Once I got into Windows, I quickly realized that none of the drivers for the NUC were automatically recognized, not even its WiFi radio. I used my Windows desktop to snag those drivers, along with Intel's Display drivers for the NUC. Once those were installed, I had the NUC run through Windows Update several times to fully upgrade the OS and grab all the other relevant drivers. It took about an hour to get the NUC fully up and running. All the while, I had flashbacks to the hours I spent mindlessly installing Windows during my IT days.
With everything set up, I used the NUC for my daily workflow, which involves having dozens of browser tabs open across multiple browsers, chatting on Slack, writing on Evernote, listening to music on Spotify and occasionally editing some photos. For the most part, I was surprised by how normal everything felt. Even though it's running a laptop-grade i7 processor, which produces less heat than its beefy desktop counterparts, the NUC managed to keep up with me every step of the way. Having 16GB of RAM also helps, especially when it comes to multitasking and handling large files. You can definitely hear the system's fan working when things heat up, but that's to be expected with such a small device.
In practice the NUC felt almost indistinguishable from my custom-built desktop, which is particularly surprising given how small it is. This is also the first NUC with decent gaming performance: It had no problem staying at 60 frames per second in 1080p with less demanding games like Transistor and Civilization 5. Quadrilateral Cowboy, with its blocky '80s aesthetic, ran between 35 fps and 60 fps in 1080p. Even Overwatch was playable, reaching between 60 and 70 fps at 720p with low settings. More surprisingly, it ran at around 50 fps in 1080p with low settings. That's a testament both to Blizzard's scaling skills and the amount of power Intel has managed to cram into its Iris Pro 580 graphics.
For some gamers, the Skull Canyon NUC's performance will be fine for LAN parties and competitions. And if you need even more power, you can connect a full-sized graphics card over Thunderbolt 3 using an enclosure similar to the $500 Razer Core (Alienware's $200 Graphics Amplifier is similar, but only works with Dell's hardware). I didn't have one of those to test out, unfortunately, but it's nice to know the capability is there.
My experience with the NUC was reflected in its benchmarks. It's significantly faster than any laptop we've reviewed over the past year, especially when it comes to gaming performance. In fact, it even outdoes Microsoft's Surface Book and its dedicated NVIDIA GPU. We don't review many high-end gaming laptops these days, so we don't have any beefier mobile hardware to which we can compare the NUC, unfortunately. And while I've been testing a slew of desktop GPUs over the past few months, comparing the NUC to one of those feels unfair.
So Intel has built a mini computer that's both portable and capable, but who actually needs it? That's a good question. It's much easier to carry around than previous NUCs and other tiny desktop designs, like Gigabyte's BRIX. Intel is pitching it as something ideal for bringing to LAN parties and other gaming events. You'll still need to bring along a monitor, keyboard and mouse to actually use it, of course. If you're simply looking for something smaller than a typical desktop tower to use at home, there are plenty of small options out there that would likely cost less than the Skull Canyon NUC. And even if you're not worried about the cost, you can still cram more-powerful hardware in other mini-PC cases.
The big takeaway is that this isn't a device meant for everyone. Most people would be fine with a laptop instead (which is hard for me to admit as a desktop fan). While it makes for a powerful home theater PC that can actually play some games, you'd be better off with something like Alienware's Steam Machine. And if you're just concerned about the media side of HTPCs, earlier NUC models are cheaper alternatives (and only slightly larger).
The biggest issue with the Skull Canyon NUC? It's too expensive for most uses. While it's retailing for $609 now (down from around $650 originally), it would likely set you back somewhere around $1,000 once you include the cost of a decent SSD, RAM and a Windows 10 license. It's faster than Apple's highest-end Mac Mini, which goes for $999 with a 2.8GHz dual-core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and 1TB of storage, but I'd argue that's also not the wisest purchase for most. If you want the best tiny desktop replacement, no matter the cost, then the new NUC is for you.
In the end, the Skull Canyon NUC is a statement of intent for PC hardware tinkerers. Behold! A small profile desktop coupled with a surprising amount of power. It might seem impractical today, but in a few years this is what desktops will look like.