Intel Core i9-10980XE Extreme Edition Processor Review
Core X-series 2019: An Extreme Price Cut
This review should be easy. On the surface the new Core X-Series launch seems like more of a price cut than anything, with some higher boost clocks and faster memory support (up to DDR4-2933 this time) thrown in for good measure. The Extreme Edition still tops out at 18 cores, which brings us to today’s Core i9-10980XE processor.
That’s right: this new Cascade Lake-X is still an 18-core/36-thread Extreme Edition part, just like the i9-9980XE and i9-7980XE before it. It’s still built on the Skylake-X architecture, still 14nm. The big story here is the price: it’s half as much as before, with a starting price of only $979 this time. It’s like we’ve gone all the way back to Haswell-E and the $999 Core i7-5960X. Well, with pricing, anyway.
Before we dive into the latest Extreme Edition HEDT (high-end desktop) flagship from Intel, a little history: It’s 2013, and the Haswell architecture is a major shift toward a lower-power future. In sharp contrast to this architectural direction, one year after its introduction for desktop and notebooks Intel released Haswell-E, 2014’s HEDT processor lineup that featured a massive 140W flagship: the Core i7-5960X.
Haswell-E: Entering the Octa-Core Age
The significance of the Core i7-5960X is simple: it was the first time Intel had offered an 8-core desktop processor (remember, 2014 was in the pre-Ryzen dark ages of high-end quad-core CPUs). 8 cores was a big deal, and if you had the cash for Intel’s recommended customer price (RCP) of $999.00 – $1059.00, you’d have ultimate bragging rights. Ok, I’m not giving AMD proper credit here; they’d already offered an 8-core (ish) CPU for a lot less money – and in 2014 AMD released their 220W FX-9590 processor to retail for a third of the cost of Intel’s 8-core extreme edition chip.
We all know the story of Bulldozer/Piledriver, and I won’t get into it here. Simply put, 2014 was not a great time to be an AMD fan. Intel dominated CPU performance at the time. Sure, Intel was often a lot more expensive, but they could get away with it. That was then, and this is now. AMD’s Zen architecture hasn’t just turned their company around, it’s created a real problem for an Intel that didn’t have the next great architecture just yet, and was suddenly being left behind with desktop core counts. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Intel’s Haswell was followed by Broadwell, their first 14nm architecture. It was all but non-existent in the desktop space (just two Broadwell desktop CPUs – the Core i5-5675C and Core i7-5775C – were released). But Broadwell-E made its mark in high-end desktop, and this time the Extreme Edition HEDT part – Core i7-6950X – offered a whopping 10 cores – with a RCP of $1723.00 – $1743.00 to match. But this still wasn’t the height of Intel’s HEDT core (and pricing) leadership. That would have to wait for Skylake-X.
Skylake-X: Into the Modern Era
Launched in the latter half of 2017, Skylake-X was the first of was has since been rebranded as the “Core X-series”, and it featured the most beastly Extreme Edition yet: the Core i9-7980XE. This 18-core monstrosity arrived with a 165W TDP, boost clocks of up to 4.2 GHz (4.4 GHz with Turbo Boost Max), and it took memory support up to DDR4-2666. And it was the first HEDT CPU to hit the ~$2000 mark with an RCP of $1979.00 – $1999.00. Ouch.
Built on the same Skylake architecture, 2018’s Core i9-9980XE was very similar to the previous Extreme Edition flagship. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find much of a difference between it and the Core i9-7980XE, other than a clock speed increase. Pricing was identical to the i9-7980XE as well, and when you consider the value proposition of AMD’s Threadripper, which topped out at the 32-core 2990WX (also released in 2018) at $1799 – $200 less than the i9-9980XE – you’ll start to understand why something had to give.
It’s not that Intel’s HEDT parts didn’t perform well. It’s just that they were too expensive to be competitive post-Ryzen, particularly for the type of multi-threaded workloads that AMD’s processors excel at. And if Intel disagrees with this statement, then why the price cut? But enough pontification about Intel and competition from AMD. It’s time to pit some Intel Extreme Edition parts and the highest-end AMD parts we actually have on hand against each other in a not-so-epic CPU showdown that in no way serves as a launch-day filler while we await AMD CPUs to test against Intel’s latest and greatest offering.
The Core i9-10980XE
What exactly is new with the latest flagship HEDT part (other than the lower price)? There are some improvements here, actually. While base clocks are unchanged at 3.0 GHz compared to the Core i9-9980XE, Turbo frequency with the i9-10980XE is higher by 200 MHz (4.60 GHz vs. 4.40 Ghz) and Turbo Boost Max Technology 3.0 speeds are up 300 MHz (4.80 GHz vs. 4.50 GHz).
I touched on the faster DDR4-2933 memory support compared to the previous two Skylake-X parts (DDR4-2666), and the Core i9-10980XE also supports twice as much memory as before, now up to a maximum of 256GB. PCI Express 3.0 lanes are up to 48 from the previous limit of 44, and the 10980XE supports Intel’s Deep Learning Boost for AI workloads.
|Intel Extreme Edition HEDT Processors (Haswell-E to Present)|
|Model||Cores / Threads||Base / Boost||Turbo Boost Max||Smart Cache||Memory Type||Max Memory Size||TDP||Launch Price||Launch Date|
|Core i9-10980XE||18 / 36||3.0 Ghz / 4.6 GHz||4.8 GHz||24.75 MB||DDR4 2933||256 GB||165W||$979||Q4 2019|
|Core i9-9980XE||18 / 36||3.0 Ghz / 4.4 GHz||4.5 GHz||24.75 MB||DDR4 2666||128 GB||165W||$1979-$1999||Q4 2018|
|Core i9-7980XE||18 / 36||2.6 Ghz / 4.2 GHz||4.4 GHz||24.75 MB||DDR4 2666||128 GB||165W||$1979-$1999||Q3 2017|
|Core i9-6950X||10 / 20||3.0 Ghz / 3.5 GHz||4.0 GHz||25 MB||DDR4 2400||128 GB||140W||$1723-$1743||Q2 2016|
|Core i9-5960X||8 / 16||3.0 Ghz / 3.5 GHz||N/A||20 MB||DDR4 2133||64 GB||140W||$999-$1059||Q3 2014|
So, while this isn’t breaking new architectural ground it’s nice to see some added features and higher clocks to go along with the dramatic price cuts from the 2019 Core X-Series lineup. It is enough to for the high-performance crown over AMD’s Threadripper? Compared to even the previous-gen Threadripper Intel’s Core X-Series is still going to lag behind in those workloads that can take advantage of the dramatically higher core counts of a CPU like the 2990WX (32-core/64-thread), even though Intel’s parts offer higher clock speeds and generally better single-core performance.
Speaking of performance, we can at least offer an incomplete look at what this new Core i9-10980XE is capable of; and the glaring omissions from the charts to follow can be explained easily enough in the editor’s note below (or simply skip to the benchmarks).
We were not among those who received review samples from AMD of the new Ryzen 3950X and 3rd Gen Threadripper – and we were not alone, of course (even high-profile YouTube channels such as JayzTwoCents and Bitwit did not receive samples from AMD). This places us in a position to either offer an Intel review today without AMD’s latest and greatest represented, or fail to deliver a review at all.
We have been told that there simply weren’t enough samples to go around, and have been waiting for a new allocation from AMD for both the Ryzen 9 3950X and Threadripper 3960X/3970X. As no further allocation has been made available at this point, the plan is to simply purchase a 3950X at retail (when they become available).
For this review, Intel has provided a sample to us and many other outlets for this launch, and our CPU arrived following normal procedure and through the usual pre-brief/embargoed sample process. We can only review what we have, and this time we don’t have AMD’s latest and greatest. I would always prefer to have AMD’s best presented in any Intel review (and vise versa), and it’s disappointing that we can’t have that – today, anyhow.
Naturally, those looking for comparisons with the latest AMD processors will need to look elsewhere – at least until until we can get our hands on retail parts.
The following results were achieved using multiple platforms, and with the highest officially supported memory speeds for each processor. As this is a look at a HEDT part we are focusing on CPU-specific workloads here. Our test platform for the Intel i9-10980XE features the new MSI Creator X299 motherboard, a very impressive solution (12 phase 90A digital power delivery and triple8-pin CPU power connectors) that we will cover in an upcoming article.
|PC Perspective Test Platforms|
|Motherboard||AMD X570: ASUS Crosshair VIII HERO WiFi
AMD X399: GIGABYTE AORUS X399 Gaming 7
Intel Z390: ASRock Z390 Phantom Gaming X
Intel X99: ASUS X99 Deluxe II
Intel X299: MSI Creator X299
|Memory||X570: Crucial Ballistix Elite 16GB (8GBx2) DDR4 @ 3200 MT/s
X399: Crucial Vengeance LPX DDR4 @ 2933 MT/s
Z390: 16GB (8GBx2) Crucial Ballistix Sport LT 32GB DDR4 @ 3200 MT/s
X99: 32GB (8GBx4) Crucial Ballistix Elite DDR4 @ 2133 MT/s (i7-5960X)
X299: 32GB (8GBx4) Crucial Ballistix Elite DDR4 @ 2933 MT/s (i9-10980XE), 2666 MT/s (i9-7980XE)
|GPU||NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 FE|
|Storage||Corsair Neutron Series XTi 480GB|
|Power Supply||CORSAIR RM1000x 1000W|
|Operating System||Windows 10 64-bit 1903|
|GPU Drivers||NVIDIA: 440.20|
Even though we knew going in that we wouldn’t have any AMD Ryzen 9 3950X or Threadripper 3960X/3970X results, seeing the first chart is still disappointing. But even without the latest AMD processors we see that the i9-10980XE is a nice upgrade over even the 18-core/36-thread i9-7980XE thanks to considerably higher clock speeds, though its improvement over last year’s i9-9980XE will be less impressive (we don’t have that more recent chip to test).
While higher-clocked desktop CPUs take the single-thread crown with Cinebench, at the top of the chart for multi-threaded performance is (naturally) the 32-core Threadripper 2990WX. Intel is putting up a heck of a showing with 14 fewer cores, but Threadripper (especially the current generation) will have a significant lead in rendering applications such as this.
Speaking of rendering, we tested out the new Intel i9-10980XE using the latest version of Blender (2.81), and compared it to the rest of the group. It’s worth noting that the results with the desktop CPUs (i9-9900KS and Ryzen 9 3900X) were recorded before 2.81 was released, and are actually version 2.79 from the official Blender Benchmark application.
Once again Threadripper is on top, with the new i9-10980XE in second place. Gains over the older i9-7980XE are smaller here. As you can see, the old i7-5960X is the slowest of the group, and these results are just here for reference (a lot has changed since Intel’s first 8-core desktop CPU was introduced).
Next we have the x264 benchmark, which consists of four consecutive 2-pass encodes of a 1080p source file. The averages results are presented in the following charts. First, the standard results from the benchmark’s output file, in FPS:
There are a couple of things to point out with this first chart. First, the new Core i9-10980XE is much faster than the rest of the group in the first pass, and the Threadripper 2990WX is by far the fastest in the second pass. Second, how does all of this actually translate into total encoding time? That chart is next:
Here Intel’s huge lead in the first pass indeed translates into the lowest overall encode times on average, and it shaved more than 20 seconds off the time of the older i9-7980XE. The Threadripper 2990WX actually had both the lowest first pass performance and highest second pass performance, and in the end it finished in between the i9-7980XE and the R9 3900X.
Here’s another example of a workload-dependent outcome. Instead of two charts I placed them side by side in one image to illustrate the marked difference in how the charts are arranged. These are the same results, but on the left side they are sorted in order of compression, and the right side is in order of decompression:
The 18-core Core i9-10980XE is a file compression monster, but the 32-core Threadripper is a decompression beast. Intel’s IPC and memory latency advantages are evident in certain workloads, and as we saw with both the x264 benchmark and this 7-Zip result, sometimes different parts of the same test will go to one CPU over the other.
Using a power meter at the wall, we tested the various CPUs at idle and under a demanding all-core load (using Cinebench R20), with the following results:
While the TDP (and base clock speed) of the Core i9-10980XE isn’t any higher than the i9-9980XE/i9-7980XE at 165W, we do see an increase in wattage over the i9-7980XE under load – which is precisely what one would expect from the same core count/architecture at higher clock speeds. Threadripper is consuming a lot more power to produce its impressive results, and this is another area where the new 7nm version would make for an interesting comparison.
This Story Isn’t Over
What’s missing here? More testing has been done – but not to a satisfactory degree – with other applications such as Adobe Premiere Pro, though early results do show that (depending again on the workload) Intel continues to enjoy an advantage there. AMD’s newest Threadripper parts are producing some pretty staggering results, and we all know by now how impressive the Ryzen 9 3950X looks in benchmarks. Until we have some more CPUs in to test for ourselves, we can’t present the full picture.
In the past, Intel’s Extreme Edition parts have always been outrageously specced (and outrageously expensive) CPUs that could be found at the top of the charts for desktop CPUs, but were obviously easier to spot in a ‘cost-no-object’ dream build component list than in a home computer near you. Just last year when the Core i9-9980XE launched it carried a list price of nearly $2000, and this was in the Ryzen era when big core counts suddenly became accessible, and when Intel had already started changing configurations of their long standing Core desktop parts as things were suddenly far more competitive.
While the last couple of years haven’t been the easiest on Intel, they’ve been great for consumers. Not only have we now seen three generations of AMD Ryzen desktop processors launch with core/thread counts of up to a staggering 16/32, but Intel has responded to this with 8th and 9th Gen desktop parts with higher core counts across the board. Intel’s Core i5 has become a 6-core part instead of 4, Core i7 moved up to 6 and 8 cores, and the Core i9 9900K brought us higher clocks and a new 8-core/16-thread desktop configuration from Intel. Has it been enough?
(Rumor has it these numbers will be going up with the 10th generation next year, but for now Intel doesn’t have anything in their mainstream Core desktop lineup to directly compete with products like the Ryzen 9 3950X. But I did say desktop, which is distinct from high-end desktop. Because… it is.)
Intel’s strategy to drop the price of their new flagship Core X-series part by half does help with their market position in high-end desktop, but if you bought a Core i9-9980XE last year for $1999, I feel for you. This launch basically amounts to a higher-clocked version of the same CPU, for half the price, that works with the same motherboard. I’m sure Intel would prefer not to have to resort to a refresh and price cut, but I’m guessing if they had something that could best the new 3rd-gen AMD Threadripper (which launched within a few hours of the Core i9-10980XE) they would have released that, instead.
Bottom line: Until 10 nm arrives on desktop Intel will have to compete with lower prices and higher core counts, and this i9-10980XE at half the cost of last year’s Extreme Edition flagship is a good start, even if this is just a refresh of last year’s lineup. We’ve already been told that Intel’s desktop prices will be falling a bit more, but will it be enough? Obviously there are workloads where Intel traditionally enjoys an advantage, but the overall value proposition of AMD’s Ryzen has been a disruptive force in this industry. 2020 will be a very interesting year in the desktop CPU space.