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The Core i9-10900K is the tip of Intel’s spear in its newest 10th Generation Core (“Comet Lake-S”) lineup of desktop CPUs. As a top-of-the-line 10-core processor (the estimated selling price is $488 for the bare chip), the Core i9-10900K posts great scores in gaming with our standard test GPU (even setting a record one title, Counter Strike: Global Offensive). But it doesn’t quite match up with AMD’s competing 12-core Ryzen 3900X in content-creation and highly multi-threaded tasks. The need for a new motherboard to upgrade to Comet Lake-S only adds to the real-world cost of the Core i9-10900K, and its thermal demands left us wanting.

If you already have a late-model gaming or content creation PC, it doesn’t do enough, at least at the moment, to justify the cost of adopting a whole new platform, especially in a world with strong Ryzen 9, Ryzen 7, and Ryzen 5 chips in AMD’s arsenal (plus the spanking-new Editors Choice Ryzen 3 3300X for gaming budget buyers). The peak Comet Lake-S CPU doesn’t change the overall desktop-CPU calculus much. If you’re in the market for a mega-core monster CPU for gaming and creative work on a mainstream platform, and don’t want to jump to the Intel Core X-Series or AMD’s Ryzen Threadrippers, the recommendation is the same today as it’s been since July of last year: Go with one of AMD’s mainstream AM4 chips instead.

Comet Lake-S: Reheating 14nm

The Core i9-10900K is, like all other Comet Lake-S chips in the full line, based on the same 14nm++ production process as 9th Generation desktop chips were. (See our overview of the family’s reveal earlier this month.) It comes at an interesting time for Intel, representing what could be (read: hopefully) the end of an era for its 14nm lithography.

The whole Comet Lake-S stack makes use (now much refined, of course) of the same basic process technology as “Broadwell” back in 2014. With AMD’s Zen 2 CPUs, introduced from the second half of 2019 and into 2020, all integrating a 7nm chiplet-based architecture, it’s clear that Intel needed to pull out all the stops for 10th Generation if it hoped to remain relevant. After all, AMD is reportedly preparing for the launch of its Zen 3 architecture later this year. 

The new Intel Core i9-10900K represents the top of an entirely new stack for Intel, reaching all the way down low-power-efficiency CPUs like the Core i3-10100T. The company has reintroduced its thread-doubling Hyper-Threading technology to many of the chip SKUs, a fan favorite that was broadly disabled in most 9th Generation desktop chips.

Intel Core i9-10900K

With the launch of Intel’s new 10th Generation stack of chips has come a new socket, LGA 1200, and a gigantic pile of new of motherboards to support it based on the new Z490 chipset. (Boards based on the cheaper B460 and H410 chipsets will follow in short order.) 

Whether or not these 14nm++-based chips had be upgraded to all-new chipsets and series of platforms is Intel’s own calculation, but it’s clear that the company is doing all it can to squeeze as much juice out of 14nm before it’s retired sometime in, perhaps, 2021. Given the chip maker’s much discussed issues with 10nm production, this new platform may be the final stretch of necessary 14nm highway before the bridge to a much smaller process technology.

Intel Core i9-10900K Underside

The thing is, though, even with the new socket, new chipsets, and new platform, the whole works still feels behind AMD’s latest, in some respects. For one thing, Z490 doesn’t bring any massive new must-buy features. A second big reason: the lack of support for PCI Express 4.0. Despite the fact that AMD has supported PCIe 4.0 since the launch of the X570 chipset back in July of 2019, in near-June of 2020 Intel still has no “official” plans to support the new standard on Z490 motherboards. (We asked; it was a “no comment” situation.)

Now we say “official” in quotes because leaks correspond to some other indications from motherboard makers. According to a leaked internal slide acquired by VideoCardz.com (take as ever, leaks with a grain of salt; they can be faked), Intel’s upcoming plans for its next generation of desktop chips, dubbed “Rocket Lake-S,” include PCIe 4.0 support on the Z490 platform. Some makers of Z490 motherboards (including Asrock, Gigabyte, and MSI) have dubbed some of their Z490 motherboards PCI Express 4.0 “ready,” though what exactly they mean by that remains to be seen. As a result, it’s looking likely that Z490 isn’t just here for 10th Generation Core desktop, which makes sense when you consider Intel’s standard pace of socket upgrades over the years (that is, they last for two generations).

Intel Core i9-10900K

AMD, on the other hand, has been supporting AM4 for years now, and even just as we wrote this announced on Reddit its official plans to continue support for its coming Zen 3 CPUs on some of the later AM4 chipsets. The company is working wonders to ensure that the most possible customers have an affordable way to use their processors on existing hardware, from the bottom of the stack to the very top (excluding Ryzen Threadripper, of course, which is its own animal and saw a socket and chipset switcheroo with its latest generation).

Point being: If you’re planning to upgrade to the Intel 10th Generation chips as of today, at bare minimum you’ll need to factor in the cost of a new motherboard, which for Z490, at the lowest end, may cost you $199 and up for options like the budget-focused Asus TUF Gaming Z490-Plus. More-affordable boards that utilize the LGA 1200-compatible H410 and B460 chipsets are due to drop next week; however, users who go that route will have to sacrifice the option for overclocking, which precludes opting for the Core i9-10900K as a viable option. The “K” as ever means it’s unlocked for overclocking, and that is part of the appeal for some of the folks who buy at the top end of any Intel chip stack.

Intel vs. AMD Comparison: Core i9-10900K vs. Ryzen 9 3900X

Speaking of bucks, no Intel chip-stack launch would be complete without our value comparison to AMD. Let’s take a look at it versus its closest competition…

AMD vs Intel Spec Comparison

Hold that $499 price in thought for a moment on the Ryzen 9.

The Intel Core i9-10900K is a 10-core/20-thread CPU with an Intel UHD Graphics 630 integrated graphics processor (IGP) with a TDP of 125 watts, clocked to 3.7GHz at base. Intel claims the chip is capable of hitting 5.3GHz on both single-core and all-core tasks as long as the thermal limits of its “Thermal Velocity Boost” technology aren’t breached (more on that in a minute).

On the AMD side, the best point of comparison is the 12-core/24-thread Ryzen 9 3900X, at least on specs. On current street prices though, an interesting dynamic was playing out as we wrote this. AMD lowered the 3900X’s official list price to $449, and several retailers, among them Amazon and B&H, dropped this previously-$499 MSRP processor all the way down to $409, which we imagine was done in response (at least temporarily) to Intel’s pending launch and/or Memorial Day sales. At that price, if it sticks (there is no indication that it will), it’s difficult to even keep these two chips in the same category, a task that only gets more difficult once the benchmark numbers start rolling in. Even the “full” $449 list price is very competitive.

Now, back to that boost. According to the company line: “Intel Thermal Velocity Boost (Intel TVB) is a feature that opportunistically and automatically increases clock frequency above single-core and multi-core Intel Turbo Boost Technology frequencies based on how much the processor is operating below its maximum temperature and whether turbo power budget is available.”

We weren’t able to get a full answer on how this tech differs from what it sounds like it’s describing (that is, automatic overclocking, which you can find on many higher-end motherboards these days), nor were we able to track any instances where this feature was specifically the reason that a clock was hitting a higher clock speed. But it’s all baked into our stock testing numbers, which we’ll get into in a moment.

We tested the Core i9-10900K on an Asus ROG Maximus XII Hero Wi-Fi motherboard, with 16GB of G.Skill memory clocked to 3,000MHz (for comparability with our earlier CPU reviews), an Intel SATA boot SSD and an ADATA SATA M.2 secondary drive.

All this was packed in ADATA’s XPG Invader chassis, fitted with a Deepcool GamerStorm Captain 240 EX 240mm liquid cooler and a 750-watt Corsair power supply. For our gaming tests, we used an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti, at Founders Edition clocks, as we have on all recent mainstream and high-end CPU reviews.

Unlike most of Intel’s mainstream CPU line, the Core i9-10900K does not bundle a cooler in the box, and Intel recommends liquid cooling for this chip and its 125-watt TDP. (A 240mm cooler will set you back at least $100 or so unless you own one already; LGA 1200 works with coolers for recent Intel mainstream chip sockets, such as LGA 1151 and LGA 1156.) That is in marked contrast to the Ryzen 9 3900X, which does bundle AMD’s nice Wraith Prism air cooler right in the box, further ka-ching savings. (Only the step-up Ryzen 9 3950X comes cooler-less and needs a liquid cooling solution.)

Benchmark Rundown: It’s a 10-Core War

First, some performance preface. We noted some more “teething” with this prelaunch testing session than with most new-platform-launch CPU reviews. We suspect most of this wobble will clear with early BIOS updates; we can’t help but think with the COVID-19 crisis and all of the disruption it has caused to commerce and business, that a smooth-as-glass launch could hardly be immune to at least a few hiccups. 

We started our testing with a Gigabyte Z490 Aorus Master board provided by Intel with the chip samples, but we had difficulties getting the board to install Windows 10 on a couple of SATA SSDs; the install would fail, with the PC shutting down and rebooting partway through the Windows 10 setup process for reasons we were unable to diagnose. We ended up settling on the Asus ROG Maximus XII Hero board as our alternate tester. 

We had an initial issue with a Samsung 2.5-inch SATA SSD we installed as our boot drive there; that only resolved when we swapped it out for an Intel SATA 2.5-inch drive as our boot drive. (Through it all we used a secondary ADATA SATA M.2 drive to host all our game install files.) Also, the Asus board received a couple of BIOS updates in the course of our testing, one of them (version 0509) coming so close to the launch that we were able to install it just two days before the launch date and rerun our tests, invalidating all our earlier results. (It cleared up some thermal oddments we noted in early tests.)

We are still not 100 percent convinced that the board is pushing the i9-10900K to its very tip-top potential at stock settings, but we also used the board for some “AI assisted” overclocking that perked things up a bit further. More on that later. First, some stock-settings results. 

Cinebench R15 and R20

Among the most widely used predictors of a CPU’s relative performance are the Cinebench R15 and R20 benchmark tests, which offer a good muscle measure for demanding multi-threaded content-creation apps. These are thoroughly CPU-centric tests that gauge both the single-core performance and the multicore performance of a processor when it is stressed. The resulting scores are proprietary numbers that represent the CPU’s capabilities while rendering a complex 3D image.

Intel Core i9-10900K Cinebench R15

Intel Core i9-10900K Cinebench R20

The all-cores Cinebench numbers, we should note, on this processor were a tad inconsistent, and we’ve reported the best runs we got at stock. (The single-core numbers were rock steady.) On repeat runs we would often see the all-cores score drop by 3 to 5 percent, for reasons we were unable to nail down before the launch. Still, you can see the edge held by the rival Ryzen 9 3900X here on the all-cores tests. 

iTunes

For another kind of real-world look at single-core performance, we use a, shall we say, well-aged version of Apple’s iTunes to encode a series of music tracks. It remains in our test lineup simply as a representative of legacy software we all use from time to time that has not been heavily optimized for multicore operation.

intel core i9 10900k iTunes

Given the chance at a single-threaded task, Intel’s chips are typically clear winners over equivalent AMDs, thanks to their higher single-core speeds. That trend held fast here. Then again, we hope you’re not buying a $500 CPU and new motherboard for this kind of thing alone.

POV-Ray

The POV-Ray benchmark is a synthetic, highly threaded rendering test that offers a second opinion on the Cinebench results. This test uses ray tracing to render (offscreen) a three-dimensional image. (Note that it doesn’t use the ray tracing features of Nvidia’s RTX-class GPUs; this is purely CPU-focused.) We run all-cores and single-core variants.

Intel Core i9-10900K POV-Ray

The testing remained rock-steady across all runs of all-cores POV-Ray, unlike on Cinebench. The story of multi-threaded dominance, though, continues for the less-expensive Ryzen 9 3900X here, though the chip is quickly shown up by the Core i9-10900K once the single-core POV-Ray run kicks off.

Handbrake and Blender

As an all-core rendering benchmark, the Handbrake test is a great indicator of how well a processor will handle tasks like video editing, video rendering, and video conversion, as these kinds of apps tend to munch on all the cores and threads they can get in their teeth…

Intel Core i9-10900K Handbrake

Here the Ryzen 9 3900X, again, wins by a consequential amount. If you’re only converting the odd video file here and there, the roughly half-minute lead won’t make much of a visible difference. However, if you work in a field like digital imaging tech (DIT) and need to process terabytes of videos a day, those lost minute fragments will really start to add up.

Meanwhile, the shorter Blender test, as run with our test file, is mostly useful for highlighting the vast differences between low-end and high-end chips, and the similarities between chips within these two categories.

Intel Core i9-10900K Blender

A win for the Intel Core i9-10900K in a multi-threaded task! Now, to be fair it’s within the margin of error, but our Blender render is also considered a lightly-threaded task, which Intel does seem to do well in compared to AMD’s high-core monsters.

7-Zip

And here on the 7-Zip file-compression benchmark, another thread-happy, CPU-intensive task…

Intel Core i9-10900K 7-Zip

Again, Intel falls within firing distance of the AMD Ryzen 3900X, but loses the race.

The overall results of our CPU-centric tests are much what we expected. If you want the best content-creation CPU on the market under $500, Intel and its 10-core Core i9-10900K aren’t quite competitive enough with the 12-core Ryzen 9 3900X to justify the increased cost of adoption, unless you’re perhaps starting from zero hardware but happen to own a socket-compatible liquid cooler.

And Onwards to Gaming: Core i9-10900K Frame Rates

Rubber? Meet road. Here’s what we saw in our bank of gaming tests using, again on our GeForce RTX 2080 Ti. This top-end consumer graphics card is the primary limiter of performance at 4K with all the CPUs here, but at 1080p, it gets out of the way a bit more and lets the CPU differences shine…  

Intel Core i9-10900K Graphics tests

The launch of the Zen 2 architecture and Ryzen 3rd Gen on July 7 of last year was nothing short of a game-changer for AMD and value-minded content creators around the world, looking for a break on the hold that Intel had on that market. But the company and its competing processors, like the Ryzen 9 3900X, still lag behind Intel in one critical area: gaming at the very highest frame rates, for serious esports types and owners of high-refresh-rate gaming monitors. 

Despite the many innovations made by AMD in its partnership with TSMC during the move to 7nm, the gains the company made in its 2019 launch CPUs and later ones were primarily in amazing leaps in value based on cost per core…not so much in raw gaming performance, though these 7nm Ryzens were more competitive in that vein than the first two generations. For the most part, that truth is reflected here: core-to-core, Intel generally posts faster results…but does that actually mean the chips are giving gamers a good value for those frame gains? 

To wit: You might be asking…just what is that Ryzen 3 3300X doing in our table above, next to Intel’s new mainstream flagship chip? While it almost seems unfair to AMD to pit a 10-core monster like the $488 Core i9-10900K against its just-released $120 Ryzen 3 3300X, we chose to put these two processors side by side to prove a larger point: Despite being about four times as expensive in MSRP (or a little more, based on the street price of Core i9-10900K pre-orders), at 1080p resolution, the Core i9-10900K was only, on average, around 30 percent faster than the Ryzen 3 3300X in our gaming test set.

Now, there are always going to be diminishing returns for applications like gaming the higher up in a CPU stack you go. (You pay more and you get more the higher up you go, but the “less more” as you reach the top.) But that radical cost difference can’t be ignored if your concern is value-for-money in a pure mainstream gaming CPU. Plus, not only is the Ryzen 3 3300X far cheaper than the Core i9-10900K, but it’s also backward-compatible with all AM4 motherboards, meaning your price to upgrade could be cut down even further than what you’d spend on a Z490 board to get a Core i9-10900K system built.

Of course, some folks need the maximum possible frame rates, the cost be damned, and the i9-10900K delivers there. They may also need a level of multicore CPU performance that a four-core Ryzen 3 can’t deliver. But for those of us on real world budgets, an extra $300 to be spent on a new GPU is not small potatoes. Of course, if you can already pay top dollar for “all the frames,” you’re also buying near the top of the GPU stack, too, we suspect, in which case this i9 makes more sense. But that’s a rarified layer of buyers. 

A Brief Note on Overclocking and Thermals

We didn’t have enough time post-BIOS updates before launch to dig really deep into overclocking the Core i9-10900K manually within the BIOS. We ran into issues getting Intel’s in-Windows XTU utility to show much improvement with even modest overclocks, and found the only gains came by tweaking the power-limit (PL) states in XTU to keep the chip from power-limiting partway into test runs.

That said, we didn’t see the chip in our limited hands-on OC trials much exceed 85 degrees C; our stock run of Cinebench R20 saw the chip peak at 79 degrees C at stock. There is the potential for more, we suspect, for the patient tweaker. It may be down to more time needed on our end, or another BIOS update.

We did employ, however, in the interest of time Asus’ AI-based overclocking feature built into our test board to see what the machine could do on its own. That did break through some of the XTU logjams we were seeing and did get our all-cores Cinebench R20 to bounce up by about 5 percent on a couple of runs and the single-core test by a smidge less; it also shortened our POV-Ray all-cores run by a few seconds. Other benchmarks, though, didn’t show significant gains, including a few games we tested with the AI OC feature. To the feature’s credit, the system stayed stable through all our tests.

If we make more progress on overclock after launch we’ll update this space, but even so: Even if we were able to boost the various CPU benches by as much as 10 percent, it wouldn’t radically change the value calculus, to our eyes. That would require a lot of extra expense in liquid cooling, a jeopardized warranty, possible shorter chip life, and tweakage time to gain what you can more or less get stock from a Ryzen 9 3900X.  

More an ‘Update’ Than a Must-Have ‘Upgrade’

If this launch of Intel’s latest line of chips had a headline, for us it would read “I Am Jack’s Complete Lack of Surprise.” On both specs and performance, the Intel Core i9-10900K brings, pardon the cliche, evolutionary, not revolutionary, change. The main differences from the previous generation, beyond the new platform and socket requirement, are the two extra cores in this top-end chip, some clock-speed changes, and…that’s about it.

Now that the dust of the Zen 2 launch is finally settled with AMD’s recent Ryzen 3 releases (though perhaps not for long, if the rumors about incoming Renoir-based desktop APUs are true), we’re looking at two distinct camps among the newest mainstream desktop CPUs here in 2020: Intel 10th Gen CPUs, which are, on paper, the fastest processors for single-threaded tasks, lightly threaded tasks, and hardcore gaming; and AMD’s Ryzens, which offer superior value for cost-per-core, plus shopping “efficiencies” in terms of hardware you might already own. Cost-per-core is an issue for the Core i9-10900K, especially if you have to factor in a new board (and you will), while AMD’s Ryzens offer a great value for content creators at almost every point in the configuration ladder, as well as seriously money-strapped gamers with the 3300X. 

Intel Core i9 and i5 Promo Box

If you want a processor that will power Counter Strike far beyond the limits of what’s possible on today’s monitor technology, both Intel and AMD chips at this price point will do that. (And bear that “what’s possible” in mind; depending on your GPU and monitor, today gains beyond 240 frames per second are largely moot expect for the fussiest of performance players. No point in chasing frames you will never see.) But running through the rest of the gaming numbers, the new i9 has some value issues against AMD’s latest king-of-its-respective-category, the Ryzen 3 3300X (or the earlier, also strong Ryzen 5 3600 and 3600X). Right now you can build a new, fully equipped Ryzen 3 3300X system for about the cost of the Core i9 chip alone, and the same money you’d spend getting a Core i9-10900K system running (new motherboard, presumptive liquid cooler) could fund the lion’s share of, say, an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Super card to go with the Ryzen. If you can afford both elite components, more power to you, and you’ll enjoy the i9. But for most folks, a gaming PC requires affordability trade-offs.

If you’re an Intel diehard and can’t be mussed with having anything except “Intel Inside,” or you just want the fastest possible single-threaded mainstream processor on the market today, or you need the toniest possible complement for your top-end GPU, the Core i9-10900K is it. But if you want top value in any task, gaming or content creation, AMD and its line of Zen 2-based Ryzen processors are the way to go.

Intel Core i9-10900K Specs

Core Count 10
Thread Count 20
Base Clock Frequency 3.7 GHz
Maximum Boost Clock 5.3 GHz
Unlocked Multiplier? Yes
Socket Compatibility Intel LGA 1200
Lithography 14 nm
L3 Cache Amount 20 MB
Thermal Design Power (TDP) Rating 125 watts
Integrated Graphics Intel UHD Graphics 630
Integrated Graphics Base Clock 350 MHz
Bundled Cooler None

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