- Pros Thermally efficient construction. Excellent performance on multi-threaded workloads. Very good overclocking potential evident in our sample.
- Cons Expensive. Lesser performance per dollar versus AMD alternatives. Threadripper chips support more PCI Express lanes.
- Bottom Line Intel’s 18-core Core i9-9980XE Extreme Edition—the priciest consumer CPU you can buy—can chew through intensive multi-threaded workloads like a champ, but less-expensive competitors pose a better value case for most shoppers.
By any measure, Intel’s Core i9-9980XE Extreme Edition is a performance beast of a high-end CPU. As Intel’s current flagship consumer desktop processor, it supports most every cutting-edge non-enterprise feature the company offers, from Turbo Boost to Hyper-Threading. That, combined with its whopping 18 cores—scalable to 36 concurrent computing threads—means it can breeze through any CPU-bound workload you’re planning to push its way. But at an MSRP of $2,000, it can blow through your savings account with equal ease. Its closest AMD equivalents are cheaper, and the performance differences aren’t huge. The result? The Core i9-9980XE is an extremely powerful, lust-worthy high-end desktop (HEDT) engine. But many users won’t find it as well-rounded as some key alternatives, such as Intel’s own mainstream-grade Core i9-9900K and the Editors’ Choice-winning AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2950X. It’s a rocket of a chip, but ideal only for a subset of deep-pocketed content creators who need both extreme multi-threaded muscle and specific supporting technologies like Thunderbolt 3.
The Extreme Edition: Give Me All the Cores
The Core i9-9980XE Extreme Edition, the capstone of Intel’s Core X-Series CPUs for high-end desktop PCs, is destined only for the very top tier of PC builds. Sure, it could make an appearance in extreme, tricked-out gaming rigs that are less about value logic and more about bragging rights. But the more likely (and more rational) destination? Pro-grade media-crunching workstations. Their owners will have obsessed over every detail and can justify that obsession by the enjoyment they derive (or the money they earn, in the time they save) by speeding up 3D renders, data analyses, and other CPU-intensive tasks.
One of the Core i9-9980XE’s two most powerful qualifications for missions like these is its massive arsenal of threads and cores. That firepower is less relevant for gaming than for professional apps designed to take advantage not only of a CPU’s clock speed, but also how many simultaneous instructions it can handle. Eight-core CPUs are now commonplace among high-end workstations and gaming rigs. The base model of the Apple iMac Pro has an eight-core Intel Xeon, while even the compact MSI Trident X$1,999.00 at Amazon PC Labs recently tested comes with an eight-core/16-thread Core i9-9900K.
The Core i9-9980XE Extreme Edition, meanwhile, has those eyebrow-raising 18 cores and 36 threads in its chamber. That’s more than any other consumer-grade Intel chip apart from the preceding Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition (it had the same count), though slightly fewer than AMD’s flagships, the 24-core/48-thread Ryzen Threadripper 2970WX and the 32-core/64-thread Ryzen Threadripper 2990WX. In this rarified zone of extremely high-end processors, the more cores and threads that a CPU has doesn’t make navigating pages in a web browser or sending emails one whit faster. On the other hand, if you spend all day fiddling with renderings in Maxon Cinema 4D or Adobe Premiere Pro, you’ll appreciate all the cores and threads you can get.
The Core i9-9980XE Extreme Edition’s second relevant qualification is its support for Intel’s Turbo Boost technology, which identifies the best-performing cores and boosts their clock speed to wring every last ounce of computing power out of the CPU. Due to variations in the chip-fabrication process, not all cores perform equally well from CPU sample to CPU sample, or even between those in the same chip. Turbo Boost has been around for a while and is available on many other Intel CPUs; in the Core i9-9980XE, it can raise the clock speed of all cores to 4.4GHz, and the best two cores to 4.5GHz, when apps demand more performance and the thermal headroom is available.
AMD’s Ryzen chips can also boost their clock speeds when situations demand it. The 16-core Ryzen Threadripper 2950X’s top boost-clock speed is 4.4GHz, while the 24-core Ryzen Threadripper 2970WX’s peak at stock settings is 4.2GHz.
It’s a Refresh: “Basin Falls” and “Skylake-X”
Bear in mind, too, that the Core i9-9980XE Extreme Edition is only the topper of a new line of X299-compatible chips, dubbed “Skylake-X Refresh” or “Basin Falls,” in the Core X-Series. Beyond the Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition, PC Labs reviewed many of the “lesser” Core X-Series chips in the first generation (the original Skylake-X), among them the Core i9-7900X and the Core i9-7960X. The 7000-series chips fall under the same basic architecture.
Along with the Core i9-9980XE, Intel has also introduced six other stepped-down Skylake-X Refresh processors, running from a Core i9-9960X with 16 cores down to a Core i7-9800X with eight cores. (Click the image below for better legibility.)
PC Labs hasn’t had the opportunity to test the rest of the Basin Falls chips, but note that the top-dog Core i9-9980XE on the bench here is the only one that rates the “Extreme Edition” moniker, which is typical in Intel’s HEDT chip lines of recent years.
Also note that like the Skylake-X 7000-series chips that came before, the Core i9-9980XE Extreme Edition (and the six other 9000-series CPUs) all work with the LGA2066 socket common to all motherboards that employ the supporting Intel X299 chipset. If you already own a first-generation X299 mainboard, it should work with these new chips, but you will likely need a BIOS upgrade and will want to check whether one is available before diving in.
Depending on the board model, updating the BIOS may require the presence of a CPU supported by the older BIOS, which could complicate matters. In the case of the Asus test board in PC Labs’ testbed (more on that later), updating the BIOS was possible with a USB key and the new CPU installed—no old chip required—using its “USB BIOS Flashback” feature. Do your homework on that front to avoid any nasty surprises in your PC build or upgrade.
What’s Behind Extreme: 44 Lanes, X299 Chipset
Besides a flexible clock speed and an impressive array of cores and threads, the Core i9-9980XE Extreme Edition has several second-string benefits that you’d expect from a chip that costs this much.
For starters, it’s unlocked, which means that you can manually adjust the clock frequencies of each core individually, as well as assign a new base clock frequency and memory ratio. All of this assumes you know what you’re doing, since you’ll void your warranty and risk toasting your $2,000 investment if you’re not careful.
Also, given that Intel got much grief from the hardcore PC-enthusiast community with some earlier chips, the Core i9-9980XE Extreme Edition makes use of a soldered metal layer to transfer heat from the CPU die to the integrated heat spreader. This could mean better cooling performance than the previous-generation XE-series chips, which used a layer of thermal material instead of soldered metal to transfer heat.
For users looking to drop this chip into a board and get rendering, though, this difference should be negligible. It really matters only if you’re planning on overclocking the chip or—heaven forbid, on a chip this expensive—would be using a suboptimal CPU cooler. (And no one should cheap out on the cooler for a chip of this stature.)
The chip’s integrated memory controller supports four channels of DDR 2666 memory, which, like the CPU itself, can be overclocked. Also, with the Basin Falls chips, the X299 chipset supports 44 PCI Express (PCIe) lanes up and down the line for use by add-in hardware such as graphics cards, PCIe-bus solid-state drives, or Thunderbolt 3 cards. (This is exclusive of the 24 lanes allocated by the CPU.) While the Ryzen Threadripper platform supports 64 PCIe lanes, few users will need that many, even if they install two graphics cards and a few such SSDs. Ryzen chips also lack support for Thunderbolt 3, which could be the deciding factor in the Core i9-9980XE’s win column if you are invested in Thunderbolt 3-equipped peripherals. (Some high-end content creators certainly are, and the gear’s not cheap.)
How much benefit you’ll get from all of the above features depends on the motherboard you’re using, the hardware you mean to install, and, to a lesser extent, the cooler and power supply. All current Core X-Series chips support motherboards compatible with Intel’s X299 chipset, but not all X299 boards are created equal. Cheaper ones may not let you overclock the memory or take advantage of all the PCIe lanes, for example.
It’s all relative, of course. By nature, X299 boards are high-end to start with. (See, for example, our reviews of the Asus ROG Strix X299-E Gaming, the Gigabyte X299 Aorus Gaming 9, and the MSI X299 SLI Plus.) But like with AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper chips, once you decide to go with one of these HEDT monsters, you’re taking a whole plunge: a premium motherboard, robust cooling hardware, a discrete video card, and enough RAM to make use of the rest.
Note: One thing you don’t get with the Core i9-9980XE (like with AMD’s Threadripper chips) is any kind of built-in graphics processing. You’ll need to install a separate graphics card in any PC with this chip. That isn’t necessarily a drawback, since many of the apps and games that lap up CPU cores and threads also need the power of a discrete graphics chip. But if you’re budgeting for an X299-based, high-end dream machine based on the Core i9-9980XE, be ready to peel off at a least a few more Benjamins for a card worthy of complementing this silicon monster.
Performance Testing: Exercising the Beast
We used PC Labs’ X299-based testbed to evaluate the Core i9-9980XE’s stock performance. It’s the same testbed PC Labs used to test the chip’s predecessor, the Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition$1,999.99 at Newegg. The setup includes an Asus Prime X299-Deluxe motherboard and 32GB of Corsair memory running in a quad-channel setup.
An Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Founders Edition video card handles display output, and a Serial ATA-based Kingston HyperX Savage SSD serves as the boot drive. All of these components go into a Deepcool GamerStorm Genome ROG Certified case, which includes a self-contained liquid cooler with a large three-fan radiator.
We compared the Core i9-9980XE’s performance on PC Labs’ benchmark tests with that of eight other consumer-focused CPUs. In addition to the high-end Core X-Series and Threadripper chips discussed up to this point, we included the Intel Core i9-9900K mentioned earlier, plus the Intel Core i7-8700K and the AMD Ryzen 7 2700X$304.98 at Amazon, to represent the performance you’d expect from a significantly cheaper mainstream chip. The Core i9-7960X and Core i9-7980XE, meanwhile, represent the last-generation equivalents of the Core i9-9980XE in the Core X lineup.
Cinebench R15 and iTunes 10.6
The first test, Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15, is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads, using the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
In general, the more cores and addressable threads a CPU has, the better it will do on the All Cores test (all else being equal), which explains why the Core i9-9980XE trailed the class-leading 24-core Ryzen Threadripper 2970WX by a bit. It did do notably better, however, than its Core i9-7980XE predecessor, likely thanks to a combination of the clock-rate uptick from generation to generation and other architectural tweaks.
On the single-core Cinebench test, the Intel CPUs clustered together, with scores ranging from 191 to 218. None of the Threadripper or Ryzen chips broke into that range; single-core performance has been a longtime Intel advantage in the HEDT sphere. That said, single-core performance is of only tangential interest here, where multicore performance is the whole point.
A task like converting a series of audio files in Apple iTunes offers a more nuanced look at single-core performance. Our iTunes test uses a rather “aged” version of the app that taxes only a single CPU core…
On this test, the Core i9-9980XE was again a tick faster than its predecessor, and significantly faster than its AMD competition.
Media Processing and Compression Tests
That said, no one should be using pricey chips like these mainly for single-threaded stuff. It’s much more efficient to transcode multimedia files using a modern, multi-threaded app such as Handbrake. The Core i9-9980XE took just 3 minutes and 46 seconds to encode 12 minutes of 4K video to 1080p.
The Core i9-9980XE was by far the fastest on this test, even better than the Threadripper 2970WX, which demonstrates that there are exceptions to the general rule that more cores and threads equals better performance.
The same is true of the Core i9-9980XE’s class-leading performance when it comes to compressing files into a ZIP folder using the 7-Zip app…
It was a bit of a different story when assembling a photorealistic image via ray tracing on all cores with the POV-Ray app…
The Core i9-9980XE was just edged out by the 24-core AMD chip on the all-cores test, beating all other comers, while on the single-core test, it scorched all the AMD entries while being itself topped by its higher-clocked mainstream Intel kin. On both of these benchmarks, the margins over the Threadripper 2970WX’s showings are relatively slim, however, when you factor them against the $700 price difference.
Finally, the Core i9-9980XE’s results on a short 3D-rendering trial in Blender indicate that in some situations it performs almost the same as its non-X-Series little brother, the Core i9-9900K…
The Core i9-9980XE was a second slower at rendering a 3D image using the Blender app than the less-expensive K-series chip. That high-clocked chip, indeed, is a speedster for gaming PCs and other less-elite performance builds.
Overclocking (With Some Gaming on the Side)
Since the Core i9-9980XE, like all of the Basin Falls X-Series CPUs, is overclockable, we used Intel’s free, downloadable Extreme Tuning Utility (XTU) to dial up the clock speed and see if we could get better performance on some of these benchmarks. Recall, we had the chip installed in a case with a three-fan AIO liquid cooler.
Ticking up the clocks and nudging the voltage eventually led to an impasse (throttling or crashes in XTU’s stress test, as well as in Cinebench and Handbrake). But once we got the platform stable, with the base clock pinned to 4.5GHz and all other settings at their factory levels, we recorded a Cinebench score of 4,192, or about 12 percent better than pre-overclocking. We were also able to shave a significant 28 seconds off the Handbrake render time, while the POV-Ray all-cores test improved by just 3 seconds, or 8 percent.
Of course, as ever in overclocking, your mileage can (and probably will) vary. Sample-to-sample variation is real, and while some of your success in overclocking will be down to skill, patience, and the robustness of your cooling hardware, just as much relies on the traits of the specific chip you draw. That’s why buying a chip like this for overclocking is called, in PC-enthusiast circles, playing the “silicon lottery.”
And we’ll reiterate: If you’re looking to overclock with the Core i9-9980XE, we can’t emphasize enough not skimping on your CPU cooler. A robust AIO liquid cooler should be part of your budgeting. Indeed, Intel does not bundle a stock cooler with retail versions of the Core i9-9980XE, with the understanding that the shoppers who might consider this chip are builders or upgraders who will have their own preferences or even existing hardware. (The chip will work with current LGA2066 cooling solutions, of course.) Granted, this CPU is rated “only” for a 165-watt thermal design performance (TDP) figure. But if you’re in for two grand, what’s another $100 to cool things right?
Gaming at 1080p
Since the Core i9-9980XE lacks a graphics processor, testing its gaming performance is a bit more complicated than evaluating its media content-creation prowess. When you play games at their maximum quality settings and at resolutions greater than full HD (1,920 by 1,080 pixels), your graphics card will, in most cases, be the limiting performance factor. The CPU doesn’t matter as much, as games aren’t written to leverage a core/thread count this high; that’s because the vast majority of gamers don’t have a CPU anywhere near this lusty. Playing at 1440p (2,560 by 1,440 pixels) or 4K (3,840 by 2,160) will stress the limits of the current generation of video cards before it hits any wall erected by the CPU.
At lower resolutions, though, including the full HD that many mainstream gamers prefer, the CPU’s performance comes into play, and it can be a limiting factor. We’ve seen that with the Ryzen Threadripper chips, and in these situations, the Core i9-9980XE could perform noticeably better than its AMD competitors. We ran a few anecdotal tests, in this case, again using the GeForce GTX 1080 as a baseline and comparing the chip to its closest competitor we tested, the 24-core Threadripper 2970WX.
The Core i9-9980XE achieved an average frame rate of 103 frames per second (fps) on Far Cry Primal’s in-game benchmark at 1080p resolution and High quality, compared with 98fps for the Ryzen Threadripper 2970WX. The difference was greater with Rise of the Tomb Raider, at 130fps (Core i9-9980XE) versus 111fps (Threadripper 2970WX).
However, if you’re searching for a new CPU primarily to play games, note that the Core i9-9900K—widely deemed one of the best high-performance processors for gaming—scored even better in these 1080p tests: 138fps in Far Cry Primal, and 140fps in Rise of the Tomb Raider. On the whole, PC Labs, like other testing outfits, has seen little or no difference among these CPUs when running the same games at the same settings at 1440p or 4K with the GTX 1080. So really, this distinction matters only if you’re running games at (relatively) low resolutions. And given your likely appetite for investment in high-end hardware if you’re even considering a chip like this, this may not even apply. Consider this a niche case in which the Core i9-9980XE avails itself just fine.
18 Cores, Two Grand: Worth the Splurge?
A dominant HEDT CPU ought to blow the competition out of the water on things like raw performance, overclockability, sheer core/thread count, and clock rate. The Core i9-9980XE is strong in all those facets, but where it really pummels its competition is price. But we don’t mean low price, mind you.
No other consumer CPU, apart from the Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition that came before, costs $1,999, full stop. Consider that the even-more-rarified Ryzen Threadripper 2990WX, with more cores and threads at 32 and 64, is slightly cheaper, at $1,799. In a simple, relative sense, based on pure core and thread count, the Ryzen Threadripper 2950X (16 cores, 32 threads) and Core i9-9900K (8 and 16) are steals by comparison, at $899 and $499, respectively.
Just as telling as price, though, is that the latter (Core i9-9900K) chip, while on Intel’s mainstream platform, actually offers better performance in some isolated cases, especially with graphics-intensive games at 1080p. If you’re looking at the Core i9-9980XE simply as a bragging-rights chip for a gaming rig, stop right there and reconsider. You simply don’t need to spend $2,000 on a CPU to build a screaming-fast gaming rig. Get a 9900K and Z390 motherboard instead, and you’ll come out way ahead, with enough money left over to buy a high-end video card like the GeForce RTX 2080 Founders Edition$799.00 at Nvidia.
For content creators for whom time is money, however, the question is far more nuanced. On a dollars-per-core basis, the Threadripper 2970WX and 2990WX are both better values. But not every professional application scales the same with more and more cores, and the 2970WX doesn’t necessarily offer better performance on every CPU-intensive task. (PC Labs hasn’t had the opportunity to test the 2990WX.) The Threadripper platform, at the moment, also lacks Thunderbolt 3 support and can’t benefit from the robust ecosystem of motherboards, coolers, and other components that support the X299 platform. Its X399-chipset world is developed enough, to be sure, but you’re looking at specialized coolers for Threadripper and a giant chip die that reduces some of the PCB availability on X399 boards for other features.
When you add it all up, as a broad recommendation, the Ryzen Threadripper 2950X remains PCMag’s pick for the best high-end CPU for most system builders and upgraders looking to build a content-creation powerhouse on an HEDT platform. But if you’re in that creator space, and happen to be invested in the Thunderbolt 3 ecosystem of super-fast storage to feed your media to and fro in your workflow, the Core i9-9980XE Extreme Edition has its place. It’s no less a thrill ride in silicon than a Threadripper. You’ll just pay a very dear admission ticket to get on the coaster.
Intel Core i9-9980XE Extreme Edition
Bottom Line: Intel’s 18-core Core i9-9980XE Extreme Edition—the priciest consumer CPU you can buy—can chew through intensive multi-threaded workloads like a champ, but less-expensive competitors pose a better value case for most shoppers.