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Week in Tech: Ultra-SFF Gaming FTW?

Could it be true? That here in my mortal hand I do hold a nugget of purest gaming? Not exactly. It's the latest and tiniest NUC, Intel's so-called 'Next Unit of Computing'. It's a full-function PC with Intel's best graphics ever. And it's claimed to sport pukka gaming chops. Meanwhile, Valve has been punting SteamOS, the whole Steam Box thang is still on – as far as I know - and Xi3's Piston has been priced up at a preposterous $1,000. Chuck all that into the mix and you might wonder whether the NUC looks a lot like a entry-level Steam Box, on the hardware side at least. And if so, does the small-form-factor gaming thing add up?

I should say up front that I struggle to wrap my head around the Steam Box and SteamOS effort. For my money, Gabe Newell's anti-Windows 8 rants don't quite add up. And I'm not at all convinced about the viability of Linux as the basis of a platform to replace the traditional Wintel box as the gamer's non-console weapon of choice.

Certainly, I don't claim to be privy to all the politics involved. But I do know that Steam Box and SteamOS will do very well to leap hurdles like graphics driver quality and major game developers who may not necessarily want to help Valve become a dominant gaming OS provider.

Fancy a bit of NUCie?
Anyway, what about the NUC? As you can see from the picture, it's absolutely puny. We're talking 11cm square and 3.5cm deep. The model I've been playing with packs a dual-core Intel Core i5 mobile CPU, the same chip as found in the latest MacBook Air I do believe. Intel also threw in a 180GB SSD, a wireless adapter and 8GB of RAM, all of which you'll have to pay extra for.

Oh, yeah, and the graphics. In this case, it's Intel HD Graphics 5000. Not the fancy new Intel Iris Graphics. Except, in reality, it is. Intel's branding is consistently awful these days, so it's not a huge revelation to find the HD 5000 graphics core is indeed the latest variant with 40 execution units.

It's exactly the same core as Iris, just a little lower clocked. And obviously it lacks the funky 128MB of EDRAM that comes with Iris Pro. Not that Iris Pro is terribly relevant to man nor beast. Intel has made it so expensive, you can have a much faster discrete GPU for similar money.

This is what 180GB of modern, ultra-fast storage looks like. Is it just me, or does my hand look weird? In fact, aren't hands just weird? Anyway...

Whatever, what we're really concerned with here is small-form-factor gaming. If you want the full skinny from me on the latest NUC, grab a copy of ye olde print rag PC Format next month. It's all in there.

While I'm mad for big-iron gaming rigs, I also love the idea of a super-compact system that's simple to spec and gets the job done when it comes to gaming. If it's cheap enough, it's the sort of thing I could put to all kinds of uses. Gaming on my projector. The basis for an occasional PC in the kitchen. You get the idea.

Stick on Steam
The point is that it needn't be an absolute gaming beast. It just needs to be viable. So let's chuck Steam on this thing and find out what she'll do. There are plenty of benchmarks out there, so I'll stick largely with the subjectives. What does it actually feel like?

First up, a spot of ye olde Counter-Strike: Source. Impressively, the NUC shakes that one off with ease, even at 2,560 by 1,440 on a 27-inch panel. I didn't bother measuring the frame rates. I just played.

Granted, we're not talking tournament-level frame rates. But the NUC is thoroughly playable and when playing it looks like this. The same goes for some classic gaming in the shape of closely-related Half-Life 2. In its way, HL2 still looks damned fine. Here's a screen grab straight off the NUC.

NUC has no problem doing this at 2,560 by 1,440.

Of course, it's not a massive surprise to find some legacy stuff playing pretty well. What about the latest clobber? We'll go easy and arcadey at first with Grid 2. Knock it down to 1080p and medium settings and frame rates in the mid 20s are your reward and the IQ looks like this.

Could I enjoy Grid 2 on the NUC? To be honest, I struggle to really enjoy arcadey clobber like that courtesy of Titan and a 4K screen. But in terms of playability it's marginal, though there's scope for crushing the quality further and freeing a few more frames.

The last and easily most brutal test is Metro: Last Light. It's a handy yardstick because it's absolutely beautiful, it's bang up to date and it absolutely monsters graphics subsystems. Critically, there's also only so low you can go with the graphics settings. Even set to minimum, this is a good looking and very demanding game.

This is a bit of a chore at 1080p.

But it's a bit too much for the NUC at 1080p. It feels very sluggish and that's reflected in frame rates only just into double figures much of the time. It's not literally unplayable. But it's unpleasant and there's no scope for unleashing a few more fps except reducing the resolution.

Depending on your choice of display, you could drop the pixel count to 1,280 by 720, of course. But I'd say that only makes sense with native 720p displays. Because the NUC's - or rather the Intel HD Graphics' - non-native interpolation is absolutely minging.

Where does all that leave us? I desperately want the NUC to be viable. It's a very nice device and its graphical prowess is impressive when you think back to the days when Half-Life 2 was cutting edge. It just goes to show how far things have progressed that it's now playable at beyond-HD resolutions on such a small box. It's worth noting, too, that all the games I tried ran flawlessly and without a hitch.

And this is just a bit of a bore at any resolution or IQ setting.

But I also desperately want NUC to be a lot cheaper. For a fully functioning NUC like this one, you're looking at roughly £500. Which is about £200 too much to be really attractive. That's a pity, because the NUC is a genuinely desirable bit of kit.

It's that painful Intel pricing again
The real problem in terms of pricing is Intel's CPUs. They've drifted out of control thanks to lack of real competition from AMD to the extent that Intel now charges $340 alone for the CPU inside the NUC. That leaves zero scope for sensible NUC pricing.

In that context, I suppose the fact that the NUC and in turn Intel's latest graphics falls tantalisingly short of true gaming viability is something of a mercy. It also tells us that affordable SFF gaming hasn't arrived yet. In this spec, Intel's 40-unit graphics is comparable to the fastest AMD integrated graphics in its APUs.

So the only faster integrated graphics are found in even more expensive and even more irrelevant Intel CPUs. And, anyway, I doubt the faster Iris cores are true gaming items, either.

So, we're very, very close to a scenario where you can make an argument for something like the NUC as a general gaming box. Maybe just a single generation of CPUs and 12 months away. And it may well be Intel that pulls it off first. But we're still not quite there.

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