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Intel launches 9th-gen, 8-core i9-9900K CPU and more

This is the processor you'll want to pair with your Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti card.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Repeatedly calling it "the world's best gaming processor," Intel on Monday launched the ninth-generation Core i9-9900K, its flagship mainstream unlocked, overclockable CPU with eight cores, intended to appeal to gamers and that most nebulous of market segments, creators. 

It's joined by ninth-gen versions of the Core i7 and i5, an 18-core i9-9980XE for people who need workstation power but not the workstation processor, and a 28-core unlocked Xeon W-3175X for those who do.

Intel and the rest of the computer industry are really pushing the idea of a "creator" market segment as well as gaming, because those are the folks who need more power than usual -- people who spend more -- and typically upgrade systems every two to three years. And as one professional gamer pointed out, esports is a "money machine." More cores helps when you're both playing and streaming, for example.  

Increasingly games are being developed with six or more cores in mind, and when you're ready to hit 1440p on high-quality settings (or 4K, eventually) higher-performance graphics cards like Nvidia's RTX line mean the CPU is more likely to be the bottleneck than the GPU. And for nongaming, high-quality rendering still happens on the CPU, where more cores make a big difference. And some games already take advantage of as many cores as you can throw at them.  

"Ninth-gen" doesn't mean much relative to the eighth generation for Intel's Core processors: The Coffee Lake-S 14nm++ process that defines the generation essentially adds efficiencies, which allows Intel to eke out higher clock speeds, more consistent and flexible memory access and power handling.

The most notable aspect of the i9-9900K and i7-9700K are the bump to eight cores. When a lot of processing happens simultaneously, as it does with, say, video encoding, more cores are better; the rest of the time, higher clock speeds will make more of an impact. The i9-9900K combines both, with the ability to hit 5GHz, Intel's fastest Turbo Boost clock speed, when using only one core, but offering the extra cores when you need them. 

Performance is bolstered by Intel's improved memory architecture, which doesn't starve the cores for memory, and the adoption of solder thermal interface material (STIM) to replace thermal paste between the chip and its heat sink allows for better heat dissipation when overclocking.

They don't come cheap. The i9-9900K alone will cost about $490, so system prices will likely start at upwards of $2,000. But eight cores is a relatively happy medium between monsters like Intel's i9 X series, which start at 10 cores, 20 threads for around $1,000, and the eighth-generation, six-core i7s that are great today but may not be in a few years -- especially since Intel dropped hyperthreading, which virtually doubles the number of cores, from the i7 and lower ranges. Especially if you want a power desktop system that will last a reasonably long time before you need to replace it.

If you're looking for cheaper, AMD's Ryzen 2700X offers eight cores, 16 threads for less money, though we'll wait until the benchmarks are in before determining whether the tradeoffs -- if any -- are worth it.  

Preorders for systems from all the major manufacturers start today and they'll start shipping Oct. 19.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The 18-core i9-9980XE and 28-core unlocked Xeon W-3175X will begin shipping to Intel's customers in December, which means systems will likely be available starting in January.

The i9-9900K gets a boost to 5GHz on two of the cores and up to 4.7GHz on all. The i7-9700K, however, is very close -- it will boost to 4.9GHz on a single core (4.8GHz on two), or 4.6GHz on all cores. The difference is the i7 drops hyperthreading, the technology that gives you eight threads on a quad-core processor, for example. At four cores, the most common popular optimization for most software, the i7-9700K boosts to 4.7GHz and the i9-9900K to 4.8GHz. So the gap between the two processors many not be that large for tasks that don't take advantage of hyperthreading or more than four cores. 

The CPUs aren't completely future proof, though. The fastest memory they'll support is DDR4-2666, while faster DDR4 is available now and DDR5 is on the horizon. You can overclock the memory, though.

An updated Z390 chipset adds more USB-C/Thunderbolt port support over the earlier Z370 as well.

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