Some Thoughts About the Intel Core i9-9900KS Processor

Introduction

Intel has released the Intel Core i9-9900KS Special Edition mainstream desktop processor that was originally announced back on May 26, 2019 at the Computex trade show. This was the same day that AMD revealed the details about the 7nm AMD Ryzen 3000 series mainstream desktop processors. The preview announcement of the Core i9-9900KS was seen at the time as an attempt to upstage AMD’s announcement of Ryzen 3000 series.

Now, roughly five months later, Intel has actually released the Core i9-9900KS, which they are touting as “the world’s best gaming processor”. Is this true, and should you want one of these processors for your next gaming rig?

See the source image

Figure 1: Intel Core i9-9900KS Packaging (from PCMag.com)

Specifications

Let’s start with the main specifications for this new processor. It is a 14nm, 8C/16T “Coffee Lake” processor with a base clock speed of 4.00 GHz and a Max Turbo speed of 5.00 GHz. It has a 16 MB L3 cache, 16 PCIe 3.0 lanes, and a 127W TDP rating. It uses an LGA 1151 socket and will work in existing 300 series motherboards with a BIOS update. It includes integrated Intel UHD Graphics 630, but does not have a stock CPU cooler in the box. The recommended customer price is $513.00. The warranty is only one year instead of the normal three years that Intel usually offers on most of its other processors.

This new processor is essentially a specially binned version of the existing Intel Core i9-9900K processor (which was released in Q4 2018) that will let you run all of the eight cores at 5.00 GHz without any manual overclocking. One challenge for this new processor is that the existing Core i9-9900K can usually be overclocked to 5.00 GHz on all cores, depending on whether you were lucky in the silicon lottery (meaning you got a “good” sample), your CPU cooler, and your motherboard and BIOS settings. Individual motherboard vendors can choose to use features like Multi-Core Enhancement (MCE), and they can also decide how they want to regulate power usage and Turbo duration. These factors can have a huge effect on benchmark results and real-world performance. Keep in mind that you will want/need a high quality, fairly expensive CPU cooler for an Intel Core i9-9900KS. This might cost anywhere from $75-$200.

Gaming Performance

Intel claims this is the absolute best processor for gaming, but is this actually true? This depends on what type of gaming you plan to do, especially the screen resolution you will be playing at. It makes a big difference whether you game at 1080P (1920 x 1080) or lower; or whether you game at 2K (2560 x 1440) or 4K (3840 x 2160). If you game at 1080P or lower, then your single-threaded CPU performance is usually your bottleneck for getting high frames per second (FPS), assuming you have a good enough video card such that the video card is not the bottleneck. You can use a relatively low performance video card and still get high FPS performance when you are running at 1080P or lower resolution.

Once you go above a certain level of FPS (depending on whether you have a high refresh rate, low latency monitor and whether your monitor has G-Sync or FreeSync), getting even more FPS is not going to make any noticeable difference in your gaming experience. Once you go above 1080P gaming, the video card becomes the bottleneck, unless you have an extremely slow processor. As long as the processor meets a certain relatively low level of performance, your FPS performance in 2K and higher gaming is gated by your video card performance.

What this means is that if your main priority is the absolute highest FPS performance at 1080P or lower, then yes, the Intel Core i9-9900KS is the world’s best gaming processor. If that use case is not your main priority, there are other less expensive choices, and also other similar cost choices that will work much better for many other scenarios.

Other Processor Choices

If you are an Intel fan, you could choose an Intel Core i9-9900K (with the right motherboard and BIOS settings), and very likely get the same level of 1080P gaming performance as a 9900KS. You would probably save $50-$100 by doing this, depending on the actual street prices of both processors. You could also choose a less expensive 8C/8T Intel Core i7-9700K processor and probably save $200-$250 and still get nearly the same level of 1080P gaming performance as a 9900KS. In either case, you could spend those savings on a better video card, or keep the savings yourself. If you are thinking about building a new Intel desktop system, I would urge you to wait until November/December, since there are pretty strong rumors that Intel is going to reduce the prices of their older existing CPUs by perhaps $50 or more.

What about using an AMD processor? One excellent choice for gaming and general purpose usage is the 7nm 8C/16T AMD Ryzen 7 3700X, which is currently selling for $319 (including a pretty good stock Wraith Prism CPU cooler in the box) at Micro Center. The Ryzen 7 3700X is pretty competitive with these Intel processors for gaming, depending on the game and the resolution. It is going to be much better than the Intel Core i7-9700K for general purpose computing since it has 16 threads instead of only 8. You could use the money savings (vs. a Core i9-9900KS) for a better video card, more RAM, or better storage.

You could also step up to a 12C/24T AMD Ryzen 9 3900X (if you can find one) or wait a few weeks and get a 16C/32T AMD Ryzen 9 3950X (which may also be in short supply when it is released). The 3900X is $499 and the 3950X will be $749. These processors will also be pretty competitive with the Intel processors for gaming, depending on the game and the resolution. They will be much better than any mainstream Intel processor for workstation performance because of their higher core and thread counts and PCIe 4.0 support. Speaking of that, the upcoming Ryzen 9 3950X is very likely to be better than the new $979 18C/36T Intel Core i9-10980XE Cascade Lake-X HEDT processor for many workstation workloads.

Frankly, the initial written reviews for the Intel Core i9-9900KS have been pretty brutal:

The Intel Core i9-9900KS Review: The 5 GHz Consumer Special

The Intel Core i9-9900KS Special Edition Review: 5.0 GHz on All the Cores, All the Time

Intel Core i9-9900KS Special Edition Review: More power, less point

There are also many YouTube reviews that have been even more negative about the Intel Core i9-9900KS. Here are a few:

Intel Core i9-9900KS Review, Winner of 2019’s Most Boring CPU Award
Intel is selling BINNED 9900Ks! Core i9-9900KS Unboxing
$513 5GHz Special Edition CPU – Intel 9900KS Review
Intel i9-9900KS Review: Overclocking, Power, & Gaming CPU Benchmarks
INTEL i9 9900KS Release! REVIEW & OVERCLOCK to 5.4 GHz!
Intel i9-9900KS Marketing: Rushed and Hilarious!
Well this is awkward…My golden sample 9900K BEAT the 9900KS

Conclusion

Does all of this mean that the Intel Core i9-9900KS is a “bad” processor? No, absolutely not. If 1080P gaming with the highest FPS performance is your main concern, then this is a great processor. As long as you have a high quality Z390 motherboard with good VRMs, a high quality CPU cooler, and a good enough graphics card, you will be very happy.

If you game at higher resolutions, or do other things besides gaming, you have other choices that are much more affordable, such as an AMD Ryzen 7 3700X processor. For the same amount or slightly more money, you can get much better general purpose and workstation performance with a higher core count AMD Ryzen 9 3900X or 3950X processor.

What are the implications for the overall mainstream desktop CPU market? Well currently, Intel is losing a lot of both market-share and mind-share with their current offerings. The Core i9-9900KS is a pretty weak response to the AMD Ryzen 3000 series outside of one particular narrow use case. Intel’s next short-term move is likely to be price reductions, which they have never really had to do in the past. Intel has milked the 2015-vintage 14nm Skylake architecture (and its Kaby Lake, Cannon Lake, and Coffee Lake derivatives) about as far as they can.

Intel will eventually have a better response, probably in the late 2020/2021 time frame. By then, AMD should have the next generation Zen 3 processors. If you enjoy computer hardware, this is a great time to watch what is happening in the industry! 




Building an AMD Ryzen 7 3700X Desktop Machine

Since the AMD Ryzen 3000 series processors were released on July 7, 2019, I decided to build a new desktop machine based on this processor. This was to give me some hands on experience with an AMD Ryzen 3000 series processor, and because I actually enjoy building desktop systems. This new machine will be used primarily to play “World of Tanks”, and I wanted to see if I could build a fairly low-end machine that would perform significantly better than my existing gaming rig.

My old gaming system has a $350.00 6C/12T Intel Core i7-8700K and an older $650.00 AMD R9 Fury Nano video card.

I live fairly close to a Micro Center, so I can take advantage of their bundle discounts when you buy the right set of components together. This can save you over $100 on a complete system.

Component Selection

I’m going to walk through what exact components I selected for the system, with a little bit of reasoning why I made those choices. In every case, I could have spent less money without giving up too much performance.


Processor

I decided to get an AMD Ryzen 7 3700X, which is an 8C/16T processor that is a mid-range processor in the Ryzen 3000 series. It has a base clock of 3.6GHz and a max boost clock of 4.4GHz, with a 32MB L3 cache. This particular model has a 65 watt TDP (so it uses less power than the AMD Ryzen 7 3800X), and it comes with a pretty decent RGB Wraith Prism cooler. The Micro Center price was $329.99.

amd-ryzen-7-3700x-sweet-spot

Figure 1: The Sweet Spot Processor


Motherboard

I selected an ASRock X570 Phantom Gaming 4 ATX motherboard.  I tend to favor ASRock motherboards, and all of my recent builds have ASRock motherboards. This motherboard uses the high-end X570 chipset, but it is one of the more affordable models from ASRock.

If you have an existing 300 or 400 series AMD chipset motherboard, you can probably use that with a new Ryzen 3000 series processor, with a BIOS update. You will lose out on PCIe 4.0 support, but that is not a big deal for a gaming system. The Micro Center price was $154.99, plus a $50.00 bundle discount, since I was buying an eligible processor.

Your-PC-Transformed-X570%20Phantom%20Gaming%204

Figure 2: ASRock X570 Phantom Gaming 4


Memory

I selected a 16GB G.Skill Trident Z CL15 F4-3600C15D-16GTZ kit (Micro Center SKU 822635), which is two 8GB sticks of memory. Having two sticks of memory puts you in dual-channel mode. Having two sticks of memory instead of four sticks lets you use one DIMM per channel (DPC) which increases your memory performance. TweakTown reviewed this memory here.

Memory performance is actually quite important for AMD Ryzen 3000 series processors. Having higher speed memory with tighter timings makes a significant difference on many synthetic and real-world benchmarks. The price/performance sweet spot seems to be DDR4-3200, with DDR4-3600 being slightly better. This G.Skill Trident Z kit has tight CL15 timing, which is important. The Micro Center price was $199.99, but I actually found an open box kit for $183.96


Video Card

I selected an XFX Radeon 5700 8GB video card. This is the low-end SKU in the Radeon 5700 series. The Radeon 5700 uses less power than the Radeon 5700 XT, but the performance is fairly close in most benchmarks. I do my gaming at 2K (2560 x 1440), so video performance is my main bottleneck. Truth be told, I would have probably picked a 5700 XT card, but Micro Center didn’t have any in stock on July 8, 2019.

The Micro Center price was $349.99, plus a $50.00 bundle discount, since I was buying an eligible processor.


Storage

I bought a 500GB Samsung 970 EVO NVMe M.2 card. This was actually not what I meant to buy (which was a newer and slightly faster 500GB Samsung 970 EVO Plus), but it was my fault. I had written down my component list and handed it to a sales person to get the components that are locked up, and I simply wrote “500GB Samsung 970 EVO”, so I got exactly what I asked for.  I didn’t notice it until I got home.

A 500GB Samsung 860 EVO SATA SSD is only about $10.00 less than the much faster 500GB 970 EVO. If you use a SATA SSD, you will have to use a SATA data cable and a SATA power cable, which makes cable management more difficult. An M.2 drive goes directly on the motherboard, with no cables required.

As it turns out, storage performance is not typically a bottleneck on a gaming system, as long as you are not using a slow magnetic hard drive. The Micro Center price was $89.99.

001_gallery_MZ-V7E500BW_09-28-18

Figure 3: Samsung 970 EVO


Power Supply

I selected a Corsair RM750x 750 Watt 80 Plus Gold ATX Modular Power Supply. Modular power supplies make cable management much easier, since you only have to install the cables you are actually using. Because of my other component selections, I only needed cables for the motherboard/CPU and for the video card. No SATA or Molex cables were required.

This is a very good quality power supply that is less money than the Seasonic power supplies that I usually buy. Unfortunately, Micro Center doesn’t carry the full Seasonic line of power supplies. Tom’s Hardware reviewed this unit here.

The Micro Center price was $119.99, plus a $10.00 bundle discount, since I was buying an eligible processor.


Case

I selected a Fractal Design Meshify C Tempered Glass MidTower ATX case. This case has very good airflow, and it is still pretty quiet. It is also quite low on the RGB bling factor, which is fine with me. It is a relatively small ATX case, which makes the build a little more difficult than a larger case. It does have good cable management features though. Gamers Nexus reviewed the Meshify C here.

One thing I might do is to replace the stock 120mm fans with 140mm Corsair ML fans, which would move more air and be more quiet. The Micro Center price was $99.99.


Build Notes

You want to make sure you are running Windows 10 Version 1903, and that you get the latest AMD Chipset drivers so that you will get the Windows scheduler fix for Zen processors and the much faster clock speed ramp-up times for Zen 2 processors. You also want to make sure you get the latest main BIOS version for your motherboard and then make an effort to keep it up to date. This will give you the latest AMD AGESA code, which helps memory performance, among other things.

If you get a Samsung NVMe M.2 drive, make sure to install the Samsung NVMe driver and to install Samsung Magician, so you can stay current with the drive firmware. At a bare minimum, you will probably want to enable XMP in your main BIOS. There are also a number of AMD-specific BIOS settings for things like Precision Boost Overdrive to experiment with.


Conclusion

The total (before tax) for the complete system was $1,218.90. This new system is significantly faster than my old gaming system, and it uses less power, while costing less money. I could have saved more money with some different component choices. For example, I could have gotten a cheaper B450 or X470 motherboard and an AMD Ryzen 5 3600 processor. I could have used less expensive memory, and gotten a less expensive power supply and case. By doing all of that, I could probably get the price down to around $900.00 for a 6C/12T system that would have pretty comparable gaming performance.

I’ve have some benchmark results in an upcoming post.




Glenn’s Technical Insights For June 13, 2019

(Glenn’s Technical Insights… used to be part of our bi-weekly newsletter but we decided to make it a regular blog post instead so it can get more visibility. It covers interesting new hardware and software developments that are generally relevant for SQL Server).

AMD Announcements at the E3 Conference

On June 10, 2019 AMD President and CEO, Dr. Lisa Su delivered a presentation at the E3 Expo 2019 in Los Angeles. During this presentation, Dr. Su announced more architectural details about the 7nm Ryzen 3000 series mainstream desktop processors,including a new 16C/32T, Ryzen 9 3950X SKU. AMD also demoed the upcoming 7nm AMD EYPC “Rome” server processors, along with the upcoming 7nm AMD Radeon RX 5700 “Navi” video cards. The updated Ryzen 3000 SKU list is shown in Figure 1.

AMD Ryzen 3000 Series

Figure 1: AMD Ryzen 3000 Lineup


One of the more interesting bits of new information is the fact that AMD has been working closely with Microsoft to develop improvements to how scheduling and thread allocation is handled on AMD Zen2 architecture processors on Windows 10 Build 1903. They are moving from a hybrid thread expansion strategy (where active cores are placed as far away from each other as possible) to thread grouping, where new threads are allocated  as close as possible to already active cores, hopefully on the same CCX. This improves thread to thread communication by speeding up memory access. This is designed to improve the apparent scheduling issues seen on Windows with some AMD Zen processors. You will need an updated AMD chipset driver to get this improvement.

It is not yet clear how well this will work on more heavily threaded workloads like you typically see on a database server. I am also not yet 100% certain that this fix is in Windows Server 2016 and Windows Server 2019 yet. The upcoming AMD EPYC “Rome” processors use the same Zen 2 architecture, so it is possible they will benefit from this change with some workloads.

Figure 2: Topology Awareness

Another Windows 10 Build 1903 improvement that will definitely help AMD Zen architecture processors is a feature that AMD calls faster clock ramping. It is actually UEFI Collaborative Power Performance Control 2 (CPPC2), which lets the processor and operating system cooperate more closely (and quickly) to increase the clock speed of individual cores more rapidly under a load. This feature moves P-state control from the OS to the processor, so the processor can “throttle up” much more quickly than before. AMD is claiming a clock ramp time of 1-2ms with this improvement compared to about 30ms before. This will also require a UEFI/BIOS update and a new AMD chipset driver before it will work.

This feature is very similar to Intel Speed Shift, which was introduced with their Skylake processors, and improved with Kaby Lake. Intel Speed Shift requires Windows 10 v10586 or Windows Server 2016 or newer. Intel Speed Shift takes 15-30ms to ramp up, so it is not as responsive as AMD’s implementation. AMD also revealed that the Zen 2 architecture processors will have hardware level mitigations for Spectre and Spectre v4. Keep in mind that AMD processors are not vulnerable to Meltdown, or newer exploits such as Foreshadow or Zombieload.

These architectural improvements in the Zen 2 architecture will also show up in the upcoming (Q3 2019) 7nm AMD EPYC “Rome” server processors, which is very exciting from a SQL Server perspective.