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Forget the glowing skull: Intel's $1,000 mini-PC is incredible

It's the smallest VR gaming rig we've ever seen.

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The Intel Hades Canyon NUC. (NUC stands for Next Unit of Computing. It's a marketing thing.)

Josh Miller/CNET

What if I told you there was a desktop computer that could easily fit in any messenger bag, even hang off the back of your monitor, yet had enough power to drive a VR headset and play the latest games at 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution? What if I told you it had more ports than most desktops 10 times its size, too?

I'm not talking hypothetically. The $1,000 Intel Hades Canyon NUC is that computer. I can't believe it exists. Heck, in another universe, it probably doesn't -- because this PC's Intel processor has AMD graphics inside. Yes, even though those two companies have been lifelong rivals.

(US $1,000 converts to roughly £740 or AU$1,270, but we don't have info on international availability yet.)

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Specifically, the 100W Intel Core i7 processor inside this box has integrated AMD Radeon RX Vega M GH graphics, which Intel claims are as powerful as an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 Max-Q. 

Or in plain English: It's very powerful for something this small. I played the notoriously intensive PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and ran a couple Oculus Rift VR games on this machine, and it didn't break a sweat. 

Before I discuss the Hades Canyon too much more, you should know there's a catch: Intel only plans to sell it this spring as a "barebones" PC, meaning you'll need to provide (and install) the SSD, memory sticks and operating system yourself. 

It's not hard -- six screws, lift the out lid, unplug a ribbon cable, another screw, lift the inner lid and you'll find the slots -- but it does mean you're looking at more like a $1,400-$1,500 spend for a game-ready computer.

But once you've got those components in, the Hades Canyon is quite the mini-PC. Intel claims it can drive six 4K monitors simultaneously with its twin full-size HDMI, twin Mini Display Port and twin do-it-all Thunderbolt 3 sockets

Did I mention it's got twin Gigabit Ethernet jacks, 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as well? Plus six USB 3.0 ports, a full-size SD card slot, a USB-C port, a optical audio output and a headset jack. No shortage of ports.

I really like that Intel put one of the HDMI jacks up front, making it easy to plug in my VR headset. And it's pretty neat to have a built-in beam-forming array of four microphones so I can ask Cortana to do things for me from across the room. Those features are rare on any desktop, much less one this small. 

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The front HDMI port is particularly handy for VR headsets.

Josh Miller/CNET

It also bears mentioning that the PC is surprisingly quiet for a computer with two fans -- and if you don't like the glowing skull, you can use Intel's built-in, comprehensive LED control software to turn it off or change it up. Every LED on the system (the eyes, skull outline, power button, and three status LEDs) can be any color you like, and you can make 'em breathe, strobe or simply blink in time with hard drive activity, network activity or Wi-Fi status.

I've still got a lot of testing ahead of me, and I'll have to wait for a finished version of the Hades Canyon before I can do it all. But I'm already liking what I see in this preproduction sample. 

Sure, an inexpensive gaming laptop might be a better deal, but I bet we don't see a smaller, more versatile desktop than the Hades Canyon this year.