Intel is adding more cores and better performance to its mainstream desktop processors, once a sleepy backwater of the semiconductor industry that has roared back to life in recent years thanks to increased competition from AMD’s Ryzen chips.
The new CPUs Intel unveiled this week—32 of them in total—range from $40 dual-core Celeron models destined for pokey library lookup stations to a $490 Core i9 behemoth with 10 cores, 20 processing threads, and a maximum frequency of 5.3GHz (on one core). They are part of the “Comet Lake-S” processor family, built on a refinement of the 14nm semiconductor fabrication process (technically, here dubbed “14nm++”) that Intel has used for some years.
A First Look at the Line: Core i9 and Core i7
A few observations based on the launch specs. Here’s a look at the Core i9 and Core i7 chips being launched. (A few more, in the “T” series, are detailed later.)
You’ll note that the lineup includes “K” (overclockable), “KF” (unlocked for overclocking, but without integrated graphics), and “F” (no integrated graphics) chips. Intel is bringing back the no-integrated-graphics KF and F versions, with modest discounts (varying from chip to chip) off the list prices of their equivalents with integrated graphics. (With the initial launch of the F-type desktop chips in the 9th Generation desktop line, at times the F versions sold for as much as the non-F chips.) Once again, the flavor of integrated graphics, where it is present, is the now-familiar Intel UHD Graphics 630.
A big thing to note: All of the chips from Core i3 to i9 support thread-doubling Hyper-Threading, with the Core i3 chips offering four cores and support for up to eight threads. That’s a major departure (and reversal) from the 9th Generation Core chips, which were a mixed bag of Hyper-Threaded versus not.
The Big Iron: The Core i9-10900K
The 10-core flagship, the Core i9-10900K, is destined for powerful but niche desktops that appeal to hardcore gamers and PC-building enthusiasts. Not only does it have more cores and threads than its predecessor, the Core i9-9900K, but Intel claims that it will also offer better performance when running on just a single core. That’s thanks to the company’s new Thermal Velocity Boost feature, which identifies the best-performing core and optimizes the PC to run on it.
Single-core performance is important to many PC gamers, ever in search of better components that will let their games display more frames per second (fps) and thus silky-smooth visuals. Intel claims that more than half of PC games are optimized to run on a single processor core.
The company is targeting the Core i9-10900K at gamers and multimedia content creators whose current PCs are at least three years old. The performance gains will depend on the game title. Intel claims that fans of Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) upgrading from a three-year-old PC with a Core i7-7700K will see up to 63 percent more frames per second with the Core i9-10900K. Monster Hunter World: Iceborn, meanwhile, would only see up to a 37 percent improvement in frame rates. (Both were tested, according to Intel, using a GeForce RTX 2080 Ti video card as a graphics baseline.) PC Labs expects to put several of these chips to the test with a mix of its own selected games in the coming weeks.
Enthusiasts who like to overclock their processors could see better results, thanks to new overclocking tools that Intel is rolling out to complement the new Core i9. The ability to disable Hyper-Threading on each individual processor core could reduce the amount of heat the processor generates and enable it to remain at its maximum clock speed for longer. Intel is also adding a wider range of frequency and voltage selections for overclockers.
For most modern PC software other than games, the total number of cores affects performance more than the capabilities of each core individually. That’s why both Intel and AMD—the largest PC chip makers—have been trying to cram increasing numbers of cores onto each CPU.
Fitting 10 cores into a processor that retails for less than $500 is undeniably an achievement, and could help esports players and other so-called “megataskers,” who run many demanding apps at a time. PUBG competitors who want to play the game while simultaneously recording it and streaming it to their fans could see a doubling of performance on these tasks if they upgrade to the Core i9-10900K from a three-year-old system, Intel claims. Meanwhile, video editors working with 4K footage in Adobe Premiere Pro would only see a 35 percent performance improvement over their three-year-old PC.
Chips for the Rest of Us
While Intel sells a relative handful of Core i9 processors to gamers and other PC enthusiasts, the vast majority of the mainstream desktop market will use less-expensive Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 CPUs. New 10th Generation chips in these lineups include the $323 eight-core Core i7-10700 (shown above), the $182 six-core Core i5-10400, and the $122 quad-core Core i3-10100, among many other variants.
While it’s impressive that even Intel’s cheapest Core processors now come with at least four cores and support for Hyper-Threading, none of the new Core i3, Core i5, or Core i7 chips gets the new Thermal Velocity Boost feature available on all but one of the new Core i9 processors.
Also being launched is a top-to-bottom stack of “T” series chips, which are optized for lower power consumption, at 35 watts. These will presumably be employed by OEMs in small form factor PCs and other thermally limited environs.
The least capable of the new processors are the Pentium Gold and Celeron CPUs, which all have just two cores each. They’re much less expensive than the Core chips, ranging from $40 to $90. The Pentiums support Hyper-Threading; the Celerons don’t.
A New Platform, and a New Chip Landscape
The new 10th Generation processors work on a new socket, dubbed LGA1200. It has a different pin configuration than its predecessor and requires one of a new wave of motherboards that are rolling out alongside, en masse. Earlier-generation CPUs won’t work on these boards, which are based on new 400 Series chipsets, and the 10th Generation CPUs won’t work on older boards.
The high-end chipset for these new CPUs is dubbed the Z490, to be followed shortly by the B460 (mainstream) and H410 (lower-end/basic) chipsets and motherboards based on them. (Check out our look at the first wave of Z490 motherboards, with more detail about the Z490 chipset.) The new chipset is broadly similar on a features basis to the premium Z390 chipset that came before it, supporting Intel’s 8th and 9th Generation CPUs.
The new Comet Lake-S CPUs join several existing 10th Generation CPUs that have been available in laptops for more than six months. Some of these are also based on 14nm Comet Lake technology, but the flagship 10th Generation mobile CPUs are part of the newer “Ice Lake” family, built on an entirely new 10nm semiconductor fabrication process.
Improvements in Intel’s fabrication processes have stagnated in recent years, while competitors like AMD and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. have invested heavily in new fabrication methods and ended up with more advanced chip designs. AMD’s latest Ryzen 9 flagship processors for mainstream desktops have as many as 16 cores at similar prices to Intel’s new desktop processors. A big part of why: These AMD “Zen 2” chips are manufactured on a 7nm, versus a 14nm, manufacturing process.
The increased competition has prompted soul-searching and corporate upheaval at Intel, the world’s largest chip-maker. The company is renewing its focus on its PC chip business following a decision last year to abandon its 5G modem plans, and it also faces coronavirus-induced disruptions that could hamper research and development as well as reduce demand for its products.
Ultimately, the decision to forge ahead with new desktop chips based on an aging microprocessor architecture suggests that the company still sees promise in evolving its current methods while R&D works to move forward to smaller process technologies. Expect deep-dive reviews of several of the new 10th Generation Core line in the coming weeks.