Intel's Core i9-9900K: Technically The Highest Performing Gaming CPU

When Intel announced the new processor lineup, it billed the Core i9-9900K as the ‘world’s best gaming processor’. Here’s Intel’s Anand Srivatsa, showcasing the new packaging for this eight core, sixteen thread, 5.0 GHz giant:

In actual fact, the packaging is very small. Intel didn’t supply us with this upgraded retail version of the box, but we were sampled with a toasty Core i9-9900K inside. We sourced the i7-9700K and i5-9600K from Intel’s partners for this review.

With the claim of ‘world’s best ever gaming processor’, it was clear that this needed to be put to the test. Intel commissioned (paid for) a report into the processor performance by a third party in order to obtain data, which unfortunately had numerous issues, particularly with how the chips it was tested against were benchmarked, but here at AnandTech we’ll give you the right numbers.

For our gaming tests this time around, we put each game through four different resolutions and scenarios, labelled IGP (for 720p), Low (for 1080p), Medium (for 1440p to 4K), and High (for 4K and above). Here’s a brief summary of results:

  • World of Tanks: Best CPU at IGP, Low, Medium, and top class in High
  • Final Fantasy XV: Best CPU or near top in all
  • Shadow of War: Best CPU or near top in all
  • Civilization VI: Best CPU at IGP, a bit behind at 4K, top class at 8K/16K
  • Ashes Classic: Best CPU at IGP, Low, top class at Medium, mid-pack at 4K
  • Strange Brigade DX12/Vulkan: Best CPU or near top in all
  • Grand Theft Auto V: Best CPU or near top in all
  • Far Cry 5: Best CPU or near top in all
  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Near top in all
  • F1 2018: Best CPU or near top in all

There’s no way around it, in almost every scenario it was either top or within variance of being the best processor in every test (except Ashes at 4K). Intel has built the world’s best gaming processor (again).

On our CPU tests, the i9-9900K hit a lot of the synthetics higher than any other mainstream processor. In some of our real world tests, such as application loading or web performance, it lost out from time to time to the i7 and i5 due to having hyper-threading, as those tests tend to prefer threads that have access to the full core resources. For memory limited tests, the high-end desktop platforms provide a better alternative.

While there’s no specific innovation in the processors driving the performance, Intel re-checked the box for STIM, last used on the mainstream in Sandy Bridge. The STIM implementation has enabled Intel to push the frequency of these parts. It was always one of the tools the company had in its back pocket, and many will speculate as to the reasons why it used that tool at this point in time.

But overall, due to the frequency push and the core push, the three new 9th Generation processors sit at the top of most of our mixed workload tests, given the high natural frequency, and set a new standard in Intel’s portfolio for being a jack of all trades. If a user has a variable workload, and wants to squeeze performance, then these new processors will should get you there.

So now, if you are the money-no-object kind of gamer, this is the processor for you. But it’s not a processor for everyone, and that comes down to cost and competition.

At $488 SEP, plus a bit more for 'on-shelf price', plus add $80-$120 for a decent cooler or $200 for a custom loop, it’s going to be out of the range for almost all builds south of $1500 where GPU matters the most. When Intel’s own i5-9600K is under half the cost with only two fewer cores, or AMD’s R7 2700X is very competitive in almost every test, while they might not be the best, they’re more cost-effective.

The outlandish flash of the cash goes on the Core i9-9900K. The smart money ends up on the 9700K, 9600K, or the 2700X. For the select few, money is no object. For the rest of us, especially when gaming at 1440p and higher settings where the GPU is the bigger bottleneck, there are plenty of processors that do just fine, and are a bit lighter on the power bill in the process.

Edit: We initially posted this review with data taken with an ASRock Z370 motherboard. After inspection, we discovered that the motherboard used intentionally over-volts 9th Generation Core processors in our power testing. While benchmarking seems unaffected, we have redone power numbers using an MSI MPG Z390 Gaming Edge AC motherboard, and updated the review accordingly.

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  • GreenReaper - Friday, October 19, 2018 - link

    The answer is "yes, with a but". Certain things scale really well with hyperthreading. Other things can see a severe regression, as it thrashes between one workload and another and/or overheats the CPU, reducing its ability to boost.

    Cache contention can be an issue: the i9-9900K has only 33% more cache than the i7-9700K, not 100% (and even if there were, it wouldn't have the same behaviour unless it was strictly partitioned). Memory bandwidth contention is a thing, too. And within the CPU, some parts can not be partitioned - it just relies on them running fast enough to supplky the parts which can.

    And clearly hyperthreading has an impact on overclocking ability. It might be interesting to see the gaming graphs with the i7-9700K@5.3Ghz vs. i9-9900K@5.0Ghz (or, if you want to save 50W, i7-9700K@5.0Ghz vs. i9-9900K@4.7Ghz - basically the i9-9900K's default all-core boost, but 400Mhz above the i7-9700K's 4.6Ghz all-core default, both for the same power).
  • NaterGator - Friday, October 19, 2018 - link

    Any chance y'all would be willing to run those HT-bound tests with the 9900K's HT disabled in the BIOS?
  • ekidhardt - Friday, October 19, 2018 - link

    Thanks for the review!

    I think far too much emphasis has been placed on 'value'. I simply want the fastest, most powerful CPU that isn't priced absurdly high.

    While the 9900k msrp is high, it's not in the realm of irrational spending, it's a few hundred dollars more. For a person that upgrades once every 5-6 years--a few hundred extra is not that important to me.

    I'd also like to argue against those protesting pre-order logic. I pre-ordered. And my logic is this: intel has a CLEAR track record of great CPU's. There hasn't been any surprisingly terrible CPU's released. They're consistently reliable.

    Anyway! I'm happy I pre-ordered and don't care that it costs a little bit extra; I've got a fast 8 core 16 thread CPU that should last quite a while.
  • Schmich - Friday, October 19, 2018 - link

    You have the numbers anyway. Not everyone buys the highest end and then wait many years to upgrade. That isn't the smartest choice because you spend so much money and then after 2-3 years you're just a mid-ranger.

    For those who want high-end they can still get a 2700x today, and then the 3700x next year with most likely better performance than your 9900k due to 7nm, PLUS have money over PLUS a spare 2700x they can sell.

    Same thing for GPU except for this gen. I never understood those who buy the xx80Ti version and then upgrade after 5 years. Your overall experience would be better only getting the xx70 but upgrading more often.
  • Spunjji - Monday, October 22, 2018 - link

    This is what actual logic looks like!
  • Gastec - Sunday, November 4, 2018 - link

    Basically "The more you buy, the more you save" :-\
  • shaolin95 - Friday, October 19, 2018 - link

    Exactly. I think the ones beating the value dead horse are mainly AMD fanboys defending their 2700x purchase
  • eva02langley - Friday, October 19, 2018 - link

    Sorry, value is a huge aspect. The reason why RTX is such an issue. Also, at this price point, I would go HEDT if compute was really that important for me.

    It is not with 10-15% performance increase over a 2700x at 1080p with a damn 1080 TI that I will see a justified purchase.
  • Arbie - Friday, October 19, 2018 - link

    Gratuitous trolling, drags down thread quality. Do you really still need to be told what AMD has done for this market? Do you even think this product would exist without them - except at maybe twice the already high price? Go pick on someone that deserves your scorn, such as ... Intel.
  • Great_Scott - Friday, October 19, 2018 - link

    What a mess. I guess gaming really doesn't depend on the CPU any more. Those Ryzen machines were running at a 1Ghz+ speed deficit and still do decently.

    Intel needs a new core design and AMD needs a new fab.

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