For much of the past year, Intel’s Core i9-9900K was the top x86 CPU on the market. AMD’s Ryzen 2700X offered excellent performance-per-dollar and made a strong argument in its own right, but the Core i9-9900K was the top-end performer in absolute terms. That remained the case until July 7, when AMD’s new 7nm Ryzen 7 family debuted and retook the overall performance lead. Since July, Intel has held a narrow lead in 1080p gaming and been pushed backward everywhere else.
The Core i9-9900KS debuting today is a strategic attempt to strengthen the markets where Intel still holds a lead, and to play on a strength of Intel’s where AMD is currently struggling: clock speed. As we’ve discussed, AMD’s 7nm CPUs do not hit their full boost clocks on every single CPU core. UEFI adjustments shipping now improve the clock speed on some AMD chips relative to where they were in August, but AMD’s sustained clocks on the Ryzen 7 and Ryzen 9 family are lower than their Intel counterparts. The 9900KS is designed to capitalize on this by offering higher all-core boost frequencies.
The Core i9-9900KS is a specially binned 9900K with two differences: It has a 4GHz base clock, up from 3.6GHz on the Core i9-9900K, and it can run at 5GHz on all CPU cores if appropriate thermal and power conditions exist. This is not equivalent to a 5GHz “guaranteed” boost clock speed. Intel CPUs will boost up to certain base frequencies depending on how many CPU cores are loaded. The Core i9-9900K boosts to 5GHz with up to two cores loaded, but it drops to a maximum of 4.7GHz with all eight CPU cores loaded. The Core i9-9900KS boosts up to 5GHz, no matter how many cores are loaded.
Intel is introducing this chip with a price of $ 513, which puts it up against AMD’s Ryzen 7 3900X, at least in theory — that chip hasn’t been as easy to find as it should be, though it was available on Newegg as of this writing for $ 529.
Test Setup, CPU Clock
Our Core i9-9900KS was tested using an Asus ROG Maximus XI Hero (Wi-Fi) motherboard with UEFI 1302. An Nvidia RTX 2080 GPU using the 430.86 WHQL driver was used for testing. All available patches and updates for Windows 10 were installed.
We must note that we had significant issues stabilizing our system with 32GB of RAM installed. Our standard test configuration is 32GB of G.Skill TridentZ (F4-3200C14Q-32GTZ). While Intel warns against attempting to use four DIMMs while overclocking to DDR4-3200 or above, we had problems with 32GB of RAM even when running at DDR4-2133. RAM that worked perfectly when paired with our Core i9-9900K was not stable, even at DDR4-2133, when paired with the 9900KS. Asus, meanwhile, told us that it did not observe these same problems with the 1302 UEFI when they ran their own tests.
It is not clear where the problem is. The Maximus XI Hero has been perfectly stable in the past when paired with this exact DRAM. Multiple sets of DRAM had issues and reseating the CPU did not solve the problem. We fell back to 16GB of RAM clocked at DDR4-3600 in two DIMMs for this testing (Crucial Ballistix, BLE8G4D36BEEAK.M8FE1). This configuration had no issues.
UEFI 1302 on the Maximus XI Hero (Wi-Fi) offers three different Asus Multicore Enhancement settings. Auto (Lets BIOS Optimize), Disabled (Enforce All Limits) and Enabled (Remove All Limits). If set to “Auto,” the 9900KS is very nearly the same speed as the 9900K, according to our testing. “Disabled” opens the throttle on the CPU a bit more. When we queried Asus on how Disabled worked, the company told us that this setting “relaxes all thermal limits plus tightens timings.”
The Enabled setting appears to tell the CPU core to run at an all-core boost of 4.8GHz in all cases. This was unstable in our testing. We tested in the Disabled (Enforce All Limits) mode, with Windows 10 set to Balanced power profile.
Our Blender benchmark results are presented separately from the rest of our tests due to the size of the graph.
The Core i9-9900KS is 5-8 percent faster than the Core i9-9900K in this series of rendering tests. The Ryzen 7 3700X is still ahead of the Core i9-9900KS in virtually every case, though the difference has narrowed and the 9900KS is now on-top in the barbershop_interior render. The Ryzen 9 3900X is still much faster than the 9900KS — the extra cores aren’t something some extra clock can challenge.
Our non-gaming test results are embedded in the slideshow below.
Our gaming results are presented in the slideshow below, but I’m going to go ahead and spoil them for you. Despite a bare 1fps pickup in a couple of 1080p results, the 9900KS and the 9900K are within 1 percent of identical at the detail levels that people practically play with.
For all intents and purposes, the game situation is exactly what it was in July. The 9900KS gives Intel an extra frame per second in a few titles and nothing else. You don’t need the highest-end CPU to hit top frame rates in games and Hyper-Threading actually seems to hurt titles by a few percent compared with non-HT, in at least some cases.
Conclusion: There’s a Limited Amount of Gas in This 8-Core Tank
In 2017, Intel’s 8700K won accolades for a great balance between core counts and clock speed. Last year, the 9900K established itself as the premium chip to beat, even if the 2700X had significant competitive strengths of its own. This year, the tables have turned. While the Core i9-9900KS does indeed manage to beat the Ryzen 7 3700X core-for-core in a number of tests where the Core i9-9900K came up just short, the Ryzen 9 3900X is there to challenge it, every step of the way.
That leaves the Core i9-9900KS in a precarious position. It offers excellent per-core performance, but it’s fighting to beat a chip that sells for $ 184 less. If what you care about is gaming and only gaming, the Core i7-9700K offers equally good performance for much less money. If you need high core counts, the Ryzen 9 3900X packs superior performance for the same price. The Core i9-9900KS is actually a pretty good step up from the Core i9-9900K, offering 5-8 percent more performance for ~5 percent more money, but it’s beset on every side by competitors.
The truth is, Intel is in a tough competitive spot right now. There are no desktop 10nm chips coming in the near future and while we’ve heard rumors of 10-core Comet Lake CPUs arriving in 2020, for now, the company has to hold the eight-core desktop line. Outside of 1080p gaming, it’s hard to point to very many price/performance wins for Intel at this point. If the 9900KS could hold an all-core 5GHz boost it would undoubtedly help, but it still wouldn’t be enough in and of itself to completely close the gaps. Thus far, Intel has chosen to maintain its higher prices rather than slash desktop pricing. Lower prices are coming to the HEDT family, however, with the launch of Cascade Lake X.
The 9900KS does give Intel a slightly better competitive position versus AMD right now, but it doesn’t solve the fundamental issues that are making Ryzen CPUs strong competitive options in the first place. That kind of realignment will have to come with Comet Lake, if it can be achieved at all.
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