Islay Canyon as a Home Theater PC

Recently when I reviewed Intel’s Islay Canyon i7 NUC, I was impressed with the excellent performance and AMD graphics. But I was disappointed they made the decision to solder down the 8GB of RAM. Not being able to upgrade the RAM limits what the NUC can be used for. Still, I saw some potential there for specific applications. An i5 Islay Canyon would make an excellent home theater PC in my thinking. The CPU is plenty powerful, and the AMD graphics should make for great playback. Plus it supports HDR (High Dynamic Range) video.

HDR is one of those things you hear about on newer TVs that seems like another way to separate you from more of your money. But once you’ve seen it in action you realize it’s not a bunch of hype. It really does produce better picture quality and more accurate color. I’m told it works wonders in games, but I’ll leave that to the gamers. For me, I watch content on Netflix through my HDR-capable Roku TV all the time, and the difference is noticeable.

To take advantage of HDR content several things need to line up. Your TV needs to be HDR capable, as does the NUC, and the operating system needs to support it as well. It’s also not as simple as plugging everything in. In many cases, even when your TV supports HDR, it may only support it on one of your HDMI inputs. You may have to enable the feature because for many TVs it’s disabled by default.

Islay Canyon comes with Windows 10 pre-installed, and that’s fortunate because it seems that’s the only easy way to enable HDR. Running Windows generally takes away from the set-top-box feel of an HTPC; It takes longer to boot up, and has an annoying tendency to display pop-up messages while I’m trying to watch something.

This really doesn’t scream “set-top-box”

Input can also be an issue in Windows. Using a remote in Windows doesn’t always get the expected results. My remote doubles as an air mouse, so it wasn’t a huge deal for me. But if your remote is just a remote, you may find yourself reaching for a keyboard and mouse from time to time.

As a first step with Windows I always recommend downloading and installing the latest drivers. In the case of AMD graphics, you’ll want to use their tool rather than Intel’s download center. I started with a driver that was several months old, so upgrading was a no-brainer:

Fortunately the AMD driver utility lets you know when a newer version is available.

Assuming your TV supports HDR and has it enabled, you’ll need to enable it in Windows as well. This is done through the Windows Control Panel, not the AMD utility.

Although there’s plenty you CAN do with the AMD utility

If you have any doubts about your NUC’s HDR capability it’s easy to check:

They keep it simple: yes means yes and no means no

My TV alerts me when I’m viewing HDR content, so after enabling HDR whenever I switched to the NUC, the TV would display an HDR logo in the top right corner to let me know. It goes by pretty quick, so I wasn’t able to get an image of it.

The last step in getting HDR content is the content itself. For the sake of testing I decided to stick with Netflix, so I installed the Netflix app for Windows.

Netflix makes it easy to know whether you’re HDR-ready. When you pull up your content it either says “HDR” or it doesn’t. Before enabling HDR in Windows, this is what I saw for my content:

No I didn’t actually watch this one

After enabling HDR, it looked like this:

Again, it’s kind of a yes or no. If it says HDR, you’re all set

Simple, right?

After watching some Netflix content and confirming HDR makes everything better, I decided to see what I could see with Kodi. I installed Kodi for Windows, and then installed the Youtube add-on.A quick search for 4k HDR produced a bunch of sample videos, like nature scenes and other stuff that showcases the clarity and color.

Certainly not lacking for content

Also available were several clips from recent movies. I played pretty much all of them and the video quality was excellent. I tried enabling/disabling HDR in Windows and playing the videos and didn’t see a difference.

HDR or not, this stuff is beautiful!

So I hit the Googles and learned the built-in player in Kodi doesn’t do HDR. I searched multiple forums and found it’s possible to get HDR by way of an external player. But that would take me out of the Kodi experience, so I didn’t bother.

Next I decided to get rid of Windows entirely and try Libreelec, just to stick it to Microsoft. I don’t hate Microsoft as a company, I’m just sick of the frustrations that come with using Windows.

Might as well be true

Since Islay Canyon comes with 8GB of RAM, it’s unlikely you’d ever use anywhere near all of the memory just by streaming. Still, Windows already uses a good chunk of the RAM just by itself. Unlike Windows, Libreelec’s audio and video configuration is done within Kodi. That’s much preferred to switching between Kodi and Windows to configure drivers and enable/disable features.

I’m a fan of Kodi and Libreelec. Kodi offers tons of flexibility and control, so it’s been my go-to HTPC interface for years. It really lives up to its moniker of “just enough OS for Kodi”, and it makes for fast boots and a clean set-top feel. As mentioned, though, HDR is elusive. Plus watching Netflix in Kodi can be a bit frustrating. It takes patience to get it set up, and using it is nowhere near the clean Netflix experience you get running the Windows app. But I decided to give it a go anyway. Playback on Libreelec was exactly still pretty good, even without HDR, and all content played well. The system was still crazy fast and responsive.

To get the best feel for how well Islay Canyon works as an HTPC, I decided to go back to Windows and use the NUC as my main home theater system for a couple of weeks.The results were interesting.

Playback through the Netflix app was smooth and easy, and playing content through Kodi was a pleasant experience. Menus were quick and responsive, streaming was as good or better than in Libreelec, and even booting didn’t take as long as I expected. Still, there were a couple of things that were a bit disappointing.

First, on multiple occasions Windows decided to pop up a message box during playback in Kodi. It was distracting and annoying, and I found myself waiting for it to happen again. It only happened a few times, but it was enough to remind me why I dislike Windows as a home theater OS. Yes I know there are ways to disable this, but out of the box Windows was like a person constantly checking their phone next to you in a movie theater; not horrible, just annoying.

The other thing I noticed and specific to Islay Canyon itself. When I turned it on, the NUC was a bit louder than my BNH. In fact, I’d say it was the loudest of all my 4X4 NUCs. Whenever 4K content started streaming, the fan kicked it up a notch. It never got to be so loud that it was a problem, but in quieter scenes it was noticeable. I had the NUC right in front of the TV, so if you have yours behind the TV or in a cabinet I doubt it would be distracting under normal use. Just something to consider.

Conclusions

So what have I learned from this? For starters, Islay Canyon does pretty darned well as an HTPC. The i5 version has more than enough CPU power, and the AMD graphics are certainly nothing to sneeze at. Although you can’t upgrade the RAM, 8GB is plenty for streaming. HDR is easy enough to enable in Windows, and I was surprised at how well the NUC did, even with Windows eating up resources. Despite the occasional annoying pop up message, using Kodi in Windows on Islay Canyon worked very well.

That’s the good. The not so good is that without Windows you’re not likely to enjoy HDR content. And the fan is louder than most NUCs, probably to help with keeping that AMD GPU cool.

I’m not quite ready to dump my Baby Canyon home theater setup for Islay Canyon. I can live without HDR for most things, and I do like a quieter NUC. But if you need HDR and don’t mind the RAM limitation or extra fan noise, you could do worse than Islay Canyon.

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I'm a self-described technology nut, as well as a writer. That means the only thing I love more than learning about and playing with new technology is writing about it! Techster means "one who techs", and that's me!

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