Under the Hood

It’s only when you open up the GR8 II (via a removable panel that exposes the case screws) that you see just how compact it is.

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Not are you getting that awesome custom case, but check out the cute custom motherboard, full size GPU, hard drive and M.2 storage module, Wi-Fi adapter and more. Obviously, there’s not a huge amount of airflow inside the case and accessing the other side of the motherboard will require significant disassembly. But RAM and storage upgrades will be easy.

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If you want any proof of ASUS’ attention to detail on the GR8 II , check out the ROG logo on the PC’s internal chassis.

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Unlike other ASUS devices, the GR8 II isn’t bundled with a host of “value added” extras. In box you’ll find the PC, the power adapter and a couple of pamphlets. So, it’s straight to business.

Power on the PC and you’ll discover that ASUS couldn’t quite maintain their conservatism. Front facing light pipes immediately sprint to life, cycling a rainbow of colours that’s you’ll either love or hate. In a desktop location, the LED light show actually works well – particularly in the dark – but if you place the PC under the big screen, you’ll most likely wish to disable it.

Fortunately, the GR8 II supports ASUS Aura lighting controls (as well as the ability to disable the LEDs in BIOS), so you can extinguish the RGB LEDs with a couple of clicks. Alternatively,  select an alternative lighting scheme from a host of available options. Static colours, breathing effects, waves, strobing, temperature monitoring and music synchronization – they’re all here and more. It’s a similar line up to what you’ll find on ASUS ROG motherboards and ROG/STRIX GPUs from the last twelve months, but made more impactful with LEDs integrated into the front of the chassis.

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The other aspect of the GR8 II you’ll notice when you hit the power button is fan noise. There are always going to be compromises when dealing with powerful components in a small chassis and, for this PC, its acoustics. ASUS claims that the GR8 II emits a noise output of just 23dB when idle, but you can expect the chassis fans to kick up more of a fuss when the PC warms up. Even simple I/O tasks, like updating the GPU drivers, raise fan noise to noticeable levels – similar to a gaming console like the original Xbox One . It’s masked by your speakers in gameplay or during music and video playback, but it’s there.

ASUS bundles the GR8 II with Windows 10 Home , which lacks some of the more powerful features of the Pro Edition but is a decent value pick for mainstream gaming and media PC. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to spot the so-called “value-added” software that OEMs bundle with their PCs amongst the onslaught of “recommended” apps that Microsoft throw your way, but the selection seems reasonable.

ASUS includes a handy Command app that allows you to easily manage aspects of the PC, including power management, application, driver and BIOS updates, a USB Lock feature and Backup – although some of these replicate core Windows functionality. You can also customise the boot logo, should you really wish (or have the time).

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Otherwise, it’s a similar application lineup to what you’d find bundled with a ROG motherboard. GameFirst IV offers gaming oriented application and network monitoring, there’s an anti-virus package (Kaspersky) and support for ASUS’ RAMCACHE II application alongside ASUS’ audio suites, Sonic Studio 3 and Sonic Suite 3.

The former allows precise control of the GR8 II’s SupremeFX audio technology, including a Texas Instruments RC4580 op amplifier, with a range of studio effects and equaliser sliders.

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Sonic Radar 3 is used to enhance (cheat at) gaming, with an on-screen overlay that shows direction that opponent audio is coming from. Fun, if non-essential, stuff.

Performance

So on to performance. With such a compact, but powerful PC like the ASUS ROG GR8 II , we’re looking for decent frame rates with modern games at high quality settings as well as strong media performance. However, we also need to see how the PC’s chassis handles temperature control. I mentioned that the GR8 II was reasonably noisy at startup, so I was interested to see the PC’s idle temperatures.

I was a little concerned to see an idle CPU temperature of 42 °C, but it’s understandable, given the size of chassis and limited airflow. Certainly, it provides an explanation for the fan noise. The GTX 1060 GPU idled at 29 °C, which was  fine. How both performed under pressure remained to be seen!

 

The answer is… pretty well, actually. Under stress, I saw single-core CPU temperature spikes in the early 80s, but the maximum average temperature was reported at 65 °C. The GPU also stayed reasonably cool under stress, maxing out around 60 °C,  so while the GR8 II can get a little loud, those fans are doing a great job of keeping the PC cool and stable.

We benchmarked the GR8 II against two of its predecessors, the Core i7-powered GR8 and the Core i5-packing GR6 Mini Gaming PC (see our review). Given the advances in both CPU and GPU generations since the GR6 and GR8 were released a couple of years back, it was no surprise to see the more modern and powerful GR8 II blast the competition away.

Firing up a few games from the last few years saw the GR8 II prove its class. At 1080p, the PC managed to play the likes of Grand Theft Auto V, Tomb Raider and Overwatch with ease at high settings, hitting a fluid 55-60 FPS average. Further optimisations can be made with NVIDIA’s GeForce Experience app, which automatically balances frame rate and graphic quality based on in-house testing by the GPU specialist. Using these optimal settings, the GTX 1060 was able to push into Very High or Ultra settings in some areas and still hit 50 FPS.

While the GR8 II isn’t designed to be a 4K gaming powerhouse, for fun I hooked the PC up to a UHD monitor and fired up Overwatch to see what it could do. An average of 35 frames per second isn’t the most comfortable, but it was higher than I expected and reasonably playable. If you’re pushing your gaming experience to the extremes, you’ll still be better off with a full-sized rig and a top of the line GPU, but considering the dimensions of this PC, the performance was very impressive.

Media Performance

Switching to media, the combination of the Kaby Lake Intel Core i7 processor with supporting NVIDIA GTX 1060 GPU ensures the ASUS GR8 II is a potent HTPC. 4K HEVC/x265 decoding is a breeze, courtesy of hardware GPU support, so Ultra High Definition video playback is smooth and won’t tax the processor.

In line, streamed 4K video from YouTube also worked well and a Geekbench CPU score of 5107 means that the GR8 has sufficient media serving horsepower to cope with two simultaneous 1080p transcodes.

Let’s move on to media encoding in Handbrake. With default settings, Handbrake will use the GTX 1060 to handle encoding duties, which only means that speeds will be limited to around 9 frames per second. However, a quick visit to the GR8 II’s BIOS would usually allow us to enable the CPU’s integrated graphics processor, which supports Intel QuickSync video, to dramatically accelerate encoding speeds.

However, with no port access to the iGPU (the video ports on the PC connect to the NVIDIA GTX 1060), Intel QuickSync video cannot be enabled. It’s a strange omission by ASUS – one that’s not a show stopper, but one that prevents a full recommendation of the GR8 II as a home theater PC. If you don’t need high-speed video encoding, however, it won’t be an issue.

Summary

While ASUS’ previous generations of mini gaming PC offered strong potential, albeit with some compromises, the ASUS ROG GR8 II is a much more accomplished device. The powerful combination of the NVIDIA GTX 1060 with Intel’s Kaby Lake Core i7 processor, packed into a cute and compact case ensures that PC gamers at last have a device that can compete with modern consoles – on both performance and size.

ASUS’ engineers have done a great job with the GR8 II’s internals. While its internal fans can kick up a little noise, my tests showed that the PC remained reasonably cool stress. Obviously, the more ambitious you are in your demands, the more the PC is going to let you know about the work it’s doing, but at 1080p, ASUS’ mini gaming PC proved to be a decent performer. 60 frames a second on a modern title is easily within reach, with high to ultra settings.

As a media PC, again, the GR8 II’s diminutive form makes for a powerful partner that will slip easily under the big screen TV. 4K video performance, courtesy of the GTX 1060 GPU, was top-notch and only the lack of Intel Quick Sync video support holds it back from perfection.

Add a flexible choice of specifications, easy RAM and storage upgrade options and you have a fabulous mini PC that offers good value for money out of the box and should last the family for a good few years. It’s the perfect device for a kids’ bedroom or media room and while it’s no match for an extreme gaming PC, the ASUS ROG GR8 II delivers a perfect balance of power and performance in a cute and compact case.

It’s a PC I’ll be sad to hand back to ASUS, but in the meantime, I’ve no hesitation in tapping the ASUS ROG GR8 II for our Editor’s Choice award.