Whenever I receive a new NUC to review, the first thing I do is see what I can find online about it. I want to know going in what this new model brings to the table; what’s new, what’s different, what makes it unique. In the case of Crimson Canyon, I didn’t need to look far to see what makes it different. Intel’s press release explains the big news pretty well:
“These NUCs are powered by the 8th Gen Intel Core i3-8121U processors
(formerly code-named Cannon Lake) and are the first mainstream NUCs
to feature discrete graphics”
Discrete graphics, courtesy of AMD. Yes, Hades Canyon includes AMD graphics, but that was an on-chip solution. Crimson Canyon’s graphics is a separate chip entirely. And let’s be honest; as great as NUCs are, one area they’ve received less than glowing reviews is graphics performance. Skull Canyon improved the graphics dramatically, and Hades Canyon blew everyone away. But in the 4″ X 4″ form factor NUCs, there hasn’t been much to scream about, graphics-wise. This should be a welcome change. Intel even calls Crimson Canyon an “affordable mainstream gaming option for playing some of today’s most popular games at 1080p.” Quite a claim for a NUC.
And there are other changes like turbo clock speeds, and the fact that this is the first NUC to use a 10nm CPU. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from scratch and see just how different this NUC is from previous models.
As a complete system (as opposed to a kit), Crimson Canyon comes populated with memory and storage, and can be purchased in one of two variations: NUC8i3CYSN, which comes with 4GB of RAM, and NUC8i3CYSM, which comes with 8GB of RAM. Other than the memory, the two are identical, and both include Windows 10 Home (64-bit) pre-installed on a 1TB HDD. I received the CYSM model for evaluation. You can review the full specs using the links above, but here are some of the stand-out features
- 10nm: This is the first NUC model to take advantage of Intel’s 10nm technology. For the end user that makes zero difference, but it’s still an important hurdle for Intel.
- 15W TDP
- This model, as with most previous NUCs, supports voltages between 12v and 19v.
- As with previous NUCs, Crimson Canyon comes with a full three year warranty.
Crimson Canyon uses the Intel® Core™ i3-8121U Processor (4M Cache, up to 3.20 GHz), which is only a 2 core processor with a base frequency of 2.2GHz. However, it does crank up to 3.2GHz in turbo, so there’s that. I’m surprised that Intel is positioning this as a gaming system, even with AMD graphics, as the 2.2GHz i3 seems a bit under-powered. But I’m not a gamer, so I could be wrong about that.
Memory & Storage
As stated, Crimson Canyon comes populated with a 1TB HDD in its 2.5 inch drive bay. It also includes a 4-lane PCIe m.2 slot for an SSD or Optane module. If you’re not crazy about HDD performance, you’d need to migrate Windows to an SSD, or install an Optane module to jack up your HDD. I’ll be trying the Optane route on this unit in a follow-up post.
Also included is an SDXC memory card slot on the side. This is one of those NUC features that I didn’t see the value in originally, but have since become a convert. On my NUCs that have it, I use it regularly.
The CYSN model includes 4GB of DDR4-2400 RAM, while the CYSM variant includes 8GB. What’s interesting is that 8GB is also the maximum RAM it supports. I find this disappointing, as 8GB just doesn’t feel like enough. Yes, the GPU has its own RAM, so you’re not siphoning from the system RAM, but still, a 16GB would have been nice. 8GB is plenty to run Windows, but a little future-proofing never hurts. Still as a “budget” system, it’ll do.
Another new twist for this NUC is that there are no accessible RAM slots, so upgrading isn’t an option.
Not much new in the I/O specs.
- 6 USB Ports, 4 external USB 3.1, 2 internal USB 2.0 via header
- Audio (back channel + front channel)7.1 digital (HDMI); L+R+mic (F)
- Integrated LAN10/100/1000
- Integrated Wireless‡Intel® Wireless-AC MAC
- Integrated Bluetooth
- Consumer Infrared
- 2 HDMI 2.0b
I’ve never tried RAID using a 2.5″ and m.2 drive. Might make for an interesting experiment.
Two full-size HDMI 2.0b ports give you immediate dual monitor capabilities. There’s no USB C port, so a third monitor would require a GoRite lid (which would only have USB 2.0 performance because of the headers), or other third party USB solution.
As I mentioned, Optane is supported in the m.2 slot. vPro and TPM are a no-go, but you do get all of these:
What’s in the Box
The box includes the usual goodies: mounting plate, screws, and power adapter.
The included power supply is more powerful. Where other i3 NUCs have included a 65w wall wart or brick, this power brick is 90w. Just a guess, but I’d say it’s to accommodate the larger power draw from the AMD GPU.
The unit I received came in a plain box, so I don’t know what else the retail packaging will include. I’d assume a CPU sticker and getting started pamphlet.
The big change from previous NUCs appearance-wise is the venting on the sides. Rather than the ventilation slots we’re accustomed to, this model has screen-style ventilation.
Personally, I like it. It gives the NUC a bit of an industrial feel. One of the first things I noticed with this new style, too, is that if you hold the NUC up to the light you can see right through it.
Beyond the venting, this NUC looks very much like NUCs of the past. Same gunmetal grey finish, same shiny black lid (don’t get me started). Yes the lid is removable, so you can swap it out for something sturdier, or one that adds ports.
On the back you get your dual HDMI ports, dual USB 3.1 ports, and the gigabit ethernet jack. As far as I know, this is the first NUC design to have the power connection dead center in the rear of the unit, rather than off to one side.
I can’t see an up or down side to that change, but time will tell if it matters.
Under the Hood
Removing the back plate, I was a bit surprised by what I saw. I’ve worked with so many NUCs, I fully expected to see a SATA and power cable for the 2.5″ drive. Instead, a single ribbon cable connects power and data to the drive cage.
This is a welcome change. The previous design often seemed to keep the cables too short, so I had to choose between disconnecting both cables or propping the drive cage up to work on the internals. And the SATA connector in the old design was a tight fit, so I whenever I needed to disconnect it, I had to tug pretty hard. This ribbon cable is plenty long enough to allow the cage to be set flat next to the NUC and still be connected. I love that.
The ribbon cable feels thin, and I wouldn’t want to be disconnecting and reconnecting it multiple times. But it’s also long enough that you really shouldn’t need to disconnect it at all. I did remove it and re-seat it, and it was surprisingly easy.
I also like the fact that ribbon folds flat. It’s much easier to reattach the rear plate with the ribbon cable. The previous design with two cables often meant a little maneuvering to get the plate to seat well.
I’ll have to get over my irrational phobia of ribbon cables that started when I accidentally tore one on a laptop years ago. Not my proudest moment, and they’ve made my hands sweat ever since.
There are no exposed memory slots on the board, so what you’re left with are the two USB 2.0 headers, the CEC header, and the m.2 slot. No other need to get under the hood.
I had a couple of surprises on the first boot up. First, over the years I’ve gotten used to the power button/LED combo doubling as your HDD/SSD activity indicator. I expected the same here. Instead, there’s a separate LED on the left of the front for HDD activity. I have to say, I’m a fan. I like not having the power and HDD LEDs combined, and this is much less distracting than the LED ring on previous models.
The other thing I noticed was there appears to be something alive inside the NUC…something green:
I cracked open the unit and powered it back on and found the green glow is a tiny LED next to the 2.5″ drive cage connector:
It reflects off the white label of the HDD, and the result is an eerie glow that can be seen from the sides. Kind of neat actually. I can’t imagine the designers doing this on purpose.
It seems more like serendipity that the LED is positioned right in front of the HDD label, and the label happens to be bright white. If I were designing the next generation of NUCs, I’d look into this a little. You could do some cool things with different LEDs and a little white tape.
Windows on a Hard Disk Drive
I use NUCs exclusively for my workstations, so I’m used to SSD performance. When I first learned this model included only an HDD, I was a little concerned that Windows boot and load times would suffer. The initial boot up and Windows setup was indeed a bit slower than I’m used to. SSDs have spoiled me. Installing applications (like PCMark) was noticeably slower. Moving around, opening apps, and copying files all felt sluggish. Not terrible, just a little dialed back. Like the smartest kid in school, only they went out drinking the night before the test.
Everything works, but it’s a longer wait for the answers to come. As I mentioned previously, I plan to try adding an Optane module. When I do that, I’ll be sure to capture before & after boot times for comparison. For now, it’s good enough.
For performance testing, I went back to my favorite benchmarking tool, Performance Test by Passmark. Going in, I expected to see two things for Crimson Canyon: 1) improved graphics numbers, as compared to previous i3 NUCs, and 2) a decrease in disk performance when comparing it to NUCs running SSDs.
For Graphics, we start with 2D performance:
As you can see, there is indeed an improvement in 2D numbers. Calling it a “large” improvement might be a bit of a stretch, but it’s there.
Now 3D performance:
Now we’re getting somewhere. The 3D numbers are nearly triple that of the Intel GPU. On the overall scale, the numbers still don’t look all that great, but remember that range includes everything out there, and we are talking about an entry-level i3 system. The question is whether it’s enough to make actual gaming doable on Crimson Canyon.
The quote from Intel’s newsroom reads:
Designed with the right balance of performance and affordability, the
new Intel NUC mini PCs (NUC8i3CYSM, NUC8i3CYSN, formerly code-named
Crimson Canyon) are an affordable mainstream gaming option for playing
some of today’s most popular games at 1080p, including “League of Legends*”, “TF2″* and “CS:GO”*.
Not being a gamer, I have never seen any of these games. But it looks like for this to be anything approaching a useful review, I’m going to have to try at least one of them. I settled on TF2, which is short for Team Fortress 2. It’s available for free play on Steam, and fortunately I still had my account from long ago. Installing and starting the game the first time felt sluggish. Again, I’ve been spoiled by SSDs. Once the game menu was up, though, everything ran smoothly. I’m not including screen shots as I have no idea what the legal requirements are for using them.
For whatever reason, the game designers decided to have the game start in the worst possible resolution. I had to switch the settings to widescreen, then to 1080P. The game did indicate 1080P was the native resolution. Once I did that, the picture was excellent. Images were crisp and smooth, and during game play everything was responsive. I didn’t notice any lag in the game, and it was surprisingly easy for me to get caught up in the game. The training portion alone made my hands sweat by popping non-moving targets up right in front of me. I can see why this is a popular game. It reminded me of the old games I used to play, like Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force, only it was goofy enough to not be too stressful. The NUC handled game play flawlessly, and even with the HDD I didn’t notice any lag or delay.
Crimson Canyon is a mixed bag. I love the new look with the screens on the sides, and who can argue with discrete AMD graphics. It has a nice feature set, comes as a complete Windows system, and gives you everything you need to get started in light gaming. The AMD graphics do provide a sizable improvement over the Intel GPUs of past i3 NUCs, and I’m really happy with the improvements to connectivity for the HDD drive cage. Ribbon cables make me nervous, but this setup seems to be well thought-out.
I’m disappointed with the 8GB maximum RAM and while the 1TB HDD gives you plenty of storage, it’s just too slow for me compared to SSDs. While there’s not much that can be done about the max RAM, the HDD slowness can be solved in a couple of ways. I’ll follow this review up with some testing of this unit with an Optane module. That should prove interesting.
All in all, Crimson Canyon is a solid, if slightly hamstrung, addition to the ever growing NUC family.