Should you buy a laptop with 8th-gen or 9th-gen Core CPU? It's all about cores and clocks

Other than Core i9, the rest of the 9th-gen lineup offers just incremental improvements.

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Update: We originally wrote this analysis before we had actual hardware in hand. Since then, we've put several 9th gen laptops to the test. If you want to see hard evidence of what we forecast here, read our story "Should you buy a laptop with Intel's 8th-gen or 9th-gen CPU? We run the benchmarks."

Now that Intel’s latest 9th-gen Core mobile chips are on their way, it’s time to figure out whether it’ll be worth it to pay top dollar for the new chip; buy or keep a laptop with an 8th-gen CPU (plenty of current models remain available), or upgrade from your 6th-gen or 7th-gen model.

The issues differ from generation to generation. In many cases, we’ve said you can wait a few years before upgrading. The 8th-generation jump was an exception: It represented one of the biggest laptop CPU improvements in a long time, worthy of upgrading even from a 7th-gen chip.

With the 9th gen, however, we’re mostly back to the incremental clock speed upgrades we’ve seen from Intel for years. That’s not to say it’s all underwhelming—because you can get that fancy new 802.11ax/Wi-Fi 6, too. But for those interested in speed boosts, the sparse improvements in core counts mean you can largely ignore this series except for the Core i9 lineup.

The handy chart below breaks down the differences between 9th-gen, 8th-gen,  and 7th-gen chips,. As you can see, core/thread counts haven’t moved as much as clock speeds. 

9th gen 8th gen 7th gen deets IDG

Here are the dirty details of Intel’s last three generation of “H-class” CPUs used in most 15-inch and larger laptops.

9th-gen Core i7 vs. 8th-gen Core i7: Mild uptick

After diving into the specs of Intel’s 9th-gen Core i5 and Core i7, the short answer is: small clock bumps at best.

For example: the 9th-gen Core i7-9850H shares the same base clock (the clock speed the CPU drops to in a worst-case scenario) of 2.6GHz with its ancestor, the Core i7-8850H. But the 9th gen sees a 7-percent increase in Turbo Boost clocks (the best-case scenario for the CPU.)

It’s a bit better for the Core i7-9750H, which gets a 400MHz increase in both base clock and Turbo Boost over the Core i7-8750H it replaces. That works out to about a 15-percent bump in base clock and 9 percent in Turbo Boost. While the actual laptop cooling design greatly influences the performance you see, we’ve already seen one 9th-gen Core i7 and it agrees with the numbers above.

9th-gen Core i5 vs 8th-gen Core i5: Not much 

While Core i7 buyers get a mild uptick, those who buy moderately priced laptops in the Core i5 section get even less.

The 9th-gen Core i5-9400H pushes almost exactly the same clocks as the 8th-gen Core i5-9400H. The far more popular 8th-gen Core i5-8300H can look up enviously at the whole 100MHz in base and Turbo Boost clocks in the new 9th-gen Core i5-9300H. That works out to a 4-percent and 2-percent clock bump, respectively. And yes, when we looked up the definition of “meh,” it literally said: “Intel’s 9th-gen Core i5 laptop chips.” 

9th gen vs 8th gen vs 7th gen diff 2 IDG

It’s pretty hard to live up to the huge performance boost the 8th-gen chips gave us over the 7th-gen chips, but at least the 9th-gen Core i9 gives it a good try.

9th-gen Core i9 vs. 8th-gen Core i9: The chip you’ve been waiting for

The good news for those who can afford it is the new 9th-gen Core i9. It should (mostly) offer a serious performance shot in the arm with its 8 cores vs. the 6 cores of the 8th-gen Core i9 chip.

The 9th-gen Core i9 also gets separation from the now-pedestrian Core i7 by being the only CPUs to feature 8 cores. The 8th-gen Core i9 disappointed many because it featured the same 6 cores as the 8th-gen Core i7 parts. 

That meant the only difference between a Core i9-8950HK and a Core i9-8850H was clock speed. Even worse for the 8th-gen Core i9, it could only hit those high clock speeds in laptops with decent cooling, like the spacious Alienware 17 R5. When you stuffed the Core i9-8950HK into, say, a 4-pound MacBook Pro 15, disappointment happened

Here’s how fast the 9th-gen Core i9 will probably be

What we should see from the 9th-gen Core i9 CPUs is a very decent performance upgrade for multi-threaded applications. Even single-threaded and lightly threaded loads should see a bump.

If you’re worried about those scary base-clock speed decreases in the chart above when comparing an 8-core 9th-gen Core i9-9980HK versus a 6-core 8th-gen Core i9-8950HK, we don’t think it’s going to be a big deal. Based on our experience with Intel’s 8th-gen chips, they rarely hit their base clock speeds. If the laptop maker does its job and the chip is properly cooled and powered, it’ll stay far north of base.

In situations where the CPU is indeed pushed heavily using 8 cores and 16 threads, it is likely to run at lower clock speeds than a similar 6-core 8th-gen chip. But because it’s using more cores, it’ll probably still finish the chore in less time.

With its higher Turbo Boost clock, the new 9th-gen Core i9 chips will likely also run at higher speeds than the 8th-gen Core i9 under single-threaded and lightly threaded tasks.

At least, that’s our forecast, assuming the laptop maker cools and powers the laptop properly. We can tell you that not all will. An 8-core Core i9 in a 7-pound gaming laptop is going to behave far differently than an 8-core Core i9 in a 3.9-pound laptop.

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We predict the performance of Intel’s new 9th-gen Core i9-9980HK will be far north of a Core i9-8950HK's, but lower than that of the the 9th-gen desktop Core i-9900K in the Alienware Area-51m,.

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