Intel Core i9-9900K Review

Intel Core i9-9900K review: Is 'the world's best gaming desktop processor' as game-changing as Intel claims?

Verdict

The Intel Core i9-9900K is an absolute powerhouse for video rendering and Photoshop at this price. If you're a power-crazy media professional this is the processor to plump for. But for gamers? You can find much better value alternatives. 

Pros

  • Ultra-speedy for video rendering and editing
  • Best clock speeds of all the consumer CPUs

Cons

  • Underwhelming performance for video games compared with the competition
  • Requires powerful cooler to prevent overheating
  • Not much room for overclocking

Key Features

  • Review Price: £600
  • Eight cores, 16 threads
  • 3.60 GHz base clock
  • 5 GHz boost clock
  • Overclockable
  • 14nm manufacturing process

What is the Intel Core i9-9900K?

The Intel Core i9-9900K is the new flagship CPU in the 9th Generation Intel Core range, with Intel calling it ‘the world’s best gaming desktop processor’.

A bold claim, sure – but with a boost clock speed of 5GHz and the capability to overclock, it’s hard to argue the contrary. Plus, there are a whopping eight cores and 16 threads, giving the i9 a sizeable performance boost compared with last year’s offerings.

While it’s clear there’s been an improvement in performance, the architecture sadly hasn’t been afforded the same fortune – Intel’s still stuck at a 14-nanometre design. It’s been four years since the last change in size for Intel Core processors.

But on the bright side, that means you get backwards compatibility with the old Z370 chipsets. Although to get the most out of the i9-9900K, you’ll really want to invest in a new, fully compatible Z390 motherboard instead.

Also launching as part of the 9th Generation of Intel Core processors are the i7-9700K and i5-9600K CPUs. Predictably, there’s not much difference between the three processors other than shifts in performance power. We haven’t got our hands on the 9th Gen i5 or i7 just yet, but will be sure to call them in for a review to find out the extent they differ from the i9 in performance.

Related: Best Intel processor

Intel 9th Gen CPUs – Technology, specifications and chipset

The 9th Generation of Intel Core processors don’t feature any major architecture changes, but have all seen a bump in performance. This is mainly thanks to the increase in cores and threads.

Both the i9-9900K and the i7-9700K have eight cores, which is a 33% increase from the previous generation. The i5-8600K, meanwhile, hasn’t seen any extra cores or threads since its 8th Gen predecessor. It does have boosted clock speeds with a jump from 4.3GHz to 4.6GHz, however.

With a boosted clock speed of 5GHz, the i9-9900K boasts the best boosted clock speeds of all the Intel Core CPUs, as well as extending its lead over the Ryzen 7 2700X by a sizeable margin.

Being overclockable means that, in theory, you can squeeze even more performance power out of the i9-9900K, just in case that 5GHz boosted speed wasn’t already enough.

The 9th Gen Intel Core CPUs also see the return of solder thermal interface materials (STIM). This means that Intel is ditching the thermal paste in favour of soldered metal for its manufacturing process. STIMs offer improved heat dissipation, helping to prevent shutdowns due to soaring temperatures. But as you’ll read later in this review, the i9-9900K is so powerful that even STIM couldn’t quite prevent overheating.

The new wave of Intel chips also showcase some subtler, but very welcome, features. There’s Intel Optane memory support for example, as well as support for Gigabit Wi-Fi speeds.

Cores Threads Base clock speed (GHz) Boosted clock speed (GHz) TDP

 

Intel Smart Cache Price
Intel Core i9-9900K 8 16 3.6 5.0 95W 16MB £600
Intel Core i7-9700K 8 8 3.6 4.9 95W 12MB £500
Intel Core i5-9600K 6 6 3.7 4.6 95W 9MB £350
Ryzen 7 2700X 8 16 3.7 4.3 105W 20MB £300
Intel Core i7-8700K 6 12 3.7 4.7 95W 12MB £450
Intel Core i5-8600K 6 6 3.6 4.3 95W 9MB £290

Related: Best AMD Ryzen CPUs

Intel Core i9-9900K – AMD Threadripper 2 competitor? 

For our testing process, we compared the Intel Core i9-9900K to the i7-8700K and AMD’s Ryzen 2700X. You might be wondering why we didn’t compare it to the Intel Xeon and AMD Threadripper 2 range.

Our reasoning for excluding the majority of Intel Xeon and AMD Threadripper 2 CPUs is because they have a different target audience, with prices sometimes soaring over the £1000 mark. Unless you’re a media professional like a developer or an animator, and you seriously need such monstrous power, these CPUs are overkill.

The likes of AMD’s Threadripper 2920X is another matter though, costing roughly around the same price as the i9-9900K. Unfortunately I haven’t got the processor in the office to be able to compare it to Intel’s i9-9900K, but as soon as I get one called in, I’ll be sure to update the benchmark results with my findings.

Intel Core i9-9900K – Test setup

During the reveal presentation, Intel called its i9-9900K CPU ‘the world’s best gaming desktop processor’. To determine how credible this claim is, I benchmarked the i9-9900K with some of the most notoriously demanding video games out there.

Of course, it’s not all about gaming, so I also used some benchmarking software to see how this processor fares at creative tasks.

But benchmark numbers mean very little if there’s nothing to compare them with. So I also dug out the Intel Core i7-8700K and AMD’s flagship Ryzen 2700X to see whether Intel’s new CPU truly is a revolutionary world-beater.

Before I get to my findings though, I’ll walk you through our rig, so you know exactly which components I was using:

Aside from the motherboards, which I had to switch between because of chipset compatibility, I made sure to keep all of the components consistent in order to have a fair test.

Take note that I had to call in the cooler especially for this review. The Corsair Hydro Series H100i PRO liquid cooler simply wasn’t powerful enough to deal with the heat produced by the i9-9900K.

Related: Best CPU for gaming

Intel Core i9-9900K – Results

Cinebench R15
It was a promising start for the Intel Core i9-9900K as I began our benchmarking tests with Cinebench R15. The multi-thread result came in at 2058cb. That’s a whopping 45% improvement from Intel’s 8th Generation i7-8700K processor. With two extra cores and four additional threads, this performance boost isn’t too surprising.

Perhaps what’s more impressive is that the Intel Core i9-9900K boasts a 16% increase on AMD’s Ryzen 2700X for Cinebench’s multi-thread benchmark test. This is despite both the i9-9900K and Ryzen 2700X having 8 cores and 16 threads.

The i9-9900K also saw a slight boost for single-core performance when compared to its predecessor, seeing a score of 218cb. That’s a mere 5% improvement to the i7-8700K. Still, it’s one the best single-core scores I’ve seen when testing processors, comfortably beating the AMD Ryzen 2700X with a 25% difference.

These are very impressive benchmark results for the i9-9900K, proving this CPU to be an absolute dream for those who spends a good chuck of their time on the likes of Photoshop and Premiere Pro.

POV-Ray
Next up, I tested the i9-9900K with the POV-Ray benchmarking software. I saw similar results here, with the 9th Gen i9 processor’s results seeing a 37% boost compared with the i7-8700K.

How did the i9-9900K match up against the Ryzen 2700X in the multi-thread POV-Ray test? Well, once again, Intel came out victorious with a 16% advantage.

Intel Core i9-9900K

Intel Core i9-9900K

Following these decisive tests, I can conclude that the Intel Core i9-9900K is certainly the most powerful CPU when compared with the Intel Core i7-8700K and AMD Ryzen 2700X. This makes it one of the best consumer processors available for media work. If you want to render 4K video, then this is a fantastic CPU to opt for. 

It’s creative chops are well established then, but how does this performance power translate for gaming?

Shadow of the Tomb Raider
After seeing such impressive benchmark results so far, I was expecting the i9-9900K to score significantly better frame rates compared with the i7-8700K, especially since Intel labelled it ‘the world’s best gaming desktop processor’. Sadly, this was not the case. Across the board the difference was minuscule.

Intel Core i9-9900K

First, I tested Shadow of the Tomb Raider, one of the most power-demanding video games currently available. The frame rates were identical between the two Intel CPUs for all of our benchmarking tests bar Full HD. But even then, it was only an improvement of 7fps – even the fussiest of pixel perfectionists won’t notice the difference when staring at the screen.

Even more alarming, the Ryzen 2700X was behind by only 1fps in the 4K test. Considering AMD’s CPU is (at the time of writing) half the price of the i9-9900K, that’s incredibly disappointing for gamers.

Ghost Recon Wildlands
Unfortunately, I saw similar underwhelming results with Ghost Recon Wildlands. There was hardly a difference between the i9-9900K and the i7-8700K results, with 2fps being the maximum advantage the 9th Gen processor had over its 8th Gen sibling.

Intel Core i9-9900K

In the 2560×1440 benchmark test, the Intel Core i7-8700K narrowly beat the i9-9900K’s score. Obviously, these benchmark scores can vary, so it doesn’t mean the i7-8700K is the superior CPU for gaming. But it does emphasise that there really isn’t much between the two Intel processors.

Again, there was no surprise that the i9-9900K steamed ahead of the Ryzen 2700X for the 2560×1440 and Full HD benchmark tests. But alarmingly, there was only a 3fps difference when benchmarking in 4K. If you’re looking to game in Ultra HD, the Ryzen 2700X increasingly looks far better value than the i9-9900K.

Dirt Rally
Since the previous two video games are extremely power-intensive, I thought it would be wise to use a slightly older and more forgiving video game to try and give the i9-9900K some extra freedom to show its muscle. For this reason, I decided to use Dirt Rally for benchmarking.

Intel Core i9-9900K

As you can see from the 4K results, it was the same story as before, with just 1fps separating the two Intel processors. However, by cranking down the resolution, I finally saw the i9-9900K take a sizeable lead over its 8th-gen sibling.

In the 2560×1440 test, the i9-9900K stole a march of 20fps. That’s a 14% increase, which is pretty impressive for a processor. The problem? At 158fps and 138fps, these frame rates are so high that the naked eye probably won’t notice a difference. Even the Ryzen 2700X, which has half the frame rates in this test at 70fps, will look just as impressive at this resolution if your eyes aren’t pressed up against the monitor.

So, while the Dirt Rally benchmarks seem more promising for the Intel Core i9-9900K on paper, gamers still aren’t getting value for money in reality.

Civilization VI
So far for the gaming benchmarks, I’ve focused solely on frame rates and established the i9-9900K doesn’t really make a significant improvement in this department compared with its rivals. Processors are so powerful these days that they’re no longer the bottleneck for video game frame rates.

Intel Core i9-9900K

However, the i9-9900K could potentially still have a substantial impact on games that rely on the CPU to make complex calculations. Civilization VI is one such title, as it requires a beefy processor when the AI is working out strategies. A powerful CPU can be the difference between having to wait an absurdly long time or a mere few seconds after every round.

I put the i9-9900K to the Civilization test, which produced an average turn time of 13.11 seconds. What did the i7-8700K score? 13.78 seconds. That’s right, you only just about get half-a-second of improved speeds with the 9th Gen i9 chip. Of course, any improvement is a positive. But is a measly second really worth an extra £100?

Related: Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti review

Intel Core i9-9900K – Power consumption and heat

Despite its underwhelming gaming performance, the i9-9900K is a very powerful processor. It’s no surprise then that it has a pretty substantial peak power consumption when under pressure.

While running the Cinebench multi-thread benchmarks, the i9-9900K recorded a peak power consumption of 204.1W. In the same test, the Intel Core i7-8700K saw a figure of 139.9W.

Idle Running Cinebench
Intel Core i9-9900K 59.7W 204.1W
Intel Core i7-8700K 59.2W 139.9W
AMD Ryzen 2700X 70.4W 203.5W

Compared with the Ryzen 2700X, however, the i9-9900K’s results are really impressive. The Ryzen 2700X recorded a higher idle power consumption, and only undercut the i9-9900K in the Cinebench power consumption test by half a watt.

This means that if you’re already got a PSU that can handle the vigour of modern gaming, you’re unlikely to have the need to buy a replacement. You may need to purchase a more powerful fan though.

Despite Intel reverting back to STIM when manufacturing the i9-9900K, I still found the CPU to be suffering overheating issues in the early stages of my testing.

This isn’t due to any issue in the CPU’s design. It’s simply because the i9-9900K is such behemoth that it needs an ultra-powerful cooler to function.

Intel Core i9-9900K

I was forced to upgrade to the Corsair H150i Pro Liquid CPU cooler to prevent the Intel Core i9-9900K from crashing

I was initially using the Corsair H60 liquid cooler for my testing rig. It’s done a fine job previously, whether it was cooling the Intel Core i7-8700K or AMD’s Ryzen 7 2700X. Boot up the rig with the i9-9900K installed though, and the Corsair H60 is helpless in preventing a system crash.

Despite boasting two 140mm fans that can run a max speed of 2400rpm, the Corsair Hydro Series H100i v2 Extreme Performance Liquid CPU Cooler didn’t do a much better job either. It at least prevented further system crashes, but heating issues persisted, restricting the processor from exceeding its base clock speed of 3.60GHz, which consequently affected benchmark results.

After calling in and installing the Corsair H150i Pro Liquid CPU cooler, all heating issues were resolved, proving the i9-9900K wasn’t at fault. That said, it’s still a pain being forced to upgrade your components. You’ll really need to make the most of the boosted performance to get your money’s worth with Intel’s flagship i9 CPU.

Intel Core i9-9900K – Overclocking

With Intel proudly flaunting the fact that overclocking experts have been able to overclock the Intel Core i9-9900K to an astonishing 7.6GHz, you’d assume this processor is hugely overclockable.

However, given the heating issues I experienced with initial testing, I wasn’t feeling confident with the i9-9900K’s overclocking potential. Turns out my concerns were well founded.

As soon as I pushed the i9-9900K past 5GHz, it started to get unstable. Cranking it up to 5.2GHz brought about the blue screen of death. By increasing the voltage up to 1.4V I was able to get the CPU functioning at 5.2GHz, but it became too unstable for me to willingly push on further.

So how were the professional overclockers able to push the i9-9900K so much further? They were using a liquid helium cooler, which isn’t exactly a practical option for general consumers.

Given I was using the very respectable Corsair Hydro Series H150i PRO liquid cooler, it’s unlikely that many users will be able to get much better overclocking results than I did. And considering how unstable things became when I pushed the CPU past 5GHz, I really don’t recommend overclocking the Intel Core i9-9900K. 

Why buy the Intel Core i9-9900K?

Intel heralded the i9-9900K as the ‘the world’s best gaming desktop processor’ during launch. That’s a claim that’s difficult to disprove, as the CPU did post slightly better results than the rest of the competition.

Is the i9-9900K the world’s best-value gaming desktop processor though? Absolutely not. When it came to 4K performance, the Ryzen 2700X was rarely far behind the i9-9900K’s frame rate results, despite AMD’s chip costing half the price.

With both my benchmark results and the CPU’s price in mind, I simply can’t recommend the i9-9900K as the go-to processor for gaming unless you’re absolutely made of money. Since CPUs are no longer the bottleneck for gaming performance, you’re better off saving some cash by investing in a cheaper CPU and spending it on a more powerful GPU like the RTX 2080 Ti. That’s where you’ll get all your frame rate gains. 

That’s not to say the i9-9900K isn’t a worthwhile purchase though. This is actually an excellent processor – it just has a misleading marketing angle. The i9-9900K isn’t best-suited to gaming, it’s creatives that will benefit most here. 

The i9-9900K spat out excellent results in the standard benchmark tests, such as Cinebench and POV-Ray, proving that this is an ultra-fast CPU for video rendering and other strenuous media tasks. For the price, this is one of the very best processors for creative duties, with only the AMD Threadripper CPUs capable of mounting a serious challenge. 

If you’re a creative or a media professional who’s eager to cut loading times down as much as possible when editing the likes of photos and videos, then there’s few better consumer processors than the i9-9900K. Just make sure you’ve got a powerful enough fan to prevent it from overheating.

Verdict

The Intel Core i9-9900K is an absolute powerhouse for video rendering and Photoshop at this price. If you’re a power-crazy media professional this is the processor to plump for. But for gamers? You can find much better value alternatives.

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