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Intel Core i9: Is it Worth the Extra Cost?

How to find a top-performing processor for your needs

Shopping for a new lightning fast computer? What’s inside matters. The Intel Core i9-9900K is likely the top contender for rock-solid performance. But that component alone will set you back hundreds of dollars. Whether it is worth the cost depends largely on what you intend to do with the computer.

First, it’s important to understand what makes the i9 superior over its predecessor the i7, which is still a top choice for far less money. Intel introduced the i7 range of processors in 2008, with versions still going strong today. The i9 was introduced in 2017, featuring 10 cores on the lowest end up to 18 cores. A core is the part of a CPU that receives instructions and performs calculations, or actions, based on those instructions.

Simultaneous multithreading, abbreviated as SMT, is the process of a CPU splitting each of its physical cores into virtual cores, which are known as threads. All i9 versions feature hyperthreading between 20 to 36 threads. This is done to increase performance and allow each core to run two instruction streams at once.

The i9 processors also feature Turbo Boost 3.0 support, meaning there will be two preferred strongest performing cores in each processor instead of one core.

In addition to the i9 9900K, Intel has also introduced a processor model called i9-7980XE Extreme Edition Processor. It is the fastest and the most powerful processor made for consumers, boasting 18 cores, 36 threads, and 25MB cache. The processor alone, however, will set you back about $1,999. An 8-core version of the i9 9900K sells today on Amazon for $484.99.

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Do you need it?
I started really digging into processing speed when setting up a workstation to do high-end graphics rendering and video editing. There are other intensive tasks that can benefit from a large number of cores, such as running 3D SolidWorks software for CAD work. Extreme gaming can also take advantage of the additional threads and push of those super-expensive chips.

Though I would drool to build a system with an i9-7980XE, for the most part, the benefit is minimal.  For general office work and even most video editing and graphic intensive tasks, a Core i7 does the work well and doesn’t bust the budget.

However, within the Core i7 family (or the i9), there are many versions. That explains why one CPU with a Core i7 may be vastly different in price from another with an i7. This chart from Intel shows the latest i7 processor versions. But what is really nifty is the advanced search feature below it. Want to only look at processors with at least 8 cores? You can do that, plus add filters such as minimum number of threads or max turbo frequency. The chart for the ninth generation i9 processers and advanced search can be found here.

Other Options
Intel processors are the best bet in today’s consumer market. But it was not that long ago that another company held the top spot for high-end multi-core performance. AMD Ryzen processors are still a solid choice, and deliver excellent bang for the buck.

AMD’s eight-core 16-thread Ryzen CPUs held the top spot for years until Intel gave its Core i7 and Core i9 9th generation CPUs the same eight physical cores. Unfortunately, the new Core i7-9700K doesn’t support the hyper-threading we discussed earlier- that was only incorporated in the new i9-9900K. This left the i7 with half as many threads as its AMD competitor.

In a side-by-side comparison conducted by Toms Hardware between the Core i7-9700K and the Ryzen 7 2700X, the AMD had a slight advantage. Even though both platforms offer dynamic core clock adjustments, Ryzen’s eight cores and 16 threads made a difference. Also, the Ryzen 7 2700X runs about $100 less than the Core i7-9700K.

Bottom line
The greatest difference between Core i7 and Core i9 CPUs is their multi-threading performance. The Core i9 9900K is hands down a top performer, but the cost might not outweigh the benefits. The eight-generation Core i7-8700 is a modestly priced choice, with six cores supporting 12 threads and a max turbo frequency of 4.6GHz. When looking at the Core i7, also consider AMD’s Ryzen CPUs as an equal, if not slightly better, alternative at a lower cost.

If the Core i7 still seems like overkill for your computing needs, Intel offers Core i5 CPUs that offer most of the performance capabilities as entry level i7s at a considerably lower cost.

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