Intel i9-9900K Review – AMD Pushing Progress

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With the launch of AMD’s Ryzen, Threadripper and their subsequent follow-up second generation refreshes, Intel has been somewhat knocked back on their heels as of late. It isn’t that AMD’s newest CPUs are cleaning the house from an overall performance standpoint but what they do well is provide a killer combination of pricing and competitive benchmark numbers. In a DIY segment that’s continually looking for value, that’s a winning combination.

However, despite that newly acquired superiority complex in amongst DIYers, AMD is still struggling mightily to make inroads within the system builder market. The domination by Intel among system integrators is nearly total. However, with enough buyer interest in Ryzen’s various offshoots, that position could very well be in jeopardy given enough time. Given the combination of DIY interest in AMD’s wares and potential vulnerability in other key spaces, Intel needs to keep their lineup refreshed even though they’ve been struggling to move beyond 14nm. That’s where the 9th generation Core series steps into the equation.

From a high level architectural perspective, Intel’s so-called 9th generation processors aren’t all that much different from 8th gen Coffee Lake S predecessors. They still utilize a 14nm++ (yet highly optimized) manufacturing process, the UHD 620 graphics core and all the other elements we have come to recognize from Intel’s CPUs over the last three or so years.

There are however two relatively large changes this time around. AMD has been pushing Intel to move their mainstream Core series processors towards higher cores counts and the refined manufacturing process has facilitated yet another step forward in this respect. We are now seeing 9th generation CPUs boasting up to 8 cores and 16 concurrent threads without boosting the overall TDP. This works towards further blurring the lines between mainstream and HEDT markets. Honestly it feels like Intel has been forced into this position rather than choosing to make this change.

Another change has been the use of a solder-based thermal interface material (STIM) between the core and IHS. This is supposed to provide increased thermal conductivity between the CPU die increasing heat dissipation and allowing for more thermal headroom. It may also make the process of delidding more challenging but still provide a net positive benefit for overall temperatures.

With the move to 8 physical cores, Intel has introduced a new nomenclature for their higher end Coffee Lake processors; the i9 makes an appearance. So too does massively increase top-end prices. That i9-9900K has a “suggested” retail price of $488 USD but if pre-orders and the 8700K’s pricing trends are any indication, it’ll cost substantially more than that at most retailers. Compare this to the 16-thread Ryzen 2700X’s comparably affordable $330 price point (its on sale for $300 right now as a matter of fact) and you can see why some folks are still wondering if Intel actually realizes they aren’t alone in this market any longer.

There are some major perceived advantages for the i9-9900K though, at least on paper. Intel’s latest generations have a serious edge in gaming performance and this processors ability to boost up to 5GHz on two cores should further its lead in that respect. Meanwhile, Intel has added the ability for the entire cache partition to be utilized by any of the eight cores rather than being partitioned at a constant 2MB per core.

Below the halo CPU is where things start to get a bit confusing. The new CPU lineup won’t have a single 6-core, 12-thread part to directly replace the i7-8700K. Instead the i7-9700K will have Hyperthreading disabled and only come in an octo-core form. That’s a seriously odd decision but threaded scaling on this processor should be excellent since physical cores always grant better performance than the virtual ones from HT.

The main problem with the 9700K is its price. At $374 or higher, it is still more expensive than AMD’s 2700X and massively more than the $300 (currently $250 on Amazon) 2700 yet still more than the i7-8700K. Granted, it does operate at a higher frequency than the 8700K in single threaded applications but all-core speeds have been reduced. What an odd duckling this is.

Personally, I think the most competitive yet disappointing addition to this lineup might be the i5-9600K. While it doesn’t provide a massive uplift versus the i5-8600K, it is priced identically (thank God!). The problem here is we are back to an infinitesimal incremental upgrade over the previous generation rather than any effort to launch an enticing replacement to the 8600K.

Understanding The Z390 Platform

We have been hearing whispers about this new Z390 chipset since mid-2017 – even before the Z370 chipset was released – and while you might expect that much development time to lead to something special, the truth is that this latest Z-series chipset is merely a very necessary update over its elderly predecessor.

While the Z370 PCH was the flagship chipset for the 8th Generation Core processors, it certainly wasn’t the most modern or fully featured in Intel’s arsenal. In fact, since it was essentially a clone of the Z270, it was positively ancient when compared to the other Intel 300-series chipsets, namely the Q370, H370, B360, H310. By virtue of being released later, those ‘lower-end’ PCH were actually cutting-edge by comparison.

Not only did these newer chipsets finally feature native support for USB 3.1 Gen2 (except the H310), they integrated a portion of Wi-Fi connectivity into the chipset allowing for native 802.11ac Wi-Fi support, they came with Intel’s latest Management Engine (ME) firmware, and had a bunch of new low-power mode capabilities. To put a cherry on the sundae, they were also fabricated with a more modern 14nm manufacturing process, instead of 22nm like the Z370 and Z270…and Z170.

With this new Z390 PCH, Intel is simply adding all of the above features to the Z-series, allowing it to finally match the capabilities of all the existing Q/H/B 300-series PCH variants, albeit with the few obvious enthusiast extras like overclocking.

Now it should be mentioned that if none of what you read above (or below) excites you, but you’re still interested in one of these new 9th Generation core processors, then you might as well pickup a discounted Z370 motherboard since they fully support these new CPUs once their BIOS has been updated.

At the most fundamental level it must be understood that the new 9th Generation Core processor + Z390 PCH platform offers the same number of PCI-E 3.0 lanes as the previous platform. There are a total of 40 available PCI-E 3.0 lanes, 16 of which originate from the CPU and the remaining 24 from the chipset. Furthemore, the link between the CPU and PCH remains a DMI 3.0 interconnect, which offers bandwidth equivalent to about four PCI 3.0 lanes or roughly 4GB/s.

The processor’s lanes are directed towards the two PCI-E x16 graphics card slots (to be divided in either 16x/0x or x8/8x), while the chipset’s ample bandwidth is utilized for everything else: USB, SATA, LAN, PCI-E x1/x4 slots, etc. One of the benefits of having this much chipset bandwidth is that you can design a motherboard with more than one high-speed storage interfaces, even though each full-speed M.2 slot requires four PCI-E 3.0 lanes in order to support properly support the latest NVMe or Optane Memory/Optane SSD devices. However, as we have seen, motherboard manufacturers may elect to utilize PCI-E switches in order to disable a few unused SATA ports and/or the PCI-E x1/x4 slots in order to reroute the freed up bandwidth towards a second or even third high-speed M.2 slot. Like on previous mainstream platforms, there is native support for up to six SATA 6Gb/s ports, which support Raid 0/1/5/10 and Intel Rapid Storage Technology.

While the above is mostly old news, what is new is the native USB 3.1 Gen2 connectivity. Whereas both the Z270 and Z370 chipsets have supported up to ten USB 3.0 ports and fourteen USB 2.0 ports – but relied on third-party controllers for higher-speed USB 3.1 Gen2 support – this new Z390 PCH natively supports up to six USB 3.1 Gen2 10Gbps ports. This catapults Intel’s enthusiast chipset over AMD’s best, since the X470 only natively supports two such high-speed ports.

Another manner in which Intel is one-upping its rival is by integrating wireless connectivity into the chipset. This is not a middle-of-the-road Wi-Fi implementation either, but high-end 2T2R 802.11ac Wave2 MU-MIMO Wi-Fi, which supports 160Mhz channel bandwidth and a maximum theoretical speed of 1733Mbps. There is also support for Bluetooth 5.0, which promises data transfer speeds of up to 2Mbps and a range that is four time greater than Bluetooth 4.2. Intel have been able to achieve this new level of integration by utilizing their Integrated Connectivity (CNVi) architecture, which allowed them to move a portion of the functional blocks required for Wi-Fi onto the Z390 PCH. There still needs to be a Wi-Fi module to house the antenna and PHY, but overall it will be simpler and cheaper for motherboard manufacturers to include wireless connectivity on their motherboards.

There is also an update to Intel’s controversial Management Engine (ME) firmware, from version 11 to version 12. While this new update obviously brings forth some security improvements, there is also some new low-power mode capabilities. For example, while your desktop is in a deep sleep state, Intel Smart Connect – in coordination with Windows 10’s Modern Standby feature – can download data/update emails without having to wake up the rest of the system. When you’re ready to read your emails, the Wake-on-Voice feature will allow you to command your PC to turn on, which is at least partially made possible Intel’s improved Smart Sound DSP audio processing technology.

As we mentioned above, although you need to be a giant nerd to notice or care, this new PCH is actually a fair bit smaller than the Z170/Z270/Z370 chipsets since it is manufactured on some variant of Intel’s 14nm process. Those previous Z-series models were manufactured on a 22nm process, which evidently wasn’t an issue since they all have the same 6W TDP as this latest Z390 offering.

Now since these new Intel 9th Generation Core processors are going to be drop-in compatible with existing Z370 motherboards (via BIOS update), the big question is obviously what motherboards manufacturers are going to do with this new chipset and its associated capabilities to differentiate from the previous motherboard models. To figure that out let’s compare and contrast the new ASUS ROG STRIX Z390-E GAMING to its predecessor:

While the ROG STRIX Z390-E GAMING is a clear evolution of the STRIX Z370-E, we can confidently state that it is a greater departure than the Z270-E to the Z370-E was. Part of this is due to the newfound capabilities of this modern platform, but another aspect is that ASUS have added some really intriguing aesthetic details…and we’re not talking about the new all-black theme.

First let’s get the superficial out of the way, the PCH heatsink and secondary M.2 slot heatspreader are now two distinct parts, whereas it was a monoblock heatsink on the previous model. Obviously the PCH heatsink looks vastly different as well, and it now features a fabric tag on it which is something we have never seen before. It even has a hidden “Join ROG” message if you flip it upwards.

The rear I/O cover has also been heavily revised. It features integrated RGB LED lighting in both the ROG logo and also in the new extremely unique holographic mirror portion of the cover. It is rather hard to capture the effect properly without having the photographer reflected in the surface, haha.

While the overall layout is largely untouched, the new Z390-E features three instead of four PCI-E x1 slots, which is probably due to the additional USB 3.1 Gen2 connectivity – more on that below – since those high-speed ports need additional bandwidth and that means something needed to get the axe.

The STRIX Z390-E features a 8+2 phase CPU VRM, with eight MOSFETs for the CPU cores and two MOSFETs for the integrated GPU. This is the same as its predecessor, which might surprise those expecting a beefier VRM to handle the eight-core i9-9900K model. However, ASUS have switched to very latest ON Semiconductor NCP302045 MOSFETs, which can not only handle a ton of current, but also feature built-in thermal protection.

Whereas some competitors have been outfitting their upper-tier Z370 and Z390 motherboards with three M.2 slots, ASUS seems content enough to continue with only two. This is not a bad choice by any means, since actually running three M.2 slots with NVMe drives means that you are required to disable a fair bit of other connectivity/expansion slots. On the Z390-E you can have both M.2 slots operating in PCI-E 3.0 x4 mode without losing any of the six native SATA 6Gb/s ports or anything else for that matter.

While the Z390-E gains two additional high-speed USB 3.1 Gen2 ports on its rear I/O panel – which is obviously one of the highlights of this new chipset – it does lose the Z370-E’s angled internal USB 3.0 header, which is where you could usually plug in your cases front-panel USB cable to. ASUS is perhaps betting on the fact that newly released cases are increasingly going to be supporting the USB 3.1 Gen2 header (which you can see below the 24-pin ATX power connector).

Those two antenna jacks are connected to a Wi-Fi module that houses the latest Intel Wireless-AC 9560 controller, which is one of three modern Wi-Fi solutions that are natively supported by this platform. As mentioned above, it is a 2T2R 802.11ac Wi-Fi solution that supports all the latest technology like MU-MIMO and Wave2 (160Mhz channel bandwidth), and a maximum theoretical speed of 1733Mbps. It also supports Bluetooth 5.0, which has significantly greater range and transfer rates than the Bluetooth 4.X standard.

This new STRIX Z390-E model features a pre-installed fan bracket attached to one of the MOSFET heatsinks – which can be populated by the included 40mm Assistant Fan – whereas the previous Z370-E merely included the bracket in the accessories bundle and came without a fan. While this might seem like an ominous sign, we think that it is a wise choice since no matter how capable the CPU VRM might be, there is no harm in dissipating the heat generated by the power demands of a highly-clocked eight-core processor. Having said that, it will be very interesting to see whether this tiny little fan is quiet enough to warrant using, since such small diameter fans are notorious for being annoying whir.

Another new addition – one that is proprietary to ASUS – is the Node header. This is a proprietary bi-directional interface that allows ASUS motherboards to communicate with other system components. Specifically, the idea that you will be able to augment products with monitoring and control features via the motherboard’s hardware and software. Apparently there is an FSP power supply with temperature monitoring & fan control on the way, as well as an In Win case with an OLED front panel, and likely quite a few other products.

While the MemOK! switch has been found on enthusiast-oriented ASUS motherboards for almost a decade, it always required users to open their case and actually flip the switch whenever they encountered memory-related POST issues. Now with MemOK! II, users can simply leave the switch on and the motherboard will systematically apply three different memory profiles and gradually increases DRAM voltage until the system is able to POST successfully.

Test Setups & Methodology

For this review, we have prepared a number of different test setups, representing many of the popular platforms at the moment. As much as possible, the test setups feature identical components, memory timings, drivers, etc. Aside from manually selecting memory frequencies and timings, every option in the BIOS was at its default setting.

For all of the benchmarks, appropriate lengths are taken to ensure an equal comparison through methodical setup, installation, and testing. The following outlines our testing methodology:

A) Windows is installed using a full format.

B) Chipset drivers and accessory hardware drivers (audio, network, GPU) are installed.

C)To ensure consistent results, a few tweaks are applied to Windows 10 and the NVIDIA control panel:

  • UAC – Disabled
  • Windows HPET – Disabled
  • Indexing – Disabled
  • Superfetch – Disabled
  • System Protection/Restore – Disabled
  • Problem & Error Reporting – Disabled
  • Remote Desktop/Assistance – Disabled
  • Windows Security Center Alerts – Disabled
  • Windows Defender – Disabled
  • Screensaver – Disabled
  • Power Plan – High Performance
  • V-Sync – Off
  • All BIOS-enabled performance enhancements – Disabled

System Benchmarks: AIDA64

AIDA64 Extreme Edition

AIDA64 uses a suite of benchmarks to determine general performance and has quickly become one of the de facto standards among end users for component comparisons. While it may include a great many tests, we used it for general CPU testing (CPU ZLib / CPU Hash) and floating point benchmarks (FPU VP8 / FPU SinJulia).

CPU PhotoWorxx Benchmark

This benchmark performs different common tasks used during digital photo processing. It performs a number of modification tasks on a very large RGB image:

This benchmark stresses the SIMD integer arithmetic execution units of the CPU and also the memory subsystem. CPU PhotoWorxx test uses the appropriate x87, MMX, MMX+, 3DNow!, 3DNow!+, SSE, SSE2, SSSE3, SSE4.1, SSE4A, AVX, AVX2, and XOP instruction set extension and it is NUMA, HyperThreading, multi-processor (SMP) and multi-core (CMP) aware.

CPU ZLib Benchmark

This integer benchmark measures combined CPU and memory subsystem performance through the public ZLib compression library. CPU ZLib test uses only the basic x86 instructions but is nonetheless a good indicator of general system performance.

CPU AES Benchmark

This benchmark measures CPU performance using AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) data encryption. In cryptography AES is a symmetric-key encryption standard. AES is used in several compression tools today, like 7z, RAR, WinZip, and also in disk encryption solutions like BitLocker, FileVault (Mac OS X), TrueCrypt. CPU AES test uses the appropriate x86, MMX and SSE4.1 instructions, and it’s hardware accelerated on Intel AES-NI instruction set extension capable processors. The test is HyperThreading, multi-processor (SMP) and multi-core (CMP) aware.

CPU Hash Benchmark

This benchmark measures CPU performance using the SHA1 hashing algorithm defined in the Federal Information Processing Standards Publication 180-3. The code behind this benchmark method is written in Assembly. More importantly, it uses MMX, MMX+/SSE, SSE2, SSSE3, AVX instruction sets, allowing for increased performance on supporting processors.

FPU VP8 / SinJulia Benchmarks

AIDA’s FPU VP8 benchmark measures video compression performance using the Google VP8 (WebM) video codec Version 0.9.5 and stresses the floating point unit. The test encodes 1280×720 resolution video frames in 1-pass mode at a bitrate of 8192 kbps with best quality settings. The content of the frames are then generated by the FPU Julia fractal module. The code behind this benchmark method utilizes MMX, SSE2 or SSSE3 instruction set extensions.

Meanwhile, SinJulia measures the extended precision (also known as 80-bit) floating-point performance through the computation of a single frame of a modified “Julia” fractal. The code behind this benchmark method is written in Assembly, and utilizes trigonometric and exponential x87 instructions.

System Benchmarks: Cinebench / PCMark 8 / WPrime

CineBench R15 64-bit

The latest benchmark from MAXON, Cinebench R15 makes use of all your system’s processing power to render a photorealistic 3D scene using various different algorithms to stress all available processor cores. The test scene contains approximately 2,000 objects containing more than 300,000 total polygons and uses sharp and blurred reflections, area lights and shadows, procedural shaders, antialiasing, and much more. This particular benchmarking can measure systems with up to 64 processor threads. The result is given in points (pts). The higher the number, the faster your processor.

PCMark 8

PCMark 8 is the latest iteration of Futuremark’s system benchmark franchise. It generates an overall score based upon system performance with all components being stressed in one way or another. The result is posted as a generalized score. In this case, we didn’t use the Accelerated benchmark but rather just used the standard Computational results which cut out OpenCL from the equation.

WPrime

wPrime is a leading multithreaded benchmark for x86 processors that tests your processor performance by calculating square roots with a recursive call of Newton’s method for estimating functions, with f(x)=x2-k, where k is the number we’re squaring, until Sgn(f(x)/f'(x)) does not equal that of the previous iteration, starting with an estimation of k/2. It then uses an iterative calling of the estimation method a set amount of times to increase the accuracy of the results. It then confirms that n(k)2=k to ensure the calculation was correct. It repeats this for all numbers from 1 to the requested maximum. This is a highly multi-threaded workload. Below are the scores for the 1024M benchmark.

Single Thread Performance

Even though most modern applications have the capability to utilize more than one CPU thread, single threaded performance is still a cornerstone of modern CPU IPC improvements. In this section, we take a number of synthetic applications and run them in single thread mode.

Productivity Benchmarks: 7-Zip / Adobe Premier Pro

7-Zip

At face value, 7-Zip is a simple compression/decompresion tool like popular applications like WinZip and WinRAR but it also has numerous additional functions that can allow encryption, decryption and other options. For this test, we use the standard built-in benchmark which focuses on raw multi-threaded throughput.

Adobe Premier Pro CC

Adobe Premier Pro CC is one of the most recognizable video editing programs on the market today as it is used by videography professionals and YouTubers alike. In this test we take elements of a 60-second 4K video file and render them out into a cohesive MP4 video via Adobe’s Media Encoder. Note that GPU acceleration is turned on.

Productivity Benchmarks: Blender / 3ds MAX Corona

Blender

Blender is a free-to-use 3D content creation program that also features an extremely robust rendering back-end. It boasts extremely good multi core scaling and even incorporates a good amount of GPU acceleration for various higher level tasks. In this benchmark we take a custom 1440P 3D image and render it out using the built-in tool. The results you see below list how long it took each processor to complete the test.

3ds MAX Corona Renderer

Autodesk’s 3ds MAX is currently one of the most-used 3D modeling, animation and rendering programs on the market, providing a creative platform for architects to industrial designers alike. Unfortunately its rendering algorithms leave much to be desired and third party rendering add-ons are quite popular. One of the newest ones is called Corona.

In this test we take a custom 3D scene of a room with global illumination enabled and render it out in 720P using Corona’s built-in renderer.

Productivity Benchmarks: GIMP / Handbrake

GIMP

While it may be open source, GIMP is actually one of the most popular free photo editors available right now. It uses both CPU and GPU acceleration for certain tasks. In this test we use an 8K image and use a script to run eight different filters in succession. This is considered a lightly threaded workload since the memory, CPU and storage drive can all play a role in performance.

Handbrake

Video conversion from one format to another is a stressful task for any processor and speed is paramount. Handbrake is one of the more popular transcoders on the market since it is free, has a long feature list, supports GPU acceleration and has an easy-to-understand interface. In this test we take a 6GB 4K MP4 and convert it to a 1080P MKV file with a H.264 container format. GPU acceleration has been disabled. The results posted indicate how long it took for the conversion to complete.

Productivity Benchmarks: POV Ray / WinRAR

POV Ray 3.7

POV Ray is a complex yet simple to use freeware ray tracing program which has the ability to efficiently use multiple CPU cores in order to speed up rendering output. For this test, we use its built-in benchmark feature which renders a high definition scene. The rendering time to completion is logged and then listed below.

WinRAR

WinRAR is one of those free tools that everyone seems to use. Its compression and decompression algorithms are fully multi-core aware which allows for a significant speedup when processing files. In this test we compress a 3GB folder of various files and add a 256-bit encryption key. Once again the number listed is the time to completion.

Gaming Performance (Synthetic)

3DMark Fire Strike (DX11)

3DMark Time Spy (DX12)

Gaming Performance (Battlefield 1 / COD: IW)

Battlefield 1

Battlefield 1 will likely become known as one of the most popular multiplayer games around but it also happens to be one of the best looking titles around. It also happens to be extremely well optimized with even the lowest end cards having the ability to run at high detail levels.

In this benchmark we use a runthough of The Runner level after the dreadnought barrage is complete and you need to storm the beach. This area includes all of the game’s hallmarks in one condensed area with fire, explosions, debris and numerous other elements layered over one another for some spectacular visual effects.

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

The latest iteration in the COD series may not drag out niceties like DX12 or particularly unique playing styles but it nonetheless is a great looking game that is quite popular.

This benchmark takes place during the campaign’s Operation Port Armor wherein we run through a sequence combining various indoor and outdoor elements along with some combat.

Gaming Performance (Deus Ex / DOOM)

Deus Ex – Mankind Divided

Deus Ex titles have historically combined excellent storytelling elements with action-forward gameplay and Mankind Divided is no difference. This run-through uses the streets and a few sewers of the main hub city Prague along with a short action sequence involving gunplay and grenades.

Doom

Not many people saw a new Doom as a possible Game of the Year contender but that’s exactly what it has become. Not only is it one of the most intense games currently around but it looks great and is highly optimized. In this run-through we use Mission 6: Into the Fire since it features relatively predictable enemy spawn points and a combination of open air and interior gameplay.

Gaming Performance (GTA V / Overwatch)

Grand Theft Auto V

In GTA V we take a simple approach to benchmarking: the in-game benchmark tool is used. However, due to the randomness within the game itself, only the last sequence is actually used since it best represents gameplay mechanics.

[Editor’s Note: Oops! The above chart has the correct numbers, but obviously a slightly wrong aesthetic. Proper chart incoming shortly.]

Overwatch

Overwatch happens to be one of the most popular games around right now and while it isn’t particularly stressful upon a system’s resources, its Epic setting can provide a decent workout for all but the highest end GPUs. In order to eliminate as much variability as possible, for this benchmark we use a simple “offline” Bot Match so performance isn’t affected by outside factors like ping times and network latency.

Power Consumption

I don’t typically dedicate a whole page to power consumption but there’s a pretty substantial story lurking behind the numbers you see below and how they directly relate to TDP claims from both Intel and AMD. Without getting too technical, the way these two companies go about measuring TDP is fundamentally different from one another. Intel themselves published a very comprehensive and quite neutral White Paper about the differences a few years ago and its worth a quick read if you have a chance.

What you need to know is that TDP values are a universally poor way to determine actual power consumption for end users since they are simply thermal design guidelines that are given to system integrators. As I say in every review, TDP is not actual power consumption so don’t take it as such.

As both Intel and AMD recommend, the best way to measure true power deltas between processors is via a simple (yet calibrated) power meter plugged into the wall outlet. That’s exactly what we do but add in a controlled 120V power input to eliminate voltage irregularities from impacting the results.

As you can see above, while the new i9-9900K might match the i7-8700K when to comes to idle consumption, everything changes when you start loading up all the cores. Specifically, this new eight-core flagship processor draw over 40% more power than its six-core predecessor despite only having 25% more cores. Why? Well the bulk of the reason is that the all-core frequency has been increased by a not insignificant 400MHz. While the i7-8700K can run its six cores at up to 4.3GHz, the new i9-9900K can push its eight cores at up to 4.7GHz. So with 25% more cores, running at about 10% higher frequency, which requires more voltage, the increase in power consumption doesn’t seem quite as mysterious after all.

Now you might be wondering how in the hell Intel is claiming that the i9-9900K has the same 95W TDP as the i7-8700K. The answer to that is that 95W is simply the figure that you need to be able to cool in order to allow the processor to run at its base frequency, which is a lowly 3.60GHz in this case. If you want to take full advantage of the sweet sweet Turbo Boost capabilities of this flagship CPU you actually need to be able to dissipate closer to 210W, and that’s probably a little conservative.

Overclocking Results – Beyond 5GHz

With a two-core Turbo Boost frequency of up 5.0GHz and an all-core frequency that never seems to wander below 4.7GHz with proper cooling, the Core i9-9900K is a very high frequency processor out of the box. However, if there is additional performance to be exploited that is what we are going to do, power efficiency be damned.

Now although these 9th generation Core processors are once again manufactured on a 14nm process, Intel is constantly optimizing its manufacturing process so there should reasonably be a little additional frequency headroom, or superior frequency scaling at a given voltage, or just generally cooler running silicon clock for clock. However, independent of any manufacturing improvements, we can strongly surmise that these Core i5-9600K / Core i7-9700K / Core i9-9900K processors are going to be fun to overclock by virtue of the fact that Intel has returned to soldering the integrated heatspreader (IHS) to the CPU die.

For the last few generations, Intel has been using this relatively low quality TIM (thermal interface material) and tests have proven that it has poor thermal conductivity, which means that heat is not properly being transferred from the CPU die to the IHS and then the cooler. Ultimately this means that the processor isn’t cooled as well it could be, which means less thermal headroom and ultimately hampered overclocking. This is a super exciting development – except we suppose for those who were in the CPU delidding business – and it shows that Intel is still willing to listen to the wishes of the mainstream enthusiast market.

Now instead of trying to blow you away with some barely stable suicide screenshot, we elected for a reasonable and achievable 24/7 overclock. Given that we are still dealing with a 14nm processor, we once again recommend a CPU core voltage of no more than 1.35V (cooling permitting), much like we did with Skylake and 8th generation Kaby Lake. As far as secondary voltages like CPU VCCIO, CPU system agent voltage, and memory voltage? We will discuss those below.

As you can see, we were able to overclock our Core i9-9900K sample to 5.1Ghz across all eight cores at the aforementioned 1.35V. At this high frequency level, you are getting a level of multi-threaded performance that is indistinguishable from a stock ten-core Core i9-7900X…for about half the price.

While running two dozen consecutive Cinebench R15 tests, full load temperatures increased from the default 64°C to 87°C, while peak power consumption went from 194W to 284W. This is while using an ancient but still very capable Prolimatech Mega Shadow heatsink and two 120MM 1600RPM 63.7 CFM fans. To put that in perspective, it is basically the same temperature as we’ve measured with our six-core i7-8700K at 5.0GHz with the same 1.35Vcore and identical system settings across the board. So two additional cores and associated cache, a 100MHz frequency bump, and the same temperatures? We’ll take it!

Frustratingly, we were within a stone’s throw of getting 5.2GHz stable too. The processor was stable in every normal day-to-day application or game that we tried, but Cinebench R15 would just spontaneously close itself when running the multi-threaded test. We strongly believe that a small core voltage bump to 1.36V or 1.37V would have provided that necessary stability, but rules are rules and our limit is 1.35V.

On the memory side things are a little less clear to us at the moment. Although a fix is incoming, we did experience a small hiccup between the ASUS ROG STRIX Z390-E GAMING motherboard and our G.SKill Trident Z F4-3866C18D-16GTZ memory kit, which prevented us from reaching this kit’s officially rated speed (DDR4-3866). Nevertheless, the memory controller on this i9-9900K seemed slightly weaker than on the i7-8700K’s that we’ve tested. We needed 1.30VSA and 1.25VCCIO in order stabilize DDR4-3800, compared to 1.20VSA and 1.15VCCIO to stabilize DDR4-3866 on every i7-8700K. Having said that, we will have to revisit this when we get an updated BIOS. By the way, using the above voltage settings were able to overclock the Cache from the default 4300Mhz up to 4600Mhz, which is the same frequency we set on i7-8700K’s. It is not a strenuous overclock for most chips, and it provides a little free performance boost.

Overall, we are very pleased with the overclocking capabilities of this new Core i9-9900K. This is a processor with 25% more cores than the previous flagship, yet it can achieve similar/better overclocking numbers while remaining easily manageable to cool.

Conclusion – Inching The Bar Forward

Once everything is said and done, there’s no denying the fact Intel’s i9-9900K is an extremely impressive processor that can provide an abundance of performance in a broad swath of applications. In the introduction I said that this processor would bring Intel close to finally offering a quasi-HEDT processor for the “mainstream” market and that’s exactly what they have done. However, at the same time, they have been very careful to maintain just enough separation that the likes of the i9-7900X (and its follow up i9-9900X) can differentiate itself.

However, there’s just a bit of a problem with that “mainstream” connotation, since while the 9900K does bridge the gap between the S-series and X-series CPUs, it has anything but a mainstream price. Yeah, I’m bringing up pricing already since – if pricing trends shown by the i7-8700K are any indication – it will be a major pain point for this CPU well into the future. It’s great to list a certain price but retailers seem to be hard-pressed to follow that guidance in the months immediately following launch. That could be a major issue since the i9-9900K is already about $160 more than AMD’s Ryzen 7 2700X, and the last thing it needs is artificial premiums tacked on.

Speaking of the 2700X versus i9-9900K battle, other than a few outlier decryption benchmarks, it is one the Intel processor will win all day and every day. The main issue is the performance difference between these two CPUs isn’t really sufficient for the price Intel is charging. For the most part, the i9-9900K pulls ahead by 15-20% in multi-threaded benchmarks coupled with a ~40% higher price. Many will be turned off by this metric alone.

However, there are certain subsets of users who will see the higher price as money well invested. For example, due to Intel-focused optimizations built into Adobe Premier, the i9-9900K could save creative professionals weeks of rendering time over the course of a year. Even though I didn’t test with QuickSync video enabled, that technology alone allows Intel processors like this one to walk all over even the $2000 HEDT processors. Intel’s substantial win in Corona – a program I personally use – was pretty eye opening for me as well.

The same can be said for people who utilize predominantly lightly threaded applications like Photoshop, GIMP and the like since they will also see net positive benefits from sticking to CPUs like the i9-9900K. For professionals time saved is money in the bank, though one has to wonder if CPUs like the i7-9700K would provide even more value due to its lower price.

The more important metric for many of our readers will be the relative gaming performance of Intel’s new processors, but that’s a bit less clear cut situation than the ones described above. There’s no doubt that claims of this being the highest performing gaming CPU ever created are entirely justified. The issue is that GPU bottlenecking will likely hit you long before you’re able to tell the difference between a $500 CPU and one that costs substantially less. That’s just the name of the game these days, even though the 9900K does show flashes of brilliance when the GPU doesn’t step into the equation. I do have to wonder if something like an RTX 2080 Ti would impact our results, but that’s another conversation for another time.

The last items that need to be discussed are power consumption and temperatures. When operating at stock speeds the 9900K is surprisingly well behaved temperature wise, but given the fact that it has 25% more cores and a very high clock speed it does draw quite a bit more power than the previous i7-8700K when stressing all eight of those cores. If you add some overclocking and overvolting into that equation, expect both temperatures and power consumption to rise in a hurry. Having said that, likely due to the new soldered IHS, at similar clock speeds and voltage settings the temperatures were roughly in the same range as we’ve experienced with the six-core i7-8700K. Nevertheless, we would still recommend a beefy cooling solution like the Noctua NH-D14 or a dual-bay AIO if you are planning on reaching or exceeding the 5GHz mark.

So there you have it; the Core i9-9900K is a fast processor but it is also an expensive one for the mainstream market. In some situations that high price is entirely justifiable, but only if its performance can directly translate into improved professional workflows. For the vast majority of users, this new upper mainstream CPU is simply too expensive. Most gamers would be better off looking at lower priced alternatives, and then using the money saved to maximize their GPU purchase. With that in mind, we look forward to seeing if the new Core i5-9600K and Core i7-9700K models can provide some great bang for the buck for the gamer market.

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