Intel Core i9-10980XE Review: Winning the middle

Intel's $1,000, 18-core CPU occupies a tight performance space between competing AMD CPUs.

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Gordon Mah Ung

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Intel’s new 18-core Core i9-10980XE isn’t reaching for the stars. It’s reaching for the middle. Squeezed by AMD’s consumer 16-core Ryzen 9 3950X on one end, and the 32-core Ryzen Threadripper 3970X on the other, it can’t win on raw performance. But with Intel’s aggressive pricing at $1,000, it actually competes well on bang for buck, a tempting deal for the content creators who are the prime market for this chip. 

core i9 10980xe cascade lake x Gordon Mah Ung

Why the Core i9-10980XE is almost a deal

The Core i9-10980XE takes Intel pricing in a new direction—down. While the two previous 18-core CPUs were released at $1,999, Intel will be shipping this new generation at $1,000.

For Intel, which has been loath to chase AMD on price wars, this fat discount could potentially change the fortunes for the new CPU. In the craziest turn of events, Intel is actually less per core than AMD’s upcoming Threadripper 3000-series of CPUs (see chart below).

Who’da thunk we could put “Intel” and “deal” in the same sentence. but here we are. 

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Believe it or not: Intel is actually charging less per core than AMD’s new Threadripper CPUs.

Why Core i9-10980XE isn’t exactly a 10th-gen chip

Before we get to performance, we’re going to try to explain where the Core i9-10980XE falls among Intel’s chip generations, because... it’s confusing.

Obviously, the new Intel Core i9-10980XE is a 10th-gen part because of the ‘10’ in its name right? Well, not exactly. It bears no relation to the 10th-gen Ice Lake CPUs based on the new 10nm process. Nor is it related to the 10th-gen Comet Lake U CPUs, which are basically upgraded versions of the 8th-gen Whiskey Lake U.

The Core i9-10980XE actually doesn’t look all that different from Intel’s previous two 18-core chips, the Core i9-7780XE and the Core i9-9980XE. If you look at all three 18-core Core i9 chips on Intel’s ARK, they’re all 14nm chips, with marginal clock speed improvements every generation. 

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Intel’s last three 18-core Core i9’s compared

Core i9-10980XE presents one major change over its predecessors. Intel uses its newer Cascade Lake X cores, introduced in its Xeon line earlier this year. Cascade Lake increases validated memory to DDR4/2933 and officially supports up to 256GB of RAM. 

The chip also supports Intel’s DL Boost instructions, which accelerate deep learning and inference performance. The CPU should technically work with Intel’s Optane Persistent Memory DIMMs, too (although there are no announced plans to support it yet). And In a move certain to give some AMD fans jealous rage, Core i9-10980XE will fit into existing X299-based motherboards.

Some of performance promises of Cascade Lake X are still a little hard to quantify, though. You’ll see as we delve into the benchmarks, coming up next.

How we tested

A good price isn't a deal unless good performance comes with it. Can the new Core i9 keep up with its Ryzen rivals? 

For this showdown, we installed the Core i9-10980XE in an Asus X299 Prime Series 30 motherboard with a Founders Edition GeForce RTX 2080 Ti GPU, a 512GB M.2 Samsung 960 Pro SSD, and 32GB of DDR4/3200 CL15. The CPU was cooled with a Corsair Hydro H115i with its fans manually set to 100 percent and iCue software unloaded. The latest BIOS was used in the X299 Prime Series 30, and the graphics card driver was the same among all the systems.

And yes, we left MCE on. We’ve lately decided not to turn off Multi-Core Enhancement manually, as we feel that no consumers actually do that. While that can induce slight variances as motherboard makers use MCE slightly differently, the results a consumer will see are closer with MCE on, rather than off. 

3D Modelling performance

We’ll kick this off in the area that an 18-core CPU lives for: 3D modelling and rendering. Among the tasks run on the PC, 3D modelling and visualization typically offers the biggest return on investment for multi-core CPUs. 

First up is Maxon’s Cinebench R20 benchmark. This updated benchmark uses the same engine you’ll find in newer versions of the company’s Cinema 4D application and now supports AVX2 and AVX512 as part of its workload. 

Intel has typically done fairly well on the older Cinebench R15 and Cinebench R20, but as you can see from the results below, Ryzen 3000-chips have flipped that on its head. Despite having two more cores than the Ryzen 9 3950X, the Core i9-10980XE still loses. The only answer that explains this surprise is that Ryzen 9’s Zen 2 cores are simply faster in Maxon’s rendering engine.

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The 18-core Core i9-10980XE loses to the 16-core Ryzen 9 3950X.

To try to gauge the performance of a single core, we also run Cinebench R20 using a single thread. The 18-core Core i9-10980XE is nudged aside by the 5GHz Core i9 consumer chips, as well as both the 16-core and 12-core Ryzen 9 CPUs. Oof.

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The single-core performance puts the 18-core Core i9-10980XE behind the nimbler Core i9-9900KS, as well as both Ryzen CPUs.

The visualization world isn’t totally focused on Cinema4D performance, though, so we also run the “proudly CPU-based” Corona renderer. It’s an unbiased photorealistic renderer (“unbiased” basically means it doesn’t take any shortcuts in work). Here, the 18-core Core i9-10980XE rallies and lands in front of the other CPUs we tested. In fact, it’s about 8 percent in front of the 16-core Ryzen 9 3950X.

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The 18-core Core i9-10980XE finally pulls ahead of the 16-core Ryzen 9 3950X in Corona.

Up next is the Persistence of Vision Ray tracer that got its start on the Amiga. Luckily, it’s been updated along the years for more modern hardware. Like all 3D modelling apps, more cores means more performance—normally. But as with Cinebench R15, we see the 16-core Ryzen 9 3950X slightly outpace the 18-core Core i9 10980XE chip.

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POV-Ray says Ryzen is faster

All is not lost as we get to the Chaos Group’s V-Ray Next renderer, which was used in such movies as Avengers: Endgame. The Core i9-10980XE slightly pulls ahead of the 16-core Ryzen 9 3950X.

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V-Ray Next was used to to make Thanos in Avengers: Endgame.

It’s clear to us that 3D modelling is mostly a give-and-take between the Ryzen 9 and the Core i9-10980XE, with certain rendering engines favoring Ryzen and others favoring Core. Overall, it feels like a tie in 3D modelling—which, if you’re AMD, isn’t bad, because its top Ryzen 9 has two fewer cores and costs about 25 percent less.

Encoding Performance

Moving on to video encoding performance, we want to point out that video encoding usually doesn’t scale with core count as efficiently as 3D rendering. A platform’s memory bandwidth, cache performance, special instructions, and microarchitecture can easily affect the outcome.

Our first test tasks the free and popular HandBrake 1.2 to convert a 4K video using the HEVC encoding to 1080p resolution. The results put the Ryzen 9 firmly in front—but we have to say—we wonder if we didn’t misrecord this performance run, as we expected it to be closer to the Core i9. We’ll rerun our test and update this section as needed.

Even so, if you look at the performance of the 18-core Core i9-10980XE against the 8-core Core i9-9900KS, it’s a win, but not exactly what you might expect with the core count.

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We’re in the process of retesting the Ryzen 9 as its performance, while good, may not be quite this good.

Besides encoding our 4K file to 1080p HEVC, we also did runs at 2160p with a 60-fps frame rate. We’ve found this workload seems to scale better with core count, as the 12-core Ryzen 9 3900X is now handily in front of the Core i9-9900KS. We also see the scores of the Core i9-10980XE and Ryzen 9 3950X close up nicely. The win, however, still handily goes to the Ryzen 9 3950X. With two tests in a row going to Ryzen 9, we’re wondering if maybe Ryzen 9 is actually faster after all.

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Ryzen 9 has and edge over Core in our Handbrake encodes

Up next is Cinegy’s Cinescore 10.4 test. This is a free benchmark intended to let broadcast professionals gauge performance of commercial off-the-shelf hardware (that’s the PC, folks) at handling broadcast-focused codecs. You’ll notice that we again don’t see that huge a leap as we go from 8 to 12 to 16 and 18 cores. While it doesn’t outright lead, the Ryzen 9 3950X has a slight edge over the Core i9-10980XE.

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Cinescore lets the broadcast industry easily gauge off-the-shelf PC hardware performance.

Our next test shifts gears from the broadcast industry to Adobe’s immensely popular Premiere Pro 13.5. For this test we take a short 4K video shot on Sony Alpha cameras and output it using the Blu-ray preset in Premiere, with the Maximum Render option checked. We also direct Premiere to use the CPU for its encoding rather than the default of the GPU. Such a test is useful because despite the encoding performance of GPUs, some video nerds will turn their nose up at anything except CPU-based encoding for the utmost in quality.

The result? It’s essentially a tie between the Core i9-10980XE and the Ryzen 9 3950X. 

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Our Premiere export says it’s a dead tie between the Ryzen 9 and 18-core Core i9

We wanted to dial it up a notch though, so we took the same workload and exported it using HEVC to 2160p, using the High Profile. The result finally gives the 18-core Core i9 some breathing room, as we see it finish the encode about 15 percent faster.

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Using HEVC in Premiere Pro, the 18-core Core i9 finally opens up a performance gap.

Just like the 3D rendering section, the good news for Core i9-10980XE is it can be faster. The bad news is it can be slower too. Depending on how you look at it, it’s not that bad, or it’s a disaster, because the Ryzen has fewer cores and costs less, too.

Keep reading for gaming performance and more.

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