What Is Intel’s New Core i9 CPU Series?

For years, Intel’s flagship Core processor series has had three performance tiers: i3, i5, and the top-of-the-line i7. But after several disappointingly small performance iterations and the looming specter of AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper processor, Intel announced a new king of the CPU hill: the Core i9.

This super-powered monster is also one of the first in the new “X-Series” of performance-oriented CPUs, which also come in i7 and i5 flavors. The first series uses a brand new CPU socket, the LGA2066, which means a mandatory motherboard upgrade along with the processor.

So, is it worth it? Well…not yet. The first model in the i9-X series, the i9-7900X, gives only modest gains over the previous Intel flagship (Core i7-7700K). Between the staggering $1000 price tag and the compulsory hardware upgrade, not to mention the fact that even more powerful (and more expensive) versions will be coming soon, it’s best to wait a few months to see how the market shakes out. It won’t hurt that AMD should offer some compelling competition in terms of price.

What’s New in i9?

Rising to the challenge that AMD laid down with the 16-core Threadripper, the i9 series is boosting the total core and thread count over all of Intel’s previous consumer-grade processors. The introductory i9-7900X has 10 cores and 20 threads (the same as the previous flagships), with the bigger and better upgrades in the i9-7920X, i9-7940X, i9-7960X, and i9-7980XE processors offering 12, 14, 16, and 18 cores, respectively. At the top end, that should result in a massive boost in both pure processor speed and multi-tasking ability.

The i9 series also supports quad-channel DDR4 memory at speeds of up to 2666mHz, considerably faster than the previous Core i7 chips…and the more expensive models coming later this year might do even better. Ditto for the expansion-friendly PCI Express lanes, up to 44 or more from a previous 16. The i9-7900X uses a base clock of 3.3GHz with Intel’s Turbo Boost 3.0 bumping it up to 4.5GHz under ideal conditions—and that’s before any kind of end-user overclocking, which is encouraged thanks to the X-series’ unlocked status. Again, the more expensive chips slated for release later this year will probably beat those numbers.

All of the new chips will require a new 2066-pin processor socket, and with power consumption at a massive 140 watts or more, a liquid-cooled thermal setup will be almost certainly compulsory. But then, you weren’t planning on buying a brand new CPU and motherboard without liquid-cooling it, now were you?

How Much Faster Is It?

While the bottom-rung 7900X processor is only in pre-order at the moment (it’ll probably be coming to retailers sometime in the next few weeks), some tech publications have already put it through its paces. Early benchmarks show approximately 10-15% improvement over previous flagship offerings. That’s fast enough to be “the fastest consumer CPU ever produced by Intel,” according to PC World.

But that’s just the appetizer, the $1000 first course. The other processors will cost $1200, $1400, $1700, and finally a whopping $2000 for the 18-core, top-of-the-line i9-7980XE, all of which are coming in the second half of 2017. That sounds exorbitant, but compared to previous high-flying i7 processors like the 6950X (which is already beaten by the new 10-core version of the i9), it’s actually only a couple hundred dollars more. If the performance scales as it should with the extra cores crammed into the more expensive chips, we’re talking about truly mind-boggling speeds.

What About Ryzen?

AMD’s flagship series of new processors is hot on Intel’s heels, not necessarily in terms of pure speed, but at an amazing value proposition. The competition for the i9 and other X-series Intel processors will certainly be Threadripper, the top-of-the-line AMD Ryzen processor with 12-core and 16-core models planned for availability later this year. Threadripper offers some impressive improvements on Intel’s designs, like an amazing 60-lane connection to PCIe components.

The Bottom Line

The i9 series and the other new members of Intel’s “X” performance line are going to be fast, no doubt about it. But Intel is also well aware of its market-leading position, and just because these chips are meant to keep them there doesn’t mean they’re going to be cheap. At the moment, it’s best to take a “wait and see” approach; wait for AMD’s response with Ryzen (especially in terms of pricing) and wait to see how the new motherboards and other components will help or hinder the new chips in terms of performance. It doesn’t hurt to consider the fact that with a new socket and the intricate 14nm fabrication process, initial manufacturing numbers will probably be quite low, further driving up prices.

Threadripper and other Ryzen chips are unlikely to de-throne Intel in terms of pure speed. But then, unless you’re building an industrial-level server or constantly editing 4K video, you don’t really need that much power anyway. For typical enthusiasts and gamers, AMD might win quite a few hearts and minds with competitive performance at much lower prices; the 16-core version of Threadripper is rumored to cost $850, approximately half of the equivalent Core i9 chip.

That said, the PC enthusiasts for whom money is no object have already earmarked funds for that new gaming PC, and they certainly don’t need my permission to upgrade. If you’re planning on creating a ludicrously powerful PC with Intel’s new i9 chips, the only thing you need to wait for is a release date.

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.