5 Years ago, an 8-Core CPU from Intel would easily run you over $1,000. Even though the performance was pretty kick-ass, the price was a brutal pill to swallow, effectively pricing it into the workstation market, and leaving the rest of us on consumer platforms to scrap over the 4-Core chips instead. However, after arguably too long, and a kick in the balls from AMD, we now have gaming-focused consumer chips sporting 8 physical cores, with the now sub-$300 i7-9700k being one of the only two consumer socketed SKUs released to date, going back two and a half years ago. The question today is how well this chip holds up in 2021 – Are 8 Physical Cores enough to tackle 4k content creation?
In this review, we’ll be taking a look at the Intel Core i7-9700k, a follow-up to the immensely popular i7-8700k, which brought forth the very first spec bump to the consumer i7 line. While 6- and 8-Core i7s had existed in the years prior, they were locked behind larger and more expensive sockets. Hell, even the first generation of i7s were locked onto the Enthusiast LGA-1366 platform. So, by late 2018, we were foaming at the mouths to get hold of 8-Core chips on LGA-1151. When we finally got them, we were surprised not only by the performance, but also by the sheer specs.
Specifications & Design
By the time this chip released in October 2018, 8-Core chips were already relatively common, with Zen being introduced just over a year prior. However, mainstream 8-Core offerings from Intel were still not yet available, with their consumer-focused chipsets maxing out at 6 cores and 12 threads.
It was time to up the core count once again, and the release of the 9700k marked the second generation in a row where the i7 model received a core count bump. This though came at the cost of Hyperthreading, meaning that for the first time since the release of the OG i7-920, an i7 processor would be shipping without this feature, leaving many to be relatively speculative of the ninth-gen offering. Putting skepticism aside, let’s dig into the specs of this chip, and take a look at what’s under the hood.
Overall, the i7-9700K is composed of 8 physical Coffee Lake-R cores, and is salvaged from an i9-9900k. This means that under the hood, the general structure is similar, but its power characteristics and overall silicon quality fall in favor of the i9. In terms of on-die memory, we’ve got a similar cache pipeline to that found in the previous-gen 8700k. However, because each core requires its own separate L1 and L2 Caches, this means you’re getting a 33% increase in Level 1 and 2 Cache with the 9700k over the 8700k, despite both chips rocking an identical 12-Lane L3 Cache.
In terms of core architecture, the 9700k features Coffee Lake-R Cores, a refresh of the eighth-gen parts. This means that, like the previous 3 and the successive 2 generations, these chips make use of Intel’s 14nm Lithographic Node which, despite its age, still offers excellent performance, at the cost of higher power consumption. To put actual figures to it, my 9700k never consumed more than 128W when running the Intel Tuning Utility Stress Test, and in turn my Corsair H115i was able to keep it well below T-Junction, usually hovering between 70 and 75 Celsius. During everyday usage though, the chip never exceeds 65°C, only doing so during intensive and elongated workloads (or when I want to torture the poor chip).
If you’re looking at a 9700k for content creation, or even as the heart of a home server, then this chip is well suited for the former, but not so much for the latter. While AVX-2 is here and accounted for, other ‘Server Grade’ Extensions, such as AVX-512, are absent, and reserved for LGA 2066 and higher, as well as the upcoming 11th-Gen Desktop Chips. The onboard memory controllers are also a bit restrictive for Server use, with a maximum address capacity of 128GB of DDR4 in Dual-Channel. For a more Server-ready chip, I would look toward a Quad-Channel Memory Controller and ECC support, as well as chips sporting multi-threading.
However, if you’re looking at the 9700k as an HEDT Replacement, then speaking from personal experience, the 8 cores on offer are quick enough to be responsive, and powerful enough to support video editing, all the way up to modifying 4K footage in my use case. However, this brings up the Hyperthreading question, leading me to wonder how much more performance the i9-9900k could provide. Let’s take a look at the performance of the 9700k and determine if the chip is worth copping, or more worth dropping.
In this review, I’m going to compare the results of 1080p gameplay, recorded over a 10-minute gameplay session. Some of the games had their settings adjusted to reduce GPU usage, but I’ll mention the tweaks when we get to those.
The specs for our machine can be found above, and these remain constant between the Intel CPUs we’ll be testing today. I wouldn’t call our system overkill; in fact, the GTX 1080 was a bottleneck in a few scenarios, but for 1080p gaming it’s pretty great.
Let’s first take a look at our synthetic benchmarks, and what better way to start than with a CPU torture test? Digging into our Render test, we rendered a past video,
and when rendering the roughly 14-minute video out at 4K60 FPS, the 9700k was able to tackle the task in 19 minutes and 37 seconds. When compared to our i5-9600k, we clocked in a solid 27-minute render time on the 6-Core behemoth. While those scores may not seem impressive, keep in mind that we’re rendering at 4K 60FPS, meaning that every frame has 4 times the number of pixels as a 1080p frame. As a result, processing times should be quadrupled over the 1080p results, which generally clock in at similar lengths on both our i7 and i5, with our 14-minute video taking just under 8 minutes to render.
For our i5, it took roughly 338% longer to render the 4K master over the 1080p one, while the 9700k was able to get that down to just around 250%. Even my “Render Chip”, a Ryzen 5 1600AF, rendered literally a percent or two faster than the i5, so even here the i7 reigns supreme to the raw threads on offer from AMD. Rather than a quadrupling of processing times, we’re now only looking at roughly tripling times, giving us an idea as to how the i7 performs in a media production workflow, based on both the benchmark and personal experience. This chip is beyond responsive. Pair it up with 32GB RAM and you’ve got yourself a nice workstation!
Moving onto Cinebench R20, the 9700k managed an All Core score of 3516, and a Single Core score of 466, giving us an All Core scaling ratio of roughly 7.55 times. In a perfect world, that number would be equivalent to the number of cores on-die, but in real-world performance you’re never going to see perfect scaling, no matter how many cores you have. Moving on to the CPUz benchmark, the 9700k bagged a Single Core score of 564, and an All Core score of 4341.4, overall scaling in this benchmark approach 7.7 times, which is measurably better than Cinebench. However, the real question is how this thing actually performs when gaming.
The i7 performed exceptionally well overall on a number of our games, and was actually bottlenecked by our GTX 1080 on several occasions. Starting off with some of the rougher performance, probably the worst out of them all was Ark: Survival Evolved.
This game isn’t known for its brilliant optimization – quite the opposite, in fact – but our i7-9700k was actually underutilized with this game until we lowered every setting to its lowest value, restarted the game, and were greeted by what can only be described as a nuclear disaster. Either way, we finally got to run some benchmarking numbers, and although the performance of the game falls short in several areas, the game was overall very playable. Its shortcomings weren’t necessarily the fault of our hardware, which is why I’m doing my best to preface this with the necessary information.
COD Black Ops: Cold War also performed relatively poorly until the graphics settings were dropped, but once they were set to Low, the game was beyond playable. I enjoyed the 1980s vibes in the relative comfort of 144Hz+ gameplay.
Warzone ran relatively well on all of our chips, however I did want to note that the gameplay felt much smoother than Black Ops: Cold War, which had higher frame rates but honestly felt pretty horrible to play until I locked the FPS to 60. With CS:GO, a notorious Intel favorite, the i7 curb stomped both our i5 and Ryzen chip. A number of other CPU intensive games such as GTA 5 and PUBG also had very tangible improvements brought on by upgrading to the 9700k.
FAR CRY 5
BLACK OPS 4
This trend continues when looking at other games, and if our benchmarks are anything to go by, we find that this little piece of silicon and fiberglass is fast – really fast. That being said, for the price you’d need to pay to get your hands on one of these, which I’ve found to be roughly $290 on Amazon, is it really worth the money when AMD offers a number of very competitive chips?
Well… yes and no. If you’re looking to build a solely gaming-focused machine, then the Intel Core i7-9700k is a beast of a chip, and curb stomps similarly-priced or even more expensive modern Ryzen 5s with fewer threads and more cores. However, if you’re doing anything else, such as video or image editing, while the 9700k proves to be competent, these applications would benefit most from Hyperthreading, leading me to want to recommend a tenth-gen chip instead, or even a Ryzen 7.
This is interesting, because in a few years, we’ll look back on the 9700k and see it as a relic of a weird time in Intel’s history. A time in which they were slipping from their dominant market position, and as a result were somewhat forced to sell HEDT parts on their consumer platforms just to stay competitive. It’s an artifact that’s interesting to use, but even more interesting to analyze, and I can’t wait to take another inevitable look at this chip, when we discuss budget CPUs later down the line.