Finally, here's our Intel Core i9-10900K 10-core processor review. Our samples, which were shipped by Intel over two weeks ago, took forever to reach us because DHL Air Freight was unable to find decent connections and had to reroute the shipment via several stops.
The Core i9-10900K is based on Intel's new "Comet Lake" microarchitecture that made its debut with the mobile 10th generation Core series. It is hopefully the last derivative of the company's 4-year old "Skylake" microarchitecture. When Intel launched its 6-core "Coffee Lake" silicon as its first response to "Zen," we had hoped that would be the last iteration of "Skylake," which wasn't to be. The following year, Intel increased the core count to eight, hoping it would be unbeatable by AMD. "Zen 2" surprised everyone, not just with its double-digit IPC gains, but also core count increases to 12 and 16 on the mainstream AM4 socket. Evidently, Intel's 10 nm nodes aren't ready for volume production of desktop processors, and so Intel went back to the drawing board to stretch the silicon one last time by adding two more cores. This 10-core die is hopefully Intel's last because we doubt adding more cores makes sense on this 14 nanometer process—as we'll see in this Core i9-10900K review, power draw is high enough already.
With Comet Lake, Intel introduces a new desktop platform built around the new LGA1200 socket and Intel 400-series chipset. Development of a new package isn't just consistent with Intel's roadmap of spanning a new desktop platform with no more than two processor generations, but also necessitated by the steep power requirements of the Core i9-10900K. To stand a chance against AMD's "Zen 2," it wasn't enough that Intel just add more cores, they also had to beef up the power delivery capability of these new processors to sustain higher clock speeds, which explains why more pins are required.
Besides just increasing the number of cores to ten on the Core i9-10900K flagship, Intel also added innovation with clock-speed management, using up to three separate boosting algorithms. This helps the Core i9-10900K hold on to higher clock speeds, and spread the increased frequencies among its cores better.
Generally, with Comet Lake, Intel is shoring up multi-threaded performance across the lineup. The Core i9 series is now 10-core/20-thread with the introduction of the new die. The Core i7 series, which was 8-core/8-thread with 12 MB L3 cache in the 9th generation, is now 8-core/16-thread with 16 MB L3 cache (identical configuration to the 9th generation Core i9-9900). The Core i5 series now consists of 6-core/12-thread parts with 12 MB L3 cache (identical configuration to the 8th generation Core i7-8700), up from its 9th and 8th generation predecessors being 6-core/6-thread parts with 9 MB L3 cache. The 10th generation Core i3 chips are 4-core/8-thread with 8 MB L3 cache (identical configuration to the 7th generation Core i7-7700), up from its predecessors being 4-core/4-thread. See what Intel did here? It tapped into previous-gen hardware IP it already had, re-positioning them at progressively lower price points.
In this review, we have with us the Core i9-10900K, the flagship "Comet Lake-S" part priced at $500. This 10-core/20-thread processor is capable of boosting up to 5.30 GHz, and Intel claims that it will be the "world's fastest gaming processor"—we'll check on that in this review. Its nominal clock speed is 3.70 GHz. Intel has also relaxed several design restrictions on power limits and boosting behavior, letting motherboard designers come up with basically their own boosting mechanisms, which are enabled by default on many boards we've seen. The out of the box performance will hence wildly vary from board to board unless you tell the BIOS you want it to run at Intel specs at first boot.
To bring you the complete picture of what performance to expect from the Core i9-10900K, were presenting three settings in this review:
One that sticks to Intel specs (125 W power limit)
One that maxes out the turbo headroom (effectively no power limit); frequencies are still controlled by Intel algorithms
All-core manual overclock to 5.1 GHz fixed on all cores with all power limits disabled