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.

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 £206 in the US, versus £202 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 £294, slightly up from last year’s £282.

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.

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. For gamers however, even on the highest graphics the i9 9th gen does outperform the Ryzen but only by a few fps – if you’re looking for the highest graphics i8t may be worth investing in a better GPU rather than the CPU.

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 £463 for the lone Core i7 model, and scaling from £706 up to £1557 for the various Core i9 options.

Intel 9th-generation CPUs: Price and competition

The 9th-generation processors revealed so far represent a pretty broad sweep, covering price points from £200 up to nearly £1,600. 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.

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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