Intel i9-10900K Review: The Fastest Gaming CPU, The Highest Premium (2022)

Intel’s marketing pitch for the i9-10900K is pretty simple. If you want the fastest gaming CPU on the market, this is the one to buy.

And for all intents and purposes, the pitch is exactly on point. But for the more budget conscious among us, Intel’s i9-10900K is a much harder sell.

The 10900K sits at the top of Intel’s stack in their 10th generation desktop CPUs. It’s 10 core, 20 thread beast that can hit up to 5.3GHz (not on all cores), provided you don’t mind paying $999 for the CPU plus a couple of hundred extra for liquid cooling.

You’ll need a new motherboard too, because Intel’s 10th generation series runs on the LGA 1200 socket, rather than the 1151 series powering last year’s i9-9900K and i7-9700K. Those boards can be exceptionally pricey, too. The Gigabyte Z490 AORUS MASTER, which was supplied to reviewers in Australia by Intel’s local team, is retailing at some places for a staggering $799. Even more affordable boards like the ASUS ROG STRIX Z490 series will retail for between $439 and $600, depending on what you get.

By comparison, the X570 motherboards – the top of the line for those buying the Ryzen 3000 CPUs, or the rumoured Ryzen 3000 XT refresh later this year – are available from $299 onwards, with a lot of decent boards available between the $300 and $400 mark.

With the Ryzen 3900X being slashed down to $729, and that it comes with a serviceable (if supremely loud) air cooler, that’s a substantial difference in value. We’ll return to that later.

For now, let’s get to the specs and benchmarks.

Intel i9-10900KRyzen 3700XRyzen 3900X
Base/Boost Clock3.7GHz/5.3GHz3.6GHz/4.4Ghz3.8GHz/4.6GHz
PCI-e VersionPCIe 3.0 x 16PCIe 4.0 x 16PCIe 4.0x 16
Default TDP125W65W105W
Process Node14nm++++++7nm FINFET7nm FINFET

While AMD has been on 7nm technology for a while, the 10900k is another refresh of Intel’s Skylake 14nm generation. It won’t be the last 14nm chip, apparently, with Rocket Lake-S to add PCIe 4.0 support. That’s supposedly to be revealed later this year, but after that Intel is scheduled to move to a new platform again, with Alder Lake-S moving to the LGA 1700 socket.

If you’re looking at this purely from a gaming perspective, the main differentiator is 10900k’s lack of PCIe 4.0 support. In real-world terms, you won’t get the most out of the new NVMe drives that have been hitting the market over the last year. For gaming there’s not much difference yet though, although it remains to be seen whether AMD and Nvidia’s new GPUs this year will make full use of PCIe 4.0.

It’s worth noting that the AMD CPUs also benefit a lot more from faster RAM too, but to keep things even, I’m using the same set of RAM on both platforms.

Intel i9-10900K Test Bench

Here’s the rig used:

  • CPU: Intel i9-10900K (stock speeds, no MCE)
  • Cooler: Hydro Series H100x High Performance Liquid CPU Cooler
  • RAM: 32GB DDR4 3200MHz CORSAIR Vengeance LPX (15-15-15-36)
  • GPU: RTX 2080 Ti Founders Edition (stock speeds)
  • Motherboard: Gigabyte Z490 AORUS MASTEr
  • PSU: EVGA Supernova G2 850W
  • GPU Drivers: Nvidia 445.87 (May 15, 2020)

The tests are run against the Ryzen 3700X and 3900X, being the most price comparable options. I didn’t have the 8 core/16 thread Intel i7-10700K, which costs $749 and is most similar to the 3900X in terms of raw price. Intel did send over a i5-10600K as well, but that’s for a separate story.

  • CPUs: Ryzen 3700X & Ryzen 3900X (stock speeds, AMD stock cooler)
  • RAM: 32GB DDR4 3200MHz CORSAIR Vengeance LPX (15-15-15-36)
  • GPU: RTX 2080 Ti Founders Edition (stock speeds)
  • PSU: Corsair CX750M 750W 80 Plus Bronze
  • GPU Drivers: Nvidia 445.87 (May 15, 2020)

Intel i9-10900K: Regarding Multi-Core Enhancement

I’ve mentioned no MCE at the stock speeds, but what does that mean? MCE is shorthand for multi-core enhancement, which is basically an option you can toggle on your motherboard that runs all cores at the highest frequency – if your motherboard/cooling solution is capable of doing so. So instead of just a couple of the 10900K’s cores running at 5.3GHz, and most of the cores running at 4.9GHz at high load, you can run them all at 5.3GHz.

But there’s an obvious catch: the CPU runs super hot. You’ll be pushing a ton of voltage to the CPU just to hit those temperatures. You’ll need a good bit of luck too. Because of the amount of extra power you’re pushing to the CPU, what you’ll find is the CPU hitting staggering highly temperatures, which will force the CPU clocks down as it throttles. Here’s an example of what happened running Cinebench R20 while MCE was enabled, and when disabled:

Intel i9-10900K Review: The Fastest Gaming CPU, The Highest Premium (1)

Intel i9-10900K Review: The Fastest Gaming CPU, The Highest Premium (2)

Obviously, a CPU shouldn’t be hitting 100 degrees.

Now the other side of the coin here is: if you’re forking out for the best possible gaming PC, you’re probably not going to care about how much power and temperature it runs at as long as it works fine. If that means a few hundred extra on a bigger closed-loop liquid cooling setup and a premium case for better airflow, then that’s all fine. But if your budget is more tight, then this is something to keep in mind.

Needless to say, all the tests and results were run with MCE disabled.

Intel i9-10900K: Productivity/Synthetic Benchmarks

Intel i9-10900K Review: The Fastest Gaming CPU, The Highest Premium (3)

Intel’s marketing in previous years has been all about multi-threading: doing many things all at the same time. It’s a good reflection of how people use their PCs today. But with AMD having taken back that crown somewhat, courtesy of having more cores since the launch of the Ryzen platform, Intel has changed tack to refocus on the gamer.

So with that in mind, there won’t be a lot of synthetic benchmarks here. One exclusion from the list that I didn’t get time for was Premiere Pro: during the middle of testing, Adobe rolled out hardware accelerated encoding to the main Premiere Pro branch. The significant difference that makes in video editing is so stark that running comparisons with just the CPU doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. You’d get some useful detail on how the CPUs perform against each other, but it would no longer be reflective of how anyone will use the software.

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Intel i9-10900K Review: The Fastest Gaming CPU, The Highest Premium (5)Image: Kotaku Australia

Intel i9-10900K Review: The Fastest Gaming CPU, The Highest Premium (6)Image: Kotaku Australia

There’s not a huge amount to get excited about here. All of these results are within 3D Mark’s margin of error, although the 10900K does have more potential for overclocking (depending on how much you spend on cooling). Still, this is a synthetic benchmark, and my takeaway from this is that while the 10900K might be faster, it might not necessarily be worth the premium.

Intel i9-10900K: Gaming Benchmarks

Intel i9-10900K Review: The Fastest Gaming CPU, The Highest Premium (7)Image: Reddit (u/Spoggi99)

Time for some gaming here. We’re going for a mix of all DirectX 12 enabled titles, all on different engines with different challenges: Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Forza Horizon 4 and Total War: Three Kingdoms. Shadow has traditionally favoured Intel and Nvidia parts, while Forza Horizon 4 is historically strong on all AMD hardware. Total War, on the other hand, just brutalises any machine you play it on – at Ultra, anyway.

As in our previous benchmarks, all tests were run on Highest/Ultra presets. For Three Kingdoms, I’ve used the Battle Benchmark (instead of the Campaign or Dynasty tests).

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Intel i9-10900K Review: The Fastest Gaming CPU, The Highest Premium (9)

Forza Horizon 4 showcases just under a 10 percent gap to Intel here. That gap narrows as you get into the higher resolutions. FH4 maxes out the GPU from 1440p and beyond, so it’s really only the 1080p results that are the best indicator of the gap between AMD and Intel here.

It’s possible we could get even higher frame rates later this year when AMD and Nvidia’s new GPUs finally launch. And keep in mind, all the CPUs here could be pushed further if you invest more time into overclocking, faster memory kits, and especially with the i9-10900K, those $200-plus liquid cooling kits.

Intel i9-10900K Review: The Fastest Gaming CPU, The Highest Premium (10)

A solid lead at 1080p here, but naturally that matters little once you get into the higher resolutions. There might be more potential for the 10900K to break away with better cooling and some overclocking, but the reality is that you’re not going to see a whole lot of difference until the next generation of GPUs drop.

Intel i9-10900K Review: The Fastest Gaming CPU, The Highest Premium (11)

Remember: these tests are being run with a 2080 Ti. Founders Edition, so technically not the fastest 2080 Ti you could find on the market, but still an exceedingly good GPU all the same.

Three Kingdoms is one of those games that benefits massively from dropping the preset down to High, where you’ll get an enormous bump in frame rate for not much visual difference. I didn’t have time to do a complete retesting on the lower preset, but the performance gap grew to about 20fps between the 3900X and 10900K at those settings on 1080p. I’d expect similar results from the Campaign benchmark as well, and given that the 3700X returns basically the same performance as the 3900X in games, you can extrapolate what you need to from there.

Intel i9-10900K Review: The Fastest Gaming CPU, The Highest Premium (12)

It’s pretty clear, then, who Intel is selling the i9-10900K to. Most gamers know at least one or two people in their life who will generally save up years for a big upgrade. They’ll save a ton of money, they want premium parts, and they’re happy to pay the premium. Sometimes they’ll even have the system prebuilt as well, because they like the effect of a custom case and maybe a touch of overclocking done for them.

Those people want just one thing: the nicest, fastest gaming PC money can buy. They don’t care about power usage. They care even less about the value difference between a $150 water cooling setup to one that’s $250 or $300, as long as it’ll happily function day after day without them having to touch it.

And that’s what Intel is going for with their messaging. There’s a bit of whiplash having come from years of Computex conferences where the company talked endlessly about multi-tasking and multi-threading. Now, it’s all about the gamers.

So if you fit into that bracket, and you don’t really care about PCIe 4.0 support, or having to toss out your motherboard in two years time, then the i9-10900K will be the fastest gaming CPU you can buy. No question.

The tricky part is when you start to look at the value. Even if you ignore the possibility of air cooling the 3900X – as that’s the most direct competitor to the 10900K right now – there’s still a substantial premium on Intel’s Z490 motherboards compared to the AMD X570 platform. It’s not like $10 or $20. It’s a couple of hundred bucks, money that could go into a better GPU, an extra SSD, or a slightly nicer monitor.

I’ve also seen some commentary around the short life of Intel’s LGA 1200 socket, but I don’t think that’s really something consumers should care about in reality. The LGA 1200 socket has a two-year cycle on it, at best. AMD’s X570’s platform will at least support the 3000 series of CPUs, and the upcoming 3000 (or 4000?) desktop refresh. But after that the AM4 platform will be (tentatively) surpassed in 2022, with the AM5 platform adding support for USB 4.0, 5nm chips, and DDR5 memory.

Even if your older motherboard still worked with the 5nm CPUs then, chances are you’d want to upgrade anyway just for the native support, extra PCIe 4.0 lanes, and faster memory speeds. So no matter what you invest into today, you’re still facing the same choice down the road.

With all that said, is Intel’s $999 CPU better value than AMD’s $729 offering?

It depends on how far your dollar goes. If buying AMD means you save enough money that you can afford a slightly better GPU – like a 2080 Super or a 2080 Ti instead of a 2070 Super – then that’s still the best way to go. That’s especially true given that most games run into a GPU wall pretty quickly, and the amount of games that scale properly with more cores is still fairly rare. (That might change over the next few years as more games are developed around multi-platform environments with 8 cores as the minimum.)

There’s certainly no compelling reason to upgrade here if you bought into Intel’s 9000 series CPUs last year. They were better out of the box for gaming than AMD’s 3000 series, and they still are. The 9900K is a little bit better value than the 10900K, starting from $829 locally, and that’s before considering the cheaper motherboards or cooling.

If you just want the absolute fastest gaming CPU, and one that has a bit of extra grunt for productivity workloads like video rendering, Photoshop work, machine learning and data analysis, the 10900K is definitely the best thing available in Australia today. It’s not the best value, and supply is pretty hard to find right now.

Not everyone cares about having a well-rounded machine. So for anyone who wants the best possible gaming PC – regardless of price – the 10900K is the best option. AMD might have something to say about that in a couple of months, but for now, Intel’s relentlessly refined 14nm process remains the top of the heap.

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