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?
Figure 1: Intel Core i9-9900KS Packaging (from PCMag.com)
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.
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:
There are also many YouTube reviews that have been even more negative about the Intel Core i9-9900KS. Here are a few:
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!