Core i9-11900K review: Intel's 14nm farewell tour can't end soon enough

Intel's new desktop CPU microarchitecture offers a performance increase at the cost of power and heat.

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Core i9-11900K performance: AI applications

Before we get into the gaming performance we did want to delve into the new-fangled area of AI and Machine Learning performance. With the 11th-gen Rocket Lake part, Intel introduces AVX512 and DL Boost support on its first consumer desktop CPU. We’re also finally seeing applications where AI matters.

The first one we use is Topaz Labs GigaPixel AI 5.4.5. The app uses AI-based models to upsample images far more intelligently than previous upsampling methods. For our test, we use a 10.2MP picture of a Lockheed P-38 Lighting (a World War II-era fighter plane) shot on a Canon EOS 1D Mk IIn in 2010, and increase the resolution by 6X.

Run purely on the CPUs, the results were pretty disappointing. We’ve seen Intel’s laptop CPU, the 11th-gen Tiger Lake, clean up against Ryzen 4000, older Intel chips, and even Apple’s vaunted M1 by huge margins using Gigapixel AI. But as you know, the 11th-gen laptop CPU uses the most advanced technology Intel has right now.

The 11th-gen desktop Rocket Lake is using Intel's oldest technology, and it shows. The Ryzen 9 is about 8 percent faster than the Rocket Lake, which can’t even outpace its 10th-gen ancestor.

One problem with using a real application is it’s not clear what part of Intel’s byzantine DL Boost features it’s leveraging. We enabled the chip’s IGP, which uses more DL Boost, and re-ran the test. Rocket Lake finally vanquishes the Ryzen 9 by about 9.6 percent, which is solid. But coming off the stupid performance advantage its cousin has on laptops, color us disappointed.

rocket lake gigapixel ai p 38 IDG

Shorter bars indicate better performance

Our second-look at AI performance uses Topaz Lab’s Video Enhance AI 2.0. This app uses machine learning models to clean up or upsample video frame-by-frame. We take a 91-second, 720p video shot on a Kodak Flip-style video camera in 2008 and simply task Video Enhance AI to remove noise, compression and artifacts. The end result is pretty amazing, but using just the CPU, it’s a multi-hour process for all three chips. The 11th-gen Rocket Lake chip has a decent 9-percent advantage over the Ryzen 9. 

Watch what happens, though, when we enable the IGP cores on Rocket Lake: a 210 percent reduction in the time taken. That’s more along the lines of what we were expecting.

One word of advice, though: Just use your fast GPU. Using the GeForce RTX 2080 Ti FE, processing time drops to 350 seconds on the Rocket Lake chip and 372 seconds on the Ryzen 9.

rocket lake topaz video enhance ai IDG

Shorter bars indicate better performance

Core i9-11900K performance: Gaming

Our last performance test might be a bit of a letdown, but we probably shouldn’t be too surprised. Coming into this, Intel has claimed an advantage in gaming but it wasn’t exactly huge. At CES the company claimed about a single-digit advantage, then increased it to low double digits in Total War: Three Kingdoms and Microsoft Flight Simulator. After running the three chips through more than eight different games, the battle between Ryzen 9 and 11th-gen Core i9 clearly depends very much on which ones you play. The 11th-gen Rocket Lake enjoys a small advantage in Gears Tactics, for example, and Far Cry New Dawn. Other games such as Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Horizon Zero Dawn saw both dead even. Ryzen 9 took a small advantage in other games such as Counter Strike: Global Operations and Shadows of the Tomb Raider.

Remember, we ran the gaming tests on Rocket Lake with an Asus GeForce RTX 3080 TUF GPU running in PCIe 4.0 mode. We’re pretty sure once you increase the resolution to 1440p, a wide aspect ratio, or 4K, the performance gaps will narrow even more. What matters is that Intel's 11th-gen chip is generally faster than its 10th-gen ancestor by decent margins. While Ryzen 5000 has generally led Intel’s older 10th-gen chip in gaming, the 11th-gen Core at least puts Intel back into the conversation.

rocket lake gaming IDG

Longer bars indicate better performance

Rocket Lake Power Consumption

We don’t typically delve too far into power consumption on desktop parts, but we had to address Rocket Lake’s reputation for consuming a lot of power. To find out how bad it was, we measured the total power the systems used with the CPU, 32GB of RAM, motherboard, GeForce RTX 2080 Ti FE, M.2 SSDs and Kraken X62 coolers with fans manually set to 100 percent. The power was measured at the socket, because that’s how people pay for electricity. The power consumption was recorded simultaneously, with both systems controlled by the identical mouse and keyboard.

We ran Cinebench R20 using all of the cores, which you can see on the far left side of the chart, and then we ran Cinebench R20 using from 1 thread to the maximum amount of threads each CPU has.

The upshot is that the 11th-gen Rocket Lake indeed consumes a lot of power—nearly 61 percent more during an all-core load. On much lighter loads, the difference narrows to 10 to 20 percent. 

rocket lake power cinebench r20 IDG

Rocket Lake Conclusion

There’s an old saying that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. That’s largely what Intel has had to do with Rocket Lake: Use its tried-and-true (and old) 14nm process to make desktop chips, while saving its most efficient 10nm chips for laptops and servers.

The good news is that 11th-gen Rocket Lake's Cypress Cove cores are indeed an improvement and generally outperform the cores on the 10th-gen Comet Lake chip it replaces. But Intel's latest top-end Core i9 still cannot compete with its AMD rival on multi-threaded work. 

in the pecking order of choices based on the suggested retail prices of $550 for the Core i9-11900K and Ryzen 9 5900X, and $488 for the Core i9-10900K, our first choice would be AMD’s Ryzen 9 5900X, and our second choice, the Core i9-11900K for the improved cores, better performance, and PCIe 4.0 support.

Anyone who pays attention knows that’s not the world we live in. The Ryzen 9 5900X hasn’t been seen anywhere near its suggested price of $550 practically since its introduction. The CPU regularly goes for $800 to $900 when it’s available. The 11th-gen Core i9 will largely compete with other Intel chips such as the Core i9-10900K, which has come back to earth and sells currently for about $450. Although it still can’t seem to make very many 12-core Ryzen 9 5900X chips, AMD has started to pump out enough 8-core Ryzen 7 5800X chips to actually sell them for their list price of $450 for the first time since launch.

The question for many is whether the extra $100 for the 11th gen Core i9-11900K is worth it over the 10th gen Core i9-10900K and the Ryzen 7 5800X. That's a tough call. The 11th gen chip is the fastest of the three, but it just may not be worth the extra $100. Those same value buyers, may actually want to skip the Ryzen 7 5800X and Core i9-10900K entirely for the 10-core Core i9-10850K, which we've seen for $390 or occasionally even $330.

So where does that leave the Core i9-11900K? It's faster than the competition, but also pricier and far more power-hungry. So yes, we’ll politely clap for all the wins the 14nm has pulled off before, but we aren’t too sad that this is the last game.

Intel 11th gen Core i9-11900K Rocket Lake-S Gordon Mah Ung
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