Intel Refresh The Skylake-X HEDT CPU Lineup
Intel's Skylake-X and KabyLake-X CPU range were released in June of 2017 as four to ten-core parts, and the range was augmented over subsequent months to add additional core options including the monolithic 18-core Core i9-7980XE. For the first time in a long while however Intel didn't have the High End Desktop market all to themselves; AMD's Ryzen Threadripper debuted that same summer with up to 16-cores at a significantly lower price point, seriously shaking up the market.
Since September of 2017 (the launch month of the i9-7980XE) it's been relatively quiet on the HEDT front as far as Intel is concerned, but AMD broadened their own range with the release of Threadripper 2 last summer. Now offering an eye-watering 32-cores and 64-threads on the flagship Threadripper 2990WX, for now AMD have clearly won the core count battle. Still, Intel needed to respond in kind.
And so we come to today, and the release of a refreshed Skylake-X range for the HEDT X299 platform. Note that we said refresh - there's no architectural update here, nor a substantial change to the manufacturing process node. Even so each of the seven Skylake-X CPUs in the 7000-series have been replaced with an equivalent 9000-series part, offering the same or better core count and core frequency range. A few other changes are made too, chiefly to the low-hanging fruit near the entry point where scope for improvement was clear.
Throughout the HEDT 9000-series range Intel have replaced the previous paste-based thermal interface material with solder, as they have done in the mainstream desktop Core i9-9900K/i7-9700K/i5-9600K models. This should substantially improve thermal characteristics, reducing temperatures under load and potentially allowing for longer periods spent at higher boost frequencies. That's certainly a good start.
Next, they modified the Turbo Mode states to improve operating frequencies when more cores are under load. Where cooling is sufficient and the workload appropriate this should see more performance in many-threaded applications.
At the top end there is the Core i9-9980XE Extreme Edition, a direct replacement for the i9-7980XE. It retains 18 cores, quad-channel memory support and 44 PCIe 3.0 lanes, but sees a welcome boost from 2.6GHz Base Clock to 3.0 GHz and 4.2GHz Max (single-core) Turbo to 4.5GHz. The wonders of solder never cease. L3 Cache remains unchanged at 24.75 MB.
The story of frequency improvements continues down the range until we get to the i9-9920X. Here the CPU has been granted a little more L3 cache to play with - 19.25MB compared with 16.5 on the part it replaces - which should improve performance even if you discount the considerable 600MHz uplift in base frequency. The TDP rating of this CPU and all other HEDT CPUs in the 9000-series have been raised to 165W, a value which was previously only hit by the top-end 14, 16 and 18-core models.
More re-jigging of the entry-level sees the 6-core SKU replaced with an 8-core equivalent, so both the 9900X and 9820X are 10-core models. The chief difference between the i9-9900X and 9820X is frequency and L3 Cache, but only $100 MSRP splits the two. The existence of both SKUs has rather dubious rationale, but it makes like-for-like replacement straightforward if nothing else.
The entry point for the platform will now be the Core i7-9800X, bringing with it eight hyperthreaded cores rather than just six. Performance comparison's between this and the flagship mainstream i9-9900K will be enlightening indeed, but at $599 for a chip the more affordable $382 6-core entry point into the HEDT platform has now vanished.
One other important change is that Intel are offering the full 44 PCIe 3.0 lanes on every CPU in the range, dispensing with a policy of reducing the lanes available to CPUs as they get cheaper. Whatever the reasons for this, it should improve the prospects of systems using more affordable CPUs paired with multiple GPUs at full x16/x16 or x8/x8/x8/x8 operation.
While getting on board Intel's HEDT platform is now more expensive, the MSRP at the top end remains largely unchanged. Pre-order etailer pricing for the 18-core, 32-thread i9-9980XE is ~£2200 in the UK, roughly the same as the Core i9-7980XE before it. Intel's problem is that for £600 less AMD's 32-Core Ryzen Threadripper 2990WX is available, potentially offering better multi-threaded performance, while gaming applications will likely benefit more from the highly clocked mainstream i9-9900K.
Intel's name has a lot of weight that alone will guarantee sales, and performance of these CPUs is likely to be excellent, but when you consider price it because difficult to see where the attraction lies compared with AMD's recently refreshed Threadripper series. Nonetheless, you have to take your hats off to Intel for taking sensible decisions in squeezing the most out of the Skylake-X architecture.
Intel's Core i7 and i9-9000-series HEDT CPUs are available to pre-order at retailers today priced from ~£580 inc. V.A.T., and are compatible with current X299 motherboards. A BIOS update may be required to fully support the new turbo modes states on the CPUs.