It isn't often that we get a chip in the lab that's so secret that we can't even post a picture of it to protect our sources, but that's exactly what we have today with a pre-production Special Edition Intel Core i9-9900KS that has found its way onto our test bench before the company's official launch.
Intel says the Core i9-9900KS will come to market later this month, but aside from some basic specifications it shared at an event in Taipei, the company hasn't revealed much official information about its latest flagship part. That means we'll have a bit of discovery ahead of us as we take a closer look at what Intel hopes will build upon the success of the Core i9-9900K that currently sits atop the gaming throne for the desktop PC market.
Intel certainly needs every advantage it can get. AMD's Ryzen chips, armed with the Zen 2 microarchitecture and TSMC's 7nm process, have proven to be potent competitors against Intel's aging combination of its 14nm process and Skylake architecture. Intel is faced with a nimble opponent in AMD, which has beaten the odds and wrested the process lead from Intel, a first in the storied rivalry between the two companies. That combination fuels the Ryzen processors and their often-superior value proposition of more cores for less money, leading performance in threaded workloads, and similar gaming performance.
In response, Intel has added cores and features to its lineup while wringing every last drop of performance out of its 14nm process through a continual string of '+' revisions. Those enhancements have consistently improved performance (more than 70%) over the original manufacturing technology that debuted five years ago.
|Process||SEP / RCP (USD)||Cores / Threads||TDP (Watts)||Base Frequency (GHz)||Total Cache (MB)||PCIe Lanes||iGPU||Price Per Thread|
|Ryzen 9 3900X||7nm||$499||12 / 24||105W||3.5 / 4.7||32||24 Gen4||No||$20.79|
|Core i9-9900KS||14nm||$513||8 / 16||127W||4.0 / 5.0||16||16 Gen3||Yes||$32|
|Core i9-9900K||14nm||$488||8 / 16||95W||3.6 / 5.0||16||16 Gen3||Yes||$30.05|
|Ryzen 7 3800X||7nm||$399||8 / 16||105W||3.9 / 4.5||32||24 Gen4||No||$24.94|
|Core i9-9700K||14nm||$374||8 / 8||95W||3.6 / 4.9||12||16 Gen3||Yes||$46.75|
|Ryzen 7 3700X||7nm||$329||8 / 16||65W||3.6 / 4.4||32||24 Gen4||No||$20.56|
Much of that improvement comes from Intel's ability to dial up the frequency, which is exemplified in the -9900KS. Intel bakes the Special Edition Core i9-9900KS with the same 14nm++ process and Coffee Lake architecture as the standard Core i9-9900K, meaning they are essentially the same processor. But because the chips represent Intel's highest-binned silicon, they come with significantly higher clock speeds. As this is Intel's best silicon, we also expect higher overclocking headroom, which we'll certainly test today.
Like the Core i9-9900K before it, the -9900KS comes with Intel's translucent plastic dodecahedron packaging, which means it won't come with a bundled cooler. We've heard rumblings that Intel might have other add-on goodies worthy of the KS's Special Edition branding, but we'll have to wait for the official launch to learn more.
|Active Cores||Base||1 Core||2 Cores||3 Cores||4 Cores||5 Cores||6 Cores||7 Cores||8 Cores|
|Core i9-9900KS (GHz)||4.0||5.0||5.0||5.0||5.0||5.0||5.0||5.0||5.0|
|Core i9-9900K (GHz)||3.6||5.0||5.0||4.8||4.8||4.7||4.7||4.7||4.7|
Intel's current flagship Core i9-9900K can hit 5.0 GHz on two of its cores at stock settings, but the Core i9-9900KS is designed to hit 5.0 GHz on all of its cores. That's an improvement of 300 MHz when all cores are active, and our chip does it with with all instruction types (AVX included) at stock settings. That capitalizes on Intel's frequency advantage during a time when AMD's Ryzen processors have come under fire for the company's new binning approach that results in a mixture of faster and slower cores, meaning not all cores can hit the chips' maximum boost clocks. AMD has also weathered criticism for its chips' inability to even reach those maximum clocks consistently on a single core, but those concerns have largely been addressed with recent firmware updates.
Intel also increased the base clock frequency by 400 MHz. Raising the base clock comes along with a commensurate increase in the TDP rating, which has been listed at 127W by several motherboard vendors on BIOS update pages (but isn't official yet).
We do expect other fine-grained improvements, like the improved in-silicon security migrations that come with the R0 die stepping on our -9900KS sample. Those silicon adjustments reduce the impact of software-based mitigation needed for our -9900K P0 stepping chip, but can result in slightly-lower per-clock performance. We'll put that to a brief test today, too, to see if the mitigations significantly reduce instruction per cycle (IPC) throughput.
Pricing remains the wild card, and it has always been one of the con's of Intel's processors relative to its competition. Intel did recently make significant price adjustments to its Cascade Lake-X lineup, essentially halving the price-per-core, but we don't expect a similar approach with the KS model because it would radically devalue the existing Coffee Lake lineup. Instead, we expect gen-on-gen price cuts to arrive with Intel's next-gen Comet Lake processors.
Intel hasn't officially announced pricing for the Core i9-9900KS yet, which makes it hard to assess from a value standpoint. We have seen a retailer listing for $559.99, a $70 premium over the -9900K. This price point makes sense, but it could also merely be a placeholder. As such, we'll refrain from making a concrete value analysis in this piece.
In the interest of time, we're not posting our entire test suite. This article serves as a preview of what we can expect from the -9900KS, but bear in mind that while our BIOS is listed as compatible with the KS, motherboard vendors tend to issue performance-boosting updates during NDA cycles. We're also testing with pre-production silicon, which could also leave out other possible improvements.
We've already seen several flavors of the Core i9-9900K, including the graphics-less Core i9-9900KF. Let's see what Intel's highest-performing version has in store.