Intel recently unveiled its latest line of 9th Gen Intel Core processors, most notably the Core i9-9900K. The previous generation Coffee Lake processors received an increase in the core count to compete against the AMD’s Ryzen CPUs. Launch of Intel’s ninth generation Core processors, called as the Coffee Lake Refresh is Intel’s attempt to achieve the top spot in the desktop market.

Intel’s new lineup included a new Core i9 with eight Hyper-Threaded Cores (8C/16T) with some of the highest frequencies currently available in the mainstream chips. Along with this, a new Core i7 with two additional cores, and a renewed Core i5 was also released.

Intel 9th-gen Core i9-9900K: Best Gaming CPU Ever?

AMD has been impressing the enthusiasts with its high core counts and aggressive pricing. Intel has responded to this with a change in how it sells its products. For instance, the Core i9-9900K is now sold in a translucent plastic dodecahedron. Intel also reverted back to STIM (Solder Thermal Interface Material) between the die and heat spreader, this allows for better thermal transfer to handle the increased number of cores and higher overclocks.

Being one of the most expensive mainstream desktop processor, the Core i9-9900K is also one of the fastest. Although Intel may have left AMD behind in terms of raw performance, it still lags behind in terms of value for money.

Intel Core i9-9900K

The Intel Core i9-9900K is an eight core, 16 thread processor and is part of the new K-series processors of the Coffee Lake Refresh. It has a base frequency of 3.6 GHz and boost frequencies of 4.7 GHz on 8 cores, 4.8 GHz on 4 cores and 5.0 GHz on 1-2 cores. It packs 16 MB of L3 Cache memory. All the new K-series processors are manufactured on Intel’s 14nm++ node and include an integrated UHD 630 graphics engine, unlocked ratio multipliers for easy overclocking and feature dual-channel DDR4-2666 RAM support. The maximum memory capacity support has also been doubled to 128 GB.

Core i9-9900K Solder TIM makes the thermal transfer between the die and heat spreader more efficient, allowing enough space for two more physical cores without going past the 95 W envelope at base clock rates. The Solder Thermal Interface Material (STIM) also improves the overclocking capabilities of the chip. Users had previously praised AMD for using STIM in its Ryzen CPUs and it’s nice to see Intel following suit.

Intel 9th-gen Core i9-9900K: Best Gaming CPU Ever?

The new chip delivers some impressive clock rates because of the improved heat dissipation. The higher boost multipliers, which the ninth generation chips feature, help them in performing well in lightly-threaded tasks like gaming. Meanwhile, the increased core count helps in the more demanding workloads. The additional cores on the Core i9-9900K come with two extra 2 MB slices of L3 Cache, adding up to 16 MB total across the chip.

These ninth generation chips will be compatible with the existing 300-series motherboards after a BIOS update. Intel’s partners also have multiple Z390 motherboards available. Since the Core i9-9900K is a power-hungry CPU, selecting the right VRM becomes crucial while purchasing a motherboard, even more if you plan on overclocking. Most of the high-end Z390 motherboards are enough to handle the i9-9900K and its power requirements.

Gaming Benchmarks

But enough of the theory, lets have a look at the benchmarks, and since Intel is causing a lot of noise about the i9-9900K’s gaming performance, that is what we’ll specifically look at:

Ashes of Singularity (DX12)

Ashes of the Singularity was one of the first games to properly implement DirectX12 with all its low-level benefits, including Async compute, a better CPU overhead, improved utilization for multi-core CPUs, etc.

At 720p, the Intel CPUs assert their dominance occupying all the top 50% spots, but as you climb the resolution ladder, the significance of a “gaming CPU” begins to diminish. Finally at 1440p, all the Intel chips with more than 4 cores are within 5 FPS of one another.

The $242 i5-9600K is just 4 FPS short of the $488 i9-9900K. However, one noteworthy fact is that even at 1440p, the AMD top-end Ryzen chips are at the bottom of the rug. The 2700X performs much worse than the lower priced i5-9600K, being  20-30% slower at all the resolutions. In fact, it seems like the AMD chips have hit a hard bottleneck just south of the 70 FPS mark. This is a clear win for Intel.

Strange Brigade (DX12)

Strange Brigade is another DX12 title developed closely with AMD’s assistance. However despite that the fastest AMD CPU (1800X) is more than 50% slower than the top-end Intel i9-9900K. Increase the resolution though, and all the deltas shrink to single digit figures.

The AMD Ryzen 1800X that was producing half as many frames as the i9-9900K at 720p, is merely 4 and 2 frames slower at 1080p and 1440p, respectively.

Civ VI (DX12)

Intel 9th-gen Core i9-9900K: Best Gaming CPU Ever?
Intel 9th-gen Core i9-9900K: Best Gaming CPU Ever?
Intel 9th-gen Core i9-9900K: Best Gaming CPU Ever?

Strategy based 4X sims like Civ are know to punish the CPUs, but it’s nothing a modern $250+ CPU can’t handle. Civ VI performs similar to Ashes, with the Intel products boasting fat leads at lower resolutions only to get within striking distance of the AMD chips at 1080+ resolutions.

Civ is even more taxing than Ashes, with the i9-9900K roughly 30% faster than the Ryzen 2700X at 1080p. The downside however is that all the CPUs are comfortably past the 80 FPS mark, so unless you want to squeeze out every last frame, there’s not much benefit of owing a shiny new 9th gen Intel chip.

Once again the Threadripper CPUs seem to be running into a bottleneck at around 85 FPS. This is proof yet again that the Ryzen architecture still needs some catching up to do as far as the per core performance or IPC is concerned.

Grand Theft Auto V (DX11)

Intel 9th-gen Core i9-9900K: Best Gaming CPU Ever?
Intel 9th-gen Core i9-9900K: Best Gaming CPU Ever?
Intel 9th-gen Core i9-9900K: Best Gaming CPU Ever?

GTA V is the only DX11 title we’ll be looking at, mainly because it shows efficient CPU utilization for 8 core+processors. This is the only game out of all the benchmarks we’ve considered where the Ryzen 2700X beats any of the i7 chips. Regardless of that, it is still plenty slower than the 9th gen Intel heavy-weights at 1080p and sub-1080p resolutions. At higher values, the GPU bottleneck kicks in.

Intel 9th Gen iGPU Performance

Other than frequency bumps, the Kaby Lake refresh doesn’t really promise much of an improvement on the on-board GPU front, but for the sake of it lets have a look at the figures regardless:

No surprises here. The onboard graphics fail to keep up with AMD’s 2400G APU, but you can now play GTA V at the bare minimum graphics settings without a discrete card if you own a 9th gen Intel chip. Other than that things looks dismal with even the 2400G failing to hit the 30 FPS mark in some games.

Conclusion: Is a “Gaming CPU” Really Necessary?

Intel seems really keen on selling the 9th gen Kaby Lake refresh as gaming CPUs, repeatedly comparing the i9-9900K to the 2700X. The reason is obvious enough- Intel still beats the pants off Ryzen in games, for now anyway. However, every CPU in the benchmarks easily nets more than 80 FPS across all the resolutions.

So is a gaming CPU really necessary, especially if you game at 1080p+ resolutions? The short answer- NO, it’s not. The long answer is a bit more complicated. Yes having an Intel CPU, even an i5-9600K which is fairly economical will get you a few extra frames possibly even at 1440p or 4K, at times.

However more often than not it’s the GPU that will be limiting factor. So as long as you don’t have excess cash, I wouldn’t recommend splurging for the i9-9900K just for gaming. The i7-9700K and the i5-9600K though are decent chips for gaming with an affordable price tag and beat the 2700X in pretty much every scenario.

Further reading:

Benchmark courtesy: Anandtech

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