When Intel declared its new 9th gen Core i9-9900K the “world’s best gaming CPU,” it lied. After poking and prodding the CPU, we can say without a doubt that it is actually the fastest mainstream CPU around and—wait for it—the fastest gaming CPU too.
For those who watch every nuance of CPU movements like a degenerate gambler following the ponies, this news won’t exactly come as a shock. After all, take a 14nm++ (+?) CPU, throw on two more cores and crank the clock speed up to 5GHz almost all of the time, and it’s easy to see how the Core i9-9900K would top the charts.
The shocker to us wasn’t that it was fast, but just how fast, and how easy it was to make even faster.
Just what does 9th-gen even mean?
With this launch, Intel has decided to notch up its processor series to the 9th generation. We actually asked the company what the generation denomination meant years ago when it clicked over to 6th gen. Back then, Intel said it was related to the graphics core generations on the CPUs. With the 7th generation, Intel said even though the graphics cores were exactly the same, the changes to the media processing engine (technically part of the graphics core) was enough to count. Umm, OK.
With the 8th generation of CPUs, we didn’t even bother to ask, because it was clear it didn’t really mean anything except maybe newer and faster.
So if you want the short answer, 9th gen doesn’t mean anything except that it’s better than trying to call it New CPU Number 42. As far as we can tell, the x86 cores are the same as on the 8th gen CPU, and the graphics core, too.
STIM and More Cores!
There is one key change with this generation, though: more cores. Obviously stung by AMD’s wildly successful 8-core Ryzen CPUs, Intel has decided to match AMD on core counts. The top-end CPU reviewed here, the Core i9-9900K, features eight cores with Hyper-Threading. Intel didn’t just glue on two more cores and call it a day, either. It also brought back a soldered thermal interface material, or STIM.
In the picture below, you’re not seeing the silicon chip itself, you’re seeing a metal heat spreader, which helps protect the delicate die from damage by, you guessed it, spreading the heat.
If you think of the silicon die as one side of an Oreo, and the metal heat spreader as the other side, the STIM is the white sugary stuffing that connects the two. Years ago with its 2nd-gen Sandy Bridge CPUs, Intel used solder TIM but suddenly changed to a likely cheaper paste (also called polymer) TIM. With Ryzen’s arrival, Intel likely needed a performance boost, and the STIM is just that.
A new Z390 chipset, too
Paired with the new Core i9-9900K is Intel’s new Z390 chipset. For the most part, the only change of matter is native USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps speeds). The rest is the same except for wireless integration, which you don’t care about.
Backward compatibility with older motherboards is the best news: Intel said Z370 boards should fully support the new 9th-gen CPUs. Intel has taken heat in the past for requiring new motherboards with new CPUs, so let’s give credit where it’s due.
How we tested
For this test, we used an engineering sample Core i9-9900K, along with an engineering sample Core i7-8700K and an early-production AMD Ryzen 7 2700X, provided directly by AMD.
We tested the Core i9-9900K on an Asus Maximus XI Hero Z390 board, the Core i7-8700K on a Gigabyte Aorus Gaming 7 Z370 board and the Ryzen 7 2700X on an MSI X470 Gaming M7 AC motherboard.,
All three used two single-rank 8GB Geil Flare X DDR4/3200 DIMMs in dual-channel mode. XMP memory profiles were set for all three. For storage, we used three identical 250GB Kingston HyperX Savage MLC SATA drives.
We installed identical Founders Edition GeForce GTX 1080 cards on each testbed, using the latest available public drivers. All three were checked with GPU-only tests to ensure they performed consistently.
For cooling, we initially tried to use the stock AMD Wraith Spire Prism along with two aftermarket, Intel BXTS15A coolers with the fans at 100 percent. We decided the stock Intel air cooler wasn’t up to the task of the Core i9-9900K, so we switched to three Corsair H80i V2 AIO CLC coolers, with the fans set to 100 percent on all three and mounted in the same manner (external). All three systems were run with their side panel removed, with AC-powered fans blowing cool air over the GPUs and motherboards.
For OS, we used Windows 10 Home version 1803, along with the latest motherboard BIOSes and chipset drivers for each platform.
To MCE or not?
For the last five years or so, most Intel motherboards have provided an extra setting typically called “Multi-Core Enhancement.” MCE allows each motherboard maker to set higher targets for boost clocks. It’s technically overclocking, but it also isn’t because it’s enabled from the factory, so it doesn’t actually void your warranty.
Because MCE is part of the experience most consumers would get with a Core i9 on particular motherboards, we were really at odds about whether to enable it.
In the end, we didn’t enable it for our testing, but we did run additional tests on the Core i9 with MCE set to Auto and On, because somehow it felt fair to show just how easy it is to get that “free” performance.
For example, on our Maximus XI Hero board and with our Corsair H80i V2, setting MCE to auto gave us all core loads up to 4.7GHz during H.265 encoding. Setting it to On ran all cores up to 5GHz under fairly heavy loads most of the time.
This is just too much too much goodness to pass up, so we’ll point it out when it’s worth it.
Core i9-9900K 3D Modelling Performance
Let’s kick off our performance analysis using Cinebench R15. Based on Maxon’s Cinema4D engine (albeit slightly older), this is a real-world 3D rendering application.
Although we’re going to zero in on the freshest OS version for the bulk of our tests, we feel pretty comfortable showing how the Core i9-9900K stacks up against a raft of CPUs we’ve tested using prior OS versions. Like most 3D rendering apps, it loves core count—so we’re very interested in seeing how the high clocks of the Core i9 matter.
Although the Core i9-9900K can’t hang with 18-core and 32-core CPUs, the combination of its high clock speeds puts it in the running with the 10-core Core i9-7900X and the 10-core Core i7-6950X chip. And yes, the Core i7-6950X did indeed cost $1,723.
The world isn’t about multi-threading, though, and single-threaded performance is often far more important for most of the work people do. To measure that, we also run Cinebench in single-threaded mode. As we did for the last test, we ran the Core i9-9900K with MCE on and MCE off.
It doesn’t really matter, though, because on a single core, the Core i9-9900K runs at 5GHz stock. The Core i9-9900K easily dominates the mainstream CPUs, as well as the workhorse chips that cost almost four times as much.
Our next test is the Corona Renderer. This is a photorealistic unbiased renderer. That may sound like it’s a test that doesn’t favor any hardware, but it actually refers to the rendering technique it uses.
We ran the Core i9 with MCE off, on auto, and manually turned on. For the most part, that means a long-term boost speed of all cores of 4.3GHz, 4.7GHz, and 5GHz.
In Corona, which uses all of those cores, we can see 16 threads at 5GHz pays off nicely.
Next up is V-ray, which is a physically-based renderer. More cores matter, and more cores at higher clocks seem to matter more. V-ray also appears to like Intel’s architecture more than AMD’s, as the Core i7-8700K creeps right up behind the Ryzen 7 2700X. Far ahead, though, is that Core i9-9900K.
Our next test is the open-source Blender program that’s popular among indie movie makers. We ran the Core i9 with MCE off, on auto, and manually turned on. Using the free BMW benchmark file, the Core i9 has a decent lead over the Ryzen 7 2700X, but not enough until you switch on MCE.
Our last 3D modelling test is POV-Ray. It’s a ray tracing application that has its roots in the Commodore Amiga. In the built-in multi-threading test, it’s really a 4.3GHz 8-core vs. a 4GHz 8-core race, with the Core i9 coming in about 10 percent faster when set to stock speeds.
Where the Core i9 consistently pulls far ahead of the Ryzen 7 2700X is in lighter loads. In POV-Ray, the Core i9 is about 25 percent faster thanks to its high clocks. In fact, even the older Core i7-8700K passes the Ryzen 7 on the single-threaded test.
Core i9-9900K Encoding and Video Editing Performance
Moving on to video editing, we’ll kick this off with the free and popular HandBrake test. In this newer test, we use the latest version of HandBrake to convert the 4K open-source Tears of Steel video to 1080p and 30 fps, using the Matroska H.265 profile
We’re not entirely sure why, but it’s clear the Ryzen 7 2700X suffers using the H.265 profile. The Core i9 is about 23 percent faster than the Ryzen 7 2700X, and the 6-core Core i7-8700K actually edges past the AMD CPU as well.
But just to show that sometimes it’s the profile in HandBrake, we also encoded the file using the 1080p Apple preset. This preset is obviously far easier on the Ryzen, which closes the gap to about 7 percent with the Core i9.
Our next video encoding test uses the new Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2019 NLE to export a short video shot on a 4K Sony Alpha camera. It’s an actual video produced by our video team, so it’s about as real-world as you can get. For our first test, we export the file using the H.265 preset and switch on the maximum render option.
We also run the encode using the host CPU rather than the GPU. Video nerds, as we’ve been told, still believe CPU encodes produce the best video.
For this particular test, to ensure storage is not the bottleneck, we read and write to the same Plextor PCIe SSD, which was moved from system to system for the test.
As we saw with HandBrake in H.265 encodes, the Core i9 has a hefty advantage over the Ryzen 7 2700X. The 6-core Core i7 even runs about even with the 8-core Ryzen 7.
Why H.265 is such a problem in HandBrake and Premiere isn’t clear to us, but if that’s what you need to run, you’ll likely want Intel.
As we want to be fair, we did run our Blu-ray export. It’s basically the same project, but we export it using the Blu-ray preset in Premiere and check maximum render quality. In this H.264 encode, Ryzen is far more competitive than the Core i9 chip.
More information is better than less, so our last Premiere test switches the encode from CPU to GPU. Typically more cores still help, but it appears it doesn’t matter whether it’s Intel or AMD from our results.
Core i9-9900K Compression Performance
Moving on to compression performance, we used WinRAR 5.60’s built-in benchmark to measure how well each CPU fares. The result here is all smiles for the Intel CPU. It simply devastates the Core i7-8700K and blows the Ryzen 7 2700X out of the water.
The performance of the 8-core Ryzen 7 is no surprise though. We know from previous comparisons that WinRAR just doesn’t like the Ryzen microarchitectue. We’ve guessed it could have something to do with the fabric designs of the Zen, as WinRAR also performs poorly on Intel’s Core X chips that use a fabric-like mesh architecture.
WinRAR costs money, though, so many prefer the free 7-Zip. Besides being free, it outperforms the built-in Windows compression performance so emphatically, we can download 7-Zip, install it, and decompress a benchmark faster than using the built-in tool.
The free app has a built-in benchmark, which we use to measure both compression and decompression performance. It’s a multi-threaded test, and compression performance is mostly reliant on integer performance among other things. The Core i9 again rules the day, blowing both the Core i7 and the Ryzen 7 out of the water to the turn of almost 30 percent. In the case of the Core i7 with just 6 cores, this isn’t a surprise. What we can’t figure out is why the Ryzen 7 gets lumped so badly here.
7-Zip’s decompression performance is far more reliant on memory bandwidth, though, and Ryzen 7 closes up the gap nicely. The Core i9’s winning margin is still too close for comfort for a $488 CPU fighting a $329 rival.
Core i9-9900K Encryption Performance
Our last application performance test uses VeraCrypt to gauge AES decryption performance. The Core i9 again shines, while the 8-core Ryzen 7 is left slumming with the 6-core Core i7-8700K.
”World’s best gaming CPU?”
Hopefully, even ardent AMD fans would have to admit the results in applications put the Core i9-9900K at the front of the line for mainstream CPUs. But where Intel really planted its flag is in gaming.
For our tests, we tried to keep it fair by using some games AMD has already vetted to be OK on its CPUs. We also try to represent both sides of the resolution argument in today’s world. Some, for example, argue that 1080p should only be used for CPU testing, and at low settings, to remove the GPU as the bottle neck. Others argue that higher resolutions and game settings should be exclusively used to represent results that would actually be used.
We find validity in both sides. While we “only” used GeForce GTX 1080 cards for our testing, we’re working on procuring the current speed champ in GPUs and will rerun these tests to see if using a much faster GPU will give an advantage to the faster CPU.
Deus Ex: Mankind United Performance
First up is Deus Ex: Mankind United. Running this game at 1920×1080 (1080p) on its Ultra setting in DX12 mode, we can see that for the most part, it’s a wash between the two 8-core chips. This made us wonder whether our GeForce GTX 1080 card was holding us back.
Moving the game quality sliders to Low in Deus Ex lets us take the GPU out of the equation. The high clocks of both Intel CPUs take over, and we see that familiar “Ryzen 20- to 25-percent gaming deficit” appear.
Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation Performance
Moving on Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation, we decided to skip the high-quality test because Ashes is the game to measure DirectX12 CPU performance. For our test, we selected low quality to take the GPU out of the equation, and chose the CPU Focused benchmark which uses additional physics and units to push the CPU’s capability. No surprise: The Core i9 is a healthy 19 percent faster than the Ryzen 7 2700X.
F1 2016 Performance
Our next game is Code Master’s F1 2016. Let’s jump straight to the meat and see what happens when the workload is not GPU-bound. No surprise, the higher-clocked Intel CPUs are in front, with the Core i9 coming in 27 percent faster than the Ryzen 7 2700X.
Because we want to temper expectations, we also run F1 2016 at 2560×1600 resolution on Ultra. The results are exactly what you expect: the same. When it’s a GPU-limited game, we should expect this if the CPU is decently faster. We’ll definitely test out this theory with GeForce RTX 2080 Ti cards, which are a good clip faster than GeForce GTX 1080 cards.
Hitman Absolution Performance
Next up is Hitman Absolution which, honestly, doesn’t like Ryzen all that much. Running at 1920×1080 on Ultra, the Core i9-9900K is a crazy 37 percent faster. We’d guess this game is all about clock speeds, too, as the Core i7-8700K represents well.
Next we ran the game at 2560×1600 to see if we could make this more of GPU load, but Core i9 is still far in front. Some of this could be the same lack of CPU optimization that has vexed Ryzen since its launch, but some the monstrous 5GHz clock of the Core i9 is another likely factor.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider Performance
We’ll close out game results with Lara Croft. First, we’ll run Rise of the Tomb Raider at 19×10 in DX12 mode. Even at this resolution, RoTR seems to be limited purely by GPU performance. We’ll be interested to see whether dropping in a GeForce RTX 2080 Ti will change this equation, but that’s for later.
Setting RoTR to a lower visual quality setting, we wanted to see what the results are once the GPU isn’t as much of a hindrance.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a bit elderly at this point, so we moved on to the new Shadow of the Tomb Raider. This title is expected to roll in more multi-core support in its DirectX12 mode, and it doesn’t disappoint. The built-in benchmark reports overall frame rate as well as a CPU Average Frame Rate. The latter refers to performance when the GPU isn’t a factor.
Set to 1080p and Highest visual quality, we see the same puzzling pattern we saw with Deus Ex: The 8-core chips outperform the 6-core Core i7-8700K by a decent margin.
Once you lower the visual quality of the game, the Core i7-8700K jumps ahead of the Ryzen 7 2700X. And yes, the Core i9-9900K is simply cooking.
To close this out, we also ran the game on the Core i9 with MCE in Auto and On. This basically takes it from being a 4.3GHz all-core CPU, to a 4.7GHz all-core (MCE Auto) and 5GHz (MCE On) CPU. As you can see, the higher the clock speeds, the higher the CPU average result in the game.
Core i9-9900K Performance Analysis
To close out our performance testing, we like to use Cinebench R15 and increase the load from one thread to many on the various CPUs. First up is the Core i9-9900K vs. the Core i7-8700K. The results clearly show the 6-core Core i7-8700K can’t hang with the new Core i9-9900K at any level.
One problem with the chart above is you can’t get a feel for the scale of the performance difference, so we ran the numbers for you. As you can see, at low thread loads, the Core i9 is running at higher clocks than the Core i7, with 7 percent to 10 percent more performance. Where the Core i9 really opens up a Costco pallet’s worth of oomph is beyond 8 threads.
This isn’t about blue-on-blue, though. Intel is clearly aiming AMD, so let’s see how the Ryzen compares. As you can see below, the Core i9 gives up no quarter.
As we did above, let’s how that translates into percent increase of a Core i9-9900K over a Ryzen 7 2700X. One weakness of the Ryzen 7 2700X has always been on lighter loads. Where the Core i9 only has a 7- to 10-percent bump over the Core i7, it’s into the double digits with Ryzen 7 2700X. It’s basically 20 percent faster at all loads up until 11 or more threads. On stock settings, the Core i9 falls back to about 4.3GHz to 4.2GHz, which makes it closer.
But that brings us back to the original thorny question of MCE. MCE is available on motherboards as cheap as $130. One could argue that board may push it as hard as the pricey Maximus XI Hero we’re using here but if you have a decent motherboard, it’s likely you’ll get a decent bump out of MCE. And with MCE on, as you see below, the Core i9-9900K is simply a monster.
Conclusion: Core i9-9900K is actually worth it
We’ll be honest, we were pretty skeptical of Intel’s Core i9-9900K. After all, with an 8-core Ryzen 7 1700X at $329 (and $300 on the street), which includes a decent cooler, what’s Intel thinking, pushing an 8-core Core i9 chip for $488 ($529 on the street) without a cooler?
Sure, we accepted the Core i9 would be faster. After all, it’s 8 cores with a Turbo Boost of 5GHz. But damn, $529? Once you toss in a decent cooler, you’re looking at $580. The price differential is enough to buy a decent graphics card, a lot of RAM, or a big SSD.
But seen in the light of our performance testing, we can now say the Core i9-9900K is definitely worth the stretch for performance fiends. The Core i9-9900K is simply a monster of a CPU that can easily claim the title of being the fastest mainstream CPU and the fastest gaming CPU. That’s just not something that comes cheap.