Intel Core i9-10900K CPU Review: Comet Lake Paints a Target on AMD’s Matisse

Today, after no small amount of speculation as to its overall performance and power consumption, the Intel Core i9-10900K and associated rest of the 10th Generation desktop family are up for review. It’s a significant moment for Intel, given the dominant position AMD has seized in the desktop market as a whole.

In the three years since AMD launched its first-generation Ryzen CPUs, AMD and Intel have established a response pattern with each other. When AMD took the lead with the Ryzen 1800X, Intel responded with the Core i7-8700K — a six-core CPU with performance strong enough to take the overall performance crown back from the eight-core Ryzen 7 1800X.

Then, in 2018, we saw the 2700X take back the overall performance crown from the 8700K. “Not a problem,” said Intel, unleashing the Core i9-9900K, an eight-core CPU at a substantially higher price, but with some significant performance chops of its own. Then, last summer, AMD launched the new Ryzen 3000 family of CPUs on 7nm … and Intel held its fire. While the two companies tangled in the HEDT segment last year, with Intel slashing pricesand AMD launching new 32-core CPUs, things on the ordinary consumer desktop front have been relatively quiescent.

Well. They have until now. This is where the new CPUs come in, at least in theory.

For most of the last year, AMD had has a lead on Intel in terms of power consumption (though this varies somewhat based on chipset), total number of CPU cores, performance per dollar, and, in many workloads, absolute performance. Intel’s long pause on 14nm has made it progressively harder for the company to compete against AMD’s advancing microarchitecture and process node transitions.

Gaming is one of the last major category wins under Intel’s belt, though the company has maintained a strong position in creative applications like Adobe Creative Cloud as well. AMD and Intel have been generally tied at 4K since 2017, provided that you use settings that actually tax a GPU, but at 1080p Intel has maintained a modest invention. AMD’s 7nm Ryzen cut into Intel’s 1080p performance leadership, and the 10900K’s high clock speed (5.3GHz) is an effort to regain some of that leadership.

A photo released on April 30, 2020, shows a die from a 10th Gen Intel Core processor. (Source: Intel Corporation)

The question for Intel, however, is whether or not the 10900K can still squeeze meaningful performance improvements out of its 14nm node. Back in 2018, Intel managed to defeat AMD’s 1800X with a CPU that was packing two fewer cores, but the situation has changed since then. The 3900X is going to be the major challenge for Intel’s Core i9-10900K, and while the 10900K will have the higher standing clock speed, it lacks the additional core/thread count.

Generally speaking, we’d expect the Ryzen CPUs to dominate in rendering and multi-threaded application tests, but Intel to continue to lead in terms of raw gaming performance. At the same time, it’s clear that physics will not allow Intel to continue to ramp clock speeds in this fashion. The company has taken to shaving 300 microns of material off the top of its CPUs in order to improve their thermal transfer characteristics. When Intel is lapping its own die to improve thermal transfer, the company is bumping up against the fundamental limits of its own manufacturing capabilities.

New Generation, New Platform

With the launch of 10th Gen on desktop comes the inevitable need to migrate to a different CPU socket. This time around, Intel and various OEMs are straight-up promising that Z490 boards will be upgradeable to future Intel chips with support for features like PCIe 4.0. If you believe the rumors, this is Rocket Lake — Intel’s next-generation CPU microarchitecture with backported features intended for 10nm before that process node got stuck.

Thus, you’ll see a lot of Z490 motherboards advertising features like PCIe 4.0 support this generation. That doesn’t mean that Intel is supporting PCIe 4.0 now — just that board vendors are already advertising capabilities you can’t even enable yet.

I can believe that Intel needed a new CPU socket for Comet Lake / Rocket Lake, if only because I genuinely don’t think the company ever remotely expected to pack 10 cores into its desktop socket on 14nm. At the same time, AMD has been offering the better overall upgrade path.

The majority of X370 motherboards and every X470 motherboard is capable of stepping from an eight-core Ryzen 1xxx or 2xxx CPU up to a Ryzen 3000. AMD has just announced that it will support Zen 3 on X470 and B450 motherboards, though the path to unlocking that support will require some effort and understanding of the process to traverse. AMD’s AM4 support has not been perfect — not every X370 or B350 motherboard got upgraded to support Ryzen 3000 — but it’s been stronger than what Intel has offered. This has been a historic strength of AMD’s platforms as a whole, but it faded during the Bulldozer era when there wasn’t really anything to upgrade to. With Ryzen now in-market for several years, this advantage has emerged again.

Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control…

My own plans to present a full set of power consumption data between Ryzen and Intel have been foiled by the untimely death of a 1250W PSU I’d been using to standardize all of my power consumption tests.

Topping that off, all of our game benchmarks are unaccountably slow. Our testing consistently puts the Core i9-10900K behind the Core i9-9900KS, 9900K, and 9700K. According to Intel and other reviewers we reached out to, these results are atypical and unexpected. A brand-new UEFI from Gigabyte for our Z490 Master motherboard did not solve the problem.

As you read this, I’ll be busily engaged in one of two endeavors: Retesting a fresh OS install on this motherboard or Testing a fresh OS install on an Asus motherboard. Either way, I’ll have a full, updated suite of game benchmarks available as soon as possible.

Power consumption tests… I admit, I have to figure out what I’m doing about those. I don’t have comparative data on any of my currently-alive test PSUs (I’m using my second backup PSU, a 750W Antec).

Test Setup

All of our benchmarks were run on a Gigabyte Aorus Z490 Master motherboard with 32GB of Crucial DDR4-3600 RAM. Windows 1909 was installed with all patches and updates, alongside Nvidia driver 445.87 with a 1TB Samsung 970 EVO installed.

Non-Gaming Benchmark Results

Our non-gaming benchmark results are presented below. Gaming tests TBA.

In the Blender 1.0Beta2 benchmark, the 10900K establishes what will quickly become a pattern. While it offers a solid performance improvement over the Core i9-9900K, 10 cores of Skylake-era 14nm aren’t enough to match 12 7nm Ryzen CPU cores. Officially, the 3900X is a $500 CPU, but Amazon currently coincidentally has the CPU for $409.

I’ve combined the Cinebench results because they point in more or less the same direction. The Core i9-10900K ekes out roughly 5 percent more single-thread performance and improves substantially on the Core i9-9900K’s multi-threaded scores. The gains here are coming from more aggressive clocking as well as the 1.25x improvement in core count between the two chips.

But while the Core i9-10900K’s performance gains are solid, they don’t match the Ryzen 9 3900X’s overall performance. In both cases, AMD holds the lead.

Handbrake 1.22 is a mixed bag for the Core i9-10900K. On the plus side, its performance in H.264 when performing a 1080p30 Fast encode on the Tears of Steel 4K film is excellent, winning past the Ryzen 9 3900X. H.265 performance, however, is slower than anticipated.

This H.265 result was odd enough that I actually switched to Handbrake 1.32 and ran the same encode test again. In this case, the Core i9-10900K took 6.43 minutes to encode the H.264 sample — significantly slower than in 1.22 — but 6.3 minutes in H.265.

Overall, the performance improvement in H.264 with 1.22 is better than the performance gain to H.265 in 1.32, but I’ll likely re-run this test along with gaming in the AM. It feels as though the Z490 motherboard platform could have used a little more time to bake.

Corona Render is an Intel-friendly application, and the Core i9-10900K’s performance reflects this, with the 10-core CPU coming in just five seconds behind the 12-core 3900X. It’s one of the strongest showings for the 10900K, but it isn’t a win.

Our MSVC 2019 Qt compile test hands the Core i9-10900K our second win (if you’re feeling generous) of the day against the Ryzen 9 3900X:

While the Ryzen 9 3950X retains the overall performance lead, the Core i9-10900K’s 10 cores win the day over the Ryzen 9 3900X — by the barest whisker.

Gaming Benchmarks

To be added — but I’ve got no problem saying what I expect. I expect to see the Core i9-10900K beat its predecessors by a few frames per second at 1080p, but to match them at 4K, where game performance becomes GPU-bound. We test with an RTX 2080 instead of an RTX 2080 Ti, so our numbers are a bit more compressed than you might see with that card, but not to a degree that would make a difference (and an RTX 2080-equivalent GPU is not an unrealistic match for the Core i9-10900K).

Gaming is the highest-profile consumer category where Intel continues to command a performance lead, and it’s where the company has focused its CPU efforts. At the same time, the gap between Intel and AMD, even at 1080p, is modest at best. Gamers searching for the absolute highest frame rates will likely still play slightly faster on Intel systems, but the difference between the two is unlikely to be noticeable, even in competitive play.

Preliminary Conclusion: Skylake’s Swan Song

The Core i9-10900K is a step forward for Intel. At $488, it’s a considerably better buy than the Core i9-9900K, which was itself an excellent CPU. Its single-threaded performance is excellent and it’s capable of punching above its weight class on occasion. Skylake was an excellent CPU architecture in 2015 and it remains an excellent architecture in 2020.

And yet, for all these points — and for the first time, arguably, since Ryzen launched — Intel cannot claim to have reclaimed the overall pole position the way it could with the Core i7-8700K or Core i9-9900K when those parts debuted. I expect the Core i9-10900K to retain leadership in areas where Intel has been leading and to compete more effectively with the 3900X than its predecessor, but as far as matching or leading AMD’s 12-core CPU? On the whole, it doesn’t. And while neither Intel nor AMD have made promises about future motherboard support beyond the parts they plan to launch next, if you had to bet on which company would offer support for a wider range of CPU cores over a longer period of time, you’d bet on AMD.

The bottom line is this: The Core i9-10900K is a powerful, fast CPU, and an illustration of how little gas Skylake and Intel’s 14nm collectively have left in the tank. Rocket Lake, when and if it arrives, will supposedly give us new architectural improvements that may breathe some new life into the node, but the 10900K illustrates that Skylake has taken Intel as far as it can.

Comet Lake may paint a target on AMD’s Matisse, but it doesn’t topple its rival — and while it certainly improves Intel’s overall position, it doesn’t do so to the same degree as the 9900K and 8700K did when they arrived, relative to its smaller rival.

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