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Intel 9th-generation CPUs: Everything you need to know about Intel's new desktop chips

The latest range of processors is here - but what's really new in the Coffee Lake refresh?

Pros 
Higher clock speeds
Core i7 gets more physical cores
Protection against security flaws
Cons 
Same GPU as last year
Same 14nm process as last year
Same internal design as last year
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Intel has unveiled the first of its 9th-generation processors, but if you were expecting big things then prepare to be disappointed: they’re very similar to the 8th-generation models. They do however introduce some manufacturing changes that should deliver a performance boost, so if you’re in the market for a desktop PC, the new options are well worth checking out.

READ NEXT: The very best CPUs you can buy

Intel 9th Gen CPUs: What you need to know

Intel has officially launched ten 9th-generation processors. All are desktop models, but they divide into two ranges. Mainstream users and gamers get what’s called the “Coffee Lake Refresh” – a name which if anything oversells the chips, since the CPU and GPU cores are exactly the same as found on last year’s Coffee Lake models. However, clock speeds are higher, and the Core i7 has more physical cores than before. They’re supported by the new Z390 chipset, which also introduces a few technical advances.

Meanwhile, for professional creators demanding extreme desktop performance, there’s a range of new X-series chips. These too use the same internal designs as last year’s X-series chips; those were based on the Skylake-X core, so this year’s crop is the Skylake-X Refresh.

Intel 9th Gen CPUs: Mainstream product range

Unexpectedly, Intel’s initial tranche of mainstream 9th-generation chips doesn’t include a Core i3 processor. That’s presumably because the emphasis is on performance, which isn’t a key consideration for lower-tier chips. Instead, the company has extended the range upwards, offering the first Core i9 chip for regular desktop motherboards.

ModelCore i5-9600KCore i7-9700KCore i9-9900K
Process14nm14nm14nm
Base speed3.7GHz3.6GHz3.6GHz
Max all-core turbo speed4.3GHz4.6GHz4.7GHz
Max single-core turbo speed4.6GHz4.9GHz5GHz
Cores688
Hyper-ThreadingNNY
GPUUHD Graphics 630UHD Graphics 630UHD Graphics 630
L3 Cache9MB12MB16MB

For the Core i5-9600K, all that’s new is the clock speed: last year’s Core i5-8600K had a base speed of 3.6GHz, with all-core and single-core maximums of 4.1GHz and 4.3GHz respectively. The new model isn’t a huge step up, but it’s hard to complain as the price has barely changed at all: the i5-9600K launches at $262 in the US, versus $257 for the older model.

It’s a similar story with the new Core i7. Although the base clock is here slightly down on last year’s flagship i7-8700K (from 3.7GHz to 3.6GHz), all-core and single-core turbo speeds are up, from 4.3GHz and 4.7GHz respectively. There’s also been a significant change to the core configuration: where the i7-8700K had six cores servicing twelve threads, the new model has no Hyper-Threading but eight physical cores. The effect of this will depend very much on the workload, but with 33% more silicon in the package we’d expect to see an overall performance gain. It’s launching at $374, slightly up from last year’s $359.

With the Core i9 we’re in somewhat uncharted waters, since all previous Core i9 models have been Skylake-X chips with very different (and much more expensive) architectures. Look at the specs though and it’s clear what we’re dealing with: it’s basically the same as the Core i7, with the addition of Hyper-Threading, more L3 cache and a tiny speed boost. In case there was any doubt about who it’s aimed at, Intel is pitching it as “the best gaming processor in the world.”

It’s worth mentioning that, like all K-suffixed processors, these chips come with turbo speeds unlocked. To an extent, therefore, the advertised higher clock speeds aren’t all that meaningful. However, for the new chips Intel has also made a significant change in its manufacturing process, using “STIM” – soldered thermal interface material – instead of cheap thermal paste to connect the cores to the heat-spreader on top of the chip. This should enable more efficient cooling, helping 9th-generation chips to hit higher speeds than their predecessors.

The new chips also include hardware measures to address the recently discovered “Spectre” and “Meltdown” exploits. In previous Coffee Lake chips these patches were implemented in the firmware, and could reduce overall system performance by a few percentage points. That slowdown is now effectively eliminated, giving 9th-generation chips another small performance advantage.

Intel 9th-generation CPUs: Performance

We’ve put the high-end Core i9-9900K through its paces, and no doubt about it, it’s a very speedy chip. Mounted in an Asus ROG Maximus XI Hero WiFi motherboard, it raced through our benchmarks with an overall score of 330, smashing any regular desktop PC we’ve previously tested.

In particular, the new Core i9 is a monster when it comes to multithreaded tasks. This is an area where AMD chips tend to shine, but with all those cores running simultaneously at speeds up to 4.7GHz, the i9-9900K finished an impressive 99 points ahead of AMD’s flagship Ryzen 7 2700X (which tops out at 4.3GHz). Indeed, since the chip is unlocked, we were able to push all-core clock speeds right up to 5GHz, for a spectacular overall score of 345.

Since the Core i9 is aimed particularly at gamers, we also tested performance in Metro: Last Light Redux, partnering the processor with a 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 graphics card. Here the advantage was much smaller: at Full HD resolution with Very High detail settings, the Core i9 proved just 2fps faster than our Ryzen 7 2700X system. That probably doesn’t say much about the relative strengths of the two processors, however. Rather, it’s a reminder that visually demanding games may be bottlenecked by the GPU, rather than the CPU.

Buy Intel Core i9-9900K from Scan

And when we loaded up the more processor-intensive Dirt: Showdown, the true performance gap was exposed. The Intel system delivered a whopping 127fps at maximum detail settings, while AMD trailed a good few steps behind on 109fps.

While the Core i9-9900K is an exceptional chip, it’s not twice as fast as the Ryzen 7 2700X, and it does cost twice as much. But if you’re looking for the pinnacle of multithreaded performance, Intel’s new powerhouse convincingly takes the crown.

Intel 9th-generation CPUs: Z390 chipset

To accompany the new desktop chips, Intel has also launched the new Z390 chipset. This is largely the same as last year’s Z370 – the original Coffee Lake chipset – but features two enhancements. First, it comes with built-in support for six USB 3.1 Generation 2 ports supporting transfer speeds of up to 10Gbits/sec, as already found on more recent Coffee Lake chipsets.

More distinctively, Z390 also includes integrated 802.11ac Wi-Fi as standard. We’ve seen plenty of premium motherboards where manufacturers have added their own wireless controllers, but moving this feature into the chipset is a potential game-changer, pointing towards a future where it becomes a standard feature on all desktop motherboards.

If you don’t want to splash out on a new high-end motherboard, however, you don’t have to: existing chipsets and boards designed for Coffee Lake will also work with Coffee Lake Refresh processors.

Intel 9th-generation CPUs: Enthusiast product range

The first thing you might notice about Intel’s new X-series chips is that they’ve seemingly skipped a generation: the model numbers have leapt from the 7000s straight to the 9000s, bringing the high-end range into line with the mainstream.

In reality, though, very little has changed. The Skylake-X core is exactly as chunky and powerful as it ever was, and the main difference between models remains the core count (along with the amount of L3 cache available to service those cores). Prices are all but identical too, starting at $589 for the lone Core i7 model, and scaling from $898 up to $1979 for the various Core i9 options.

ModelCore i7-9800XCore i9-9820XCore i9-9900XCore i9-9920X
Process14nm14nm14nm14nm
Base speed3.8GHz3.3GHz3.5GHz3.5GHz
Max all-core turbo speed4.4GHz4.1GHz4.4GHz4.4GHz
Max single-core turbo speed4.5GHz4.2GHz4.5GHz4.5GHz
Cores8101012
Hyper-ThreadingYYYY
GPUNoneNoneNoneNone
L3 cache16.5MB16.5MB19.25MB19.25MB
ModelCore i9-9940XCore i9-9960XCore i9-9980X Extreme Edition
Process14nm14nm14nm
Base speed3.3GHz3.1GHz3GHz
Max all-core turbo speed4.4GHz4.4GHz3.8GHz
Max single-core turbo speed4.5GHz4.5GHz4.5GHz
Cores141618
Hyper-ThreadingYYY
GPUNoneNoneNone
L3 cache19.25MB22MB24.75MB

The key difference between this crop of processors and the last is that, as with the mainstream chips, speeds are modestly up across the board – which is probably again down to the wonders of STIM.

Intel 9th-generation CPUs: Price and competition

The 9th-generation processors revealed so far represent a pretty broad sweep, covering price points from $262 up to nearly $2,000. The idea is evidently that every desktop user – from home hobbyists to dedicated gamers and demanding professionals – should be able to find an Intel chip to match their budget, rather than being tempted away by AMD’s disruptive Ryzen platform.

Whether the new chips are a smart buy is harder to say. Intel’s prices tend to work out higher on a per-core basis than AMD’s, but its cores are individually more capable – so your best buy very much depends on the particular sort of work you have to do. The new Core i7-9700K could shake things up with its eight physical cores, however: for moderately demanding home and office users it promises the best of both worlds.

READ NEXT: Intel Coffee Lake review

Intel 9th-generation CPUs: Verdict

The arrival of a new generation of CPUs used to be like Christmas coming early, but it’s hard to get excited about yet another repackaging of Intel’s 14nm core. It’s a decent core, to be sure, and we understand the immense challenges the company faces in producing even faster, even smaller designs. Even so.

Still, the switch to STIM should help these chips run faster and overclock better than ever, and it’s good that the performance hit from security updates is now minimised as well. To reach a proper verdict we’ll have to wait until we have the chips in front of us: the mainstream models are due to ship in mid-October, with the X-series models expected during November. Since prices have barely changed, however, any improvement at all is a bonus – so for now the 9th generation gets a provisional thumbs-up.

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