Skylake NUC as HTPC
In this last part of our Skylake NUC Review we check out how well the NUC is suited for HTPC use. After all, the small size, quiet fan, low power consumption and the understated looks of the box all are characteristics often desired from a home theater PC.
HDMI 2.0 and HEVC Decoding
There are two things that people will keep pointing that this thing lacks: HDMI 2.0 output for 4k at 60 fps and hardware accelerated decoding of 10-bit HEVC video. And let’s be frank, those people would be correct. I would also have liked to see both features in this NUC.
Why these two are important? The current generation HDMI 1.4 interface found from most PCs, this NUC included, does not have enough bandwidth to transport 4k image at 60 frames per second. 60 fps is not typically used in movies, but there is small amount of high frame rate 4k content out there – I’d expect more in the area of sports in the future. HDMI 2.0 has the bandwidth and modern 4k televisions do include a HDMI 2.0 connector, but you would need HDMI 2.0 interface in the NUC as well. What about the DisplayPort then? DisplayPort 1.2, included also in the NUC, is capable of transporting 4k at 60 fps. However, there are very few televisions with DisplayPort connectors (though there are many 4k computer monitors with DisplayPort in case you’re planning to use the NUC with one). Panasonic has a few highend televisions with DisplayPort. DisplayPort to HDMI 2.0 converters haven’t yet appeared in the market widely. One interesting candidate is the Club 3D Active MiniDP 1.2 to HDMI 2.0 adapter.
10-bit HEVC decoding is another story. If your content is encoded in 10-bit HEVC format there’s no hardware accelerated decoder for that in the NUC. The CPU of the NUC is not fast enough to do the decoding for 4k video. Most of the content today is 8-bit only, so it’s not that big of thing really. However, the new 4k Bluray format specifies 10-bit format to be used. This might increase the popularity of the 10-bit content in the future…
Ok, now that we’ve got that one out of way, let’s see how the Skylake NUC works as a HTPC.
Kodi in Windows 10
To test the HTPC performance in Windows, I installed Kodi 16 Beta 4. It’s important to use the new Kodi 16 version, as that supports the hardware HEVC decoding capabilities of the Skylake. Otherwise you’ll end up using the CPU for all your decoding and that won’t do any good if you’re trying to watch any 4k material.
Kodi runs on the NUC as well as on any modern machine. There’s no lag, no skipping video. Full HD, 4k, all seems to work just as I want. I was especially happy to see that 4k@60fps 8-bit HEVC material was running smoothly on the NUC, with very low CPU usage. Playback of 10-bit HEVC material at 4k resolutions was not a success, as the NUC does not support hardware accelerated decoding of 10-bit HEVC. Thus CPU is used for the decoding and there isn’t enough power in the i3 processor to handle that.
OpenELEC is a free operating system that’s built to run Kodi and be as appliance-like as possible. Once you’ve installed it, you don’t need to worry about the operating system under the hood – you can just use your computer as a set top box in the living room.
I started out by installing standard OpenELEC 6.0, which I expected to work just fine for anything below 4k. However, when booting up I was greeted with an error message “failed to start xorg, is your GPU supported?” and the system failed to start. As it turns out, the new HD Graphics 520 GPU in the Skylake NUC was not supported by the drivers included in OE 6.0.
Luckily there’s a development build that has full 4k and HEVC support for Intel GPUs, see the post here: kodi.tv forum (and download the Isengard build). I installed the build OpenELEC-Generic.x86_64-6.0.98-fritsch and it seems to support the Skylake GPU just fine. I also wanted to see if it is possible to install OpenELEC on a SD card instead of the internal SATA drive and can confirm that this was all fine as well. The system is able to boot the operating system from the SD card.
With the OpenELEC development build all is good:
- Does it support proper 23.976 Hz refresh rate? Yes
- Can it decode full HD video at high bitrates? Yes
- Can it upscale SD video using lanczos3 algorhitm? Yes
- Can it deinterlace SD and HD video with advanced methods? Yes (MCDI and yadif)
- Does it run heavier skins like Aeon MQ5 ok? Yes
- Can it decode H.264 video at 4k resolutions 60 fps? Yes
- Can it decode HEVC video at 4k resolutions 60 fps? Yes
The WiFi adapter as well as the Gigabit Ethernet adapter were supported directly out of the box. Although I experienced bad WiFi performance before loading a newer version of the Intel wireless firmware into the box. In OpenELEC you can temporarily update the firmware by running the following commands:
mkdir -p /storage/.config/firmware cd /storage/.config/firmware wget https://git.kernel.org/cgit/linux/kernel/git/iwlwifi/linux-firmware.git/plain/iwlwifi-8000C-17.ucode reboot
I expect the next version of OE have both Skylake GPU support and the WiFi firmware in place.
Just for the sake of it, I installed Ubuntu Desktop Linux 15.10 on the NUC. No problems during the installation. WiFi adapter worked straight out of the box and even during the installation. Bluetooth and Ethernet adapter work as well.
Skylake NUC seems to be a worthy successor to the Broadwell model. It’s not bringing much new innovative features (well, DDR4 memory is a first for a NUC) and it does not have all the goodies we would have liked to see, but it is a good upgrade from last years Broadwell model. Performance gains were bigger than we were expecting and it is capable of hardware decoding 8-bit HEVC video. Also, it has gained an SD card reader and there’s a proper HDMI-CEC connector on the mainboard now. All in all, the evolution of the NUC moves to the correct direction and the product has become more polished.
Gaming performance was surprisingly good, keeping the context in mind. It was apparent that some games are actually going to be playable with this thing. Obviously it cannot compete with more power-hungry CPUs and discrete GPUs, but we found titles like Heroes of the Storm and Dirt 3 to be enjoyable.
Furthermore, the Skylake NUC6i3SYH (NUC6i3SYK as well) makes as nice HTPC as expected. It’s not the perfect 4k future proof HTPC due to the lack of HDMI 2.0 and 10-bit HEVC decoding, but I guess for those features we might need to wait one more year. In the mean time Skylake NUC makes for a great HTPC both in Windows and Linux environments. However, if you’d like to build a Linux-based HTPC with a bit lower budget, take a look at the Braswell model that also has HEVC decoding capabilities.
If you’re interested in one, visit our resident guru, the NUC Guru, who can recommend you parts that are known to work with each other.
Read the Other Parts of the Review
Read also the previous parts of the article: