIOS - 0036 - has a new setting in BIOS (Memory tab in Performance) for Round Trip Latency. Disabling this would apparently allow for these SODIMMs to work properly. Unfortunately for us, the BIOS update process ended up getting hung, and a power cycle after 20 minutes bricked the unit. Playing around with the BIOS jumper on the board couldn't recover the unit, and we had to move to the second unit for further benchmarking.

For the second unit, we made sure to use non-Hynix modules. Corsair's supplied SODIMM kit was using DRAM from Samsung, and the second sample that came in already had the latest BIOS (0036) on it. This time around, Windows installed fine. Everything was checking out OK, but, when we started running PCMark 8 workloads, the unit ended up freezing. Our assumption was that Windows update had installed the latest graphics drivers, but, it turned out that we had to manually update it from 4331 to 4352. Updating the drivers helped resolved the freezing issue. After both these showstopper issues were resolved, we were able to proceed with our evaluation process.

Platform Updates

The Skylake NUCs differ from the previous NUCs even from the viewpoint of the chassis, but, before going into that, let us take a look at the Skylake-U platform that enables the updates. The PCH (Sunrise Point-LP) and the processor are integrated in the same package, even though the PCH is fabricated in 22nm, while the processor is in 14nm. The Skylake-U platform has plenty of updates (as shown in yellow in the slide reproduced below), but, relevant to the Skylake NUC is the availability of SDXC 3.0 support in the PCH. Skylake-U also obviously supports DDR4 (as the NUC6i5SYK only supports that), but that is not mentioned in the slide below.

In terms of external design, we have a SDXC slot with support for UHS-I on one side. The HDMI port finally becomes full-sized. The consumer infrared sensor is retained in the front panel. Given that Intel is open to having I/O ports in the side panel, it might not be a bad idea to have a USB 2.0 port or two on one of the sides.

In the table below, we have an overview of the various systems that we are comparing the Intel NUC6i5SYK against. Note that they may not belong to the same market segment. The relevant configuration details of the machines are provided so that readers have an understanding of why some benchmark numbers are skewed for or against the Intel NUC6i5SYK when we come to those sections.

Comparative PC Configurations
Aspect Intel NUC6i5SYK
CPU Intel Core i5-6260U Intel Core i5-6260U
GPU Intel Iris Graphics 540 Intel Iris Graphics 540
RAM Corsair CMSX16GX4M2A2400C16 DDR4
15-15-15-35 @ 2133 MHz
2x8 GB
Corsair CMSX16GX4M2A2400C16 DDR4
15-15-15-35 @ 2133 MHz
2x8 GB
Storage Samsung SM951 Series MZVPV256
(256 GB; M.2 Type 2280 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe; 19nm; MLC)
Samsung SM951 Series MZVPV256
(256 GB; M.2 Type 2280 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe; 19nm; MLC)
Wi-Fi Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 8260
(2x2 802.11ac - 867 Mbps)
Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 8260
(2x2 802.11ac - 867 Mbps)
Price (in USD, when built) $675 $675
Performance Metrics - I
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  • Spunjji - Saturday, March 12, 2016 - link

    I vote you leave the conversation Reply
  • dsumanik - Saturday, March 12, 2016 - link

    vote denied. Reply
  • patrickjp93 - Friday, March 11, 2016 - link

    Nope, with Skylake Iris = 64MB of eDRAM. Iris Pro = 128MB of eDRAM. You're thinking of Broadwell. Reply
  • damianrobertjones - Friday, March 11, 2016 - link

    I have the NUC615SYH model in front of me now with the following:
    -HyperX Impact 16 GB 2400 MHz
    -Samsung 250GB 850 EVO M.2
    -Samsung 850 500GB evo 2.5"

    All okay, updated to the latest firmward, installed Win10 fine BUT, as is often the case, the auto-driver facility from Intel fails to install a few drivers. You have to manually download and install.

    Issues? Yes... The ethernet connection states that there's no internet connection despite being able to get onto the net. No other driver to try at this point in time so I'm using a USB nic.

    All in all not bad.
    Reply
  • blahsaysblah - Friday, March 11, 2016 - link

    NUC5i7RYH
    - G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 16GB (2 x 8G) 204-Pin DDR3 SO-DIMM DDR3 1866 (PC3 14900)
    - Micron M510 M.2 128GB SATA III Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)
    - Intel X25M G2 80GB :)

    Except for updating BIOS, do NOT install any drivers from Intel. You will get random crashes and issues. Only use what Windows Update gives. Has been rock solid once i did a clean install. Intel's Update tool was broken several months back too. Very surprising that it could not install drivers on a NUC.

    From reading the benchmarks, the new 6i5 is a just because release. Unless you really want card reader, but you need a HUB to attack K,M, printer,.. anyway...

    I wish they'd gone another direction.

    It would be nicer if there was a plain office/developer and non HTPC version. Strip out all the radios, SDXC, HDMI,...
    Just
    - TPM,
    - Lan(dual for VMs would be great),
    - DP(1.3 chaining is fine, soon enough real 39"-44" 4k monitors will allow one monitor setups),
    - USB (2 USB 2.0: KB,M; 4 USB 3.0: Webcam, printer, UPS, spare; 2 USB 3.0 front: spare, dedicated cellphone charger)
    - combined headphone/mic
    - 2x M.2 slots. Boot and data. Able to do backups internally. Also for VMs. Running Hyper-V VMs on mine is super smooth.
    - the 2.5" drive option is really out of place/ancient. Without it, the bottom plate could be vented instead of sides.
    - The removal of radios would allow the cooling solution to be almost doubled in size. I personally have the plastic top removed to allow better cooling.

    A non HTPC, office/developer oriented NUC.
    Reply
  • TheinsanegamerN - Friday, March 11, 2016 - link

    2.5" isnt out of place until M.2 can actually catch up. M.2 is still limited to 512GB drives, and a 512GB m.2 cost more than a 1TB 2.5" SSD. And M.2 runs much hotter than 2.5" Reply
  • blahsaysblah - Friday, March 11, 2016 - link

    Having the 5i7 in hand and using it for about 4 months now, the 2.5" is out of place in it. It interferes with cooling of everything on underside. It adds almost 3/4" height to the NUC where it was only 4.53" x 4.37" x 1.26" to begin with.

    Besides a vented bottom plate allowing the RAM, M.2(air flow is all they need) and other chips much better cooling its really the size issue.

    I am running VMs on it with no issue. Taking a tiny NUC with you is much better than a laptop. For all the non-email jobs that require larger display and real keyboard. Again, saying a second non-HTPC line, the HTPC version can be used by folks just doing email.

    The 5i7 was only offered in the larger format. I would not have gotten it given a choice. Hibernate, put in pocket. That 3/4" makes huge difference in usability.

    Just a different point of view. For developers, engineers you need two internal drives and two M.2 drives are just fine.
    Reply
  • kmmatney - Sunday, March 13, 2016 - link

    As someone who uses a lot of VMs, I don't see how this is better than a laptop. Needing power, keyboard, mouse, and a monitor any time you need to use it doesn't sound convenient. I'm the opposite extreme, using a 17" laptop and 1.2TB of SSD space - but it's great for running software development VMs anywhere I need it, and I dock it to a 24" monitor in the office. Reply
  • bsly1314 - Monday, March 14, 2016 - link

    +1. Furthermore, there seems no enough space to include power-loss protection in M.2 SSD. PLP is important for NUC which, unlike laptops, has no battery to act as backup. I live in third world where the electricity fails about once in a month... Reply
  • watzupken - Friday, March 11, 2016 - link

    The real star of the Skylake is the GPU. CPU wise, its not much faster than Broadwell. And quite disappointed in areas where performance actually regress. Reply

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