The CPU market has changed more in the past 22 months than it did from 2008-2017 combined. That’s not to say that CPU architectures didn’t change, or that we didn’t see per-core pricing come down. But Intel had a remarkably successful run with the product positioning it introduced at the high-end with Nehalem in 2008 and refined with Sandy Bridge in 2011. Quad-cores with Hyper-Threading at the top, a midrange Core i5 sans HT in the middle, and a Core i3 dual-core with HT re-enabled to anchor the low end. From 2011-2017, that was Intel’s desktop product line in a nutshell — until AMD launched Ryzen. Fast forward to today, and we find ourselves in a completely different ballgame.
Intel’s 9th Generation family completes the transformation of the product line that began with 8th Generation parts. Hyper-Threading has vanished from the stack, save for the Core i9-9900K. The difference between the Core i7 and Core i5 has similarly shrunk, at least in terms of thread count. Previously, chips like the Core i7-8700K or Core i7-7700K supported twice the total threads of the Core i5 family, with the caveat that these were logical rather than physical processors and did not deliver anything like the scaling of a full core. We typically assume Hyper-Threading support adds ~20 percent performance. The Core i7-9700K no longer offers Hyper-Threading, but the core count has been bumped up to eight to compensate.
This launch is a critical chance for Intel to recover some of the prestige the company has lost over the past 10 months. While the company’s earnings have been excellent, it’s taken a hammering in the press for a variety of reasons, including (in no particular order): security problems like Spectre and Meltdown, the unexpected sudden resignation of the CEO, a significant delay stacked on top of an already-significant delay to its 10nm process deployment, and a host of downstream impacts from that, including a CPU shortage and a rumored delay to its EUV deployment timeline. As we’ve written, these downstream effects should be viewed as the logical downstream impact of the 10nm delay rather than a series of separate, unrelated problems, but they still add up to a rocky year.
The Core i9-9900K offers an opportunity to change that narrative — but only if it can get past the Ryzen-sized competitor standing in its path.
As much as I’d like to believe that y’all have read all my reviews and are current on the competitive state of the CPU market, a brief recap of the Ryzen era is in order. AMD’s top-end Ryzen 7 1800X and associated CPUs lower in the product stack collectively blew Intel’s Kaby Lake out of the water, particularly at $180 and above. Intel struck back with the Core i7-8700K last October, which won back the overall performance crown. Fast forward to April, and AMD took the lead once more thanks to its second-generation Ryzen 7 2700X. Now, Intel is striking back once again.
What to Watch for
We’re evaluating a large range of chips today, covering multiple product families. We’ve pulled in the Core i7-7700K to illustrate the performance gains from Intel’s last quad-core CPU, included both the Core i7-8086K and Core i7-8700K to cover enthusiasts who may have picked up a previous generation top-end part (or are simply curious about the 8086K in general), and tossed the 10-core Core i9-7900X in for good measure to illustrate the potential performance benefits that come with that platform’s quad-channel DDR4 support and additional two cores.
Our benchmarks on the AMD side are thinner — AMD simply hasn’t been building high-end parts for as long as Intel has — but they’ll answer the important questions. The Ryzen 7 2700X is our primary point of comparison, but we’ve kept the 2950X in the mix as well. First, it allows us to showcase AMD’s $900 CPU to match our inclusion of the $1,000 Core i9-7900X. Second, it illustrates what kind of value the Threadripper 2950X provides against a CPU from AMD’s greatest rival.
We’ve also separated out some test results in places where we updated benchmarks or added tests.
We tested the Intel Core i9-9900K on an Asus Maximus XI Hero motherboard with 32GB of DDR4-3200 installed in all four DIMM slots, a GeForce GTX 1080 Ti running Nvidia 411.63 drivers and a 1TB Samsung 970 EVO M.2 SSD for storage. Windows 10 Build 1803 was used for the testbed with the latest patches and updates installed. Our test results are embedded in the slideshow below.