Intel is having a bit of an identity crisis with its top-tier consumer processors, now known as the Core X-Series. The High-End Desktop (HEDT) platform was recently made up of only Core i7 CPUs but now includes Core i5 and the new Core i9 brand. These models have always commanded a hefty price premium and were your only option if you wanted more than four CPU cores or had a workload that demanded any serious processing grunt. As recently as last year Intel was happily charging up to Rs. 1,69,000 for a top-end 10-core CPU - that's just the processor. If your time is valuable, this is what you had to pay to get work done quickly.
Now that AMD has come roaring back into the game with its Ryzen 7 and Threadripper CPUs, you can get that level of performance at much lower prices. After repeated disappointments, AMD now has a whole lineup of products that can not only compete, but win. Ryzen CPUs were designed deliberately to disrupt Intel's product segmentation hierarchy in two ways: stuffing more cores into each CPU, and cutting prices. Intel has clearly taken notice of this and has changed its tune - you now get 18 cores for the cost of last year's 10-core CPU.
At the same time, these HEDT CPUs have had a major disadvantage - they've launched progressively later each generation, meaning that buyers were not only paying a huge amount, but also getting an older architecture. It got to the point that last year's flagship 10-core Broadwell-E Core i7-6950K was being sold alongside the affordable quad-core Skylake Core i7-6700K, but didn't even outperform it consistently.
Some called Intel complacent because it had no serious competition - AMD's best efforts barely scratched the low end of Intel's lineup until six months ago. However, with the Core-X family, Intel has responded to both its problems in one fell swoop. The time lag has been fixed by releasing Skylake-X and Kaby Lake-X at the same time, essentially skipping a whole generation, and new 12-, 14-, 16- and even 18-core models will take on AMD's mightiest Threadripper parts.
You can read all about the new Core-X series and everything you need to know before you decide to buy one of these massive processors in our complete guide right here. The 18-core i9-7980XE isn't shipping yet, but we the current top model, the 10-core i9-7900X, in for review already. Here's how it stacks up against last year's i7-6950X as well as the mainstream Core i7-7700K and AMD's Ryzen 7.
The Intel Core i9-7900X
We've covered the long backstory leading up to Intel's decision to create a new Core i9 tier in its hierarchy in our complete guide to Skylake-X, Kaby Lake-X and the X299 platform. In short, Core i9 CPUs represent the highest tier of capabilities in Intel's consumer lineup, coming close to Xeon processors. As opposed to the rest of the Core X-series, Core i9 CPUs give you 44 lanes of PCIe bandwidth, support for Turbo Boost Max 3.0 to accelerate non-multithreaded apps on one or two cores, the VROC feature for bootable RAID SSD arrays, and advanced AVX-512 instructions. At the physical architecture level, Intel has developed a new mesh interconnect and a new cache hierarchy to shuttle data between cores so that it can increase the number of cores without taking a huge hit to latency.
Very few of these things are likely to be relevant to mainstream users, but they do make for a very capable workstation platform with forward-looking capabilities and loads of room for expansion. If you're spending a massive amount of money on a PC like this, you'll want it to last. The i9-7900X is the least expensive way to get these features, and ten cores should be more than enough for a lot of people.
Still, inexpensive is a relative term. The Core i9-7900X is priced at Rs. 66,000, but with GST added in that comes to around Rs. 82,000. Functionally, with ten cores, it replaces last year's "Broadwell-E" i7-6950X, which occupied Intel's flagship spot with a price tag of Rs. 1,69,000 at launch time. This is a staggering difference in cost, and can be attributed not only to AMD’s Threadripper, but also the mainstream Ryzen 7 lineup, which delivers eight cores for a fraction of that kind of money. With each step up the Core i9 ladder you get two more cores, and Intel will now give you 18 cores if you're still willing to spend that kind of money.
When the number of cores increases, they have to run slower so that the amount of heat they generate collectively stays within the approved TDP limit, which in this case is 140W. The Core i9-7900X is the entry-level Core i9 model, but its base speed of 3.3GHz is the highest of them all. This is the sustained speed you can expect when all cores are constantly stressed. Boost speed for the lower three Core i9 models is a generous 4.3GHz, but there's no guarantee of how long any of them can run at this level before they will need to throttle themselves - it's within reason to guess that the fewer the cores, the longer they will run at their upper limit. Turbo Boost Max 3.0 lets the CPU push itself up to 4.5GHz when only one or two cores are being hit, which means that single-threaded apps don't suffer on a CPU with lots of slower cores.
RAM support goes up to quad-channel DDR4-2666, and you can stuff up to 128GB into your machine - another advantage of the HEDT platform. Most X299 motherboards advertise support for higher RAM speeds, so you can try to push beyond Intel's spec without much trouble. You will need a beefy cooler - an all-in-one liquid model is recommended, but you could get away with an extremely high-quality air cooler.
One interesting tidbit is that our review sample reports itself to the BIOS and software diagnostics as a "Core i7-7900K". Intel tells us that all the pre-retail parts it sent out for validation were programmed this way in order to avoid leaking the new Core i9 brand prematurely. However, it's possible that this change was necessitated by a mid-stream course correction.
The Asus ROG Strix X299-E Gaming
There isn't much variety when it comes to HEDT motherboards because they're all high-end. Asus has a small lineup of X299 models, of which the ROG Strix X299-E has the broadest appeal. It's actually relatively sedate, with a lot of features but nothing absurd or over-the-top, and comes in at a reasonable Rs 25,960 (including GST). It's a standard ATX board and doesn't have any fancy shrouds or design touches. Even the inescapable RGB LEDs are confined to two spots near the CPU socket.
You'll like this board if you value minimalist design more than showing off. The layout is pretty standard, but you get nice touches like metal-reinforced PCIe slots and a hood over the rear ports. Next to the CPU slot - where a northbridge would be on older boards - is a clear plastic block with an illuminiated ROG logo that looks like it's floating. The only other LEDs are on the rear port hood. This placement is meant to cast light into your CPU fan, but X299 boards have RAM slots on both sides of the CPU, and tall DIMMs will block it.
Asus keeps improving its Aura RGB LED feature, and you now get two headers for additional light strips. Moreover, the software can work with third-party devices such as coolers and RAM modules, keeping everything in sync. We like the fact that the colour transitions are smooth, and the LEDs are frosted so that they blend into each other. Of course you can turn them all off if you like.
The primary M.2 slot shares an oversized heatspreader with the X299 controller. It has an adhesive contact point, and is held in place with three screws. The secondary M.2 slot is unfortunately vertical, due to a lack of space on the board. M.2 SSDs are extremely thin and easy to snap if not anchored, so you'll have to screw on a tall metal bracket to make sure that an SSD in this slot doesn't snap accidentally. These designs aren't exactly DIY friendly, but hopefully SSD installation will be a one-time thing.
You can run two full-sized graphics cards at PCIe 3.0 x16/x16 with a 44-lane Core i9 CPU like the one we have. The primary M.2 slot can handle SATA as well as PCIe SSDs, while the secondary one is only wired for PCIe. There are eight standard SATA 3.0 ports, all powered by the X299 controller itself. Some motherboards will have many more ports and slots that can't all be used at the same time, but the Strix X299-E Gaming has a fair balance and doesn't make you disable some in order to use the others.
The rear port cluster has two USB 2.0 ports, four USB 3.1 (Gen 1 5Gbps) ports, and two USB 3.1 (Gen 2 10Gbps) ports, one of which is Type-C. There's also a Gigabit Ethernet port powered by an Intel i219-V controller, five assignable 3.5mm analogue audio sockets, S/PDIF digital audio out, and two Wi-Fi antenna terminals. Right at the end, there's a button which will boot the board directly into BIOS update mode if you have suitable firmware on an attached USB drive.
In terms of wireless connectivity, you get Wi-Fi 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.2 built in. Audio is handled by a Realtek ALC1220A codec (which Asus tweaks and calls SupremeFX S1220A). A second ASMedia USB 3.1 (Gen 2) controller gives you a front panel header in addition to the two ports at the back. There's a small power button and a numeric status code readout at the bottom edge. You get eight fan connectors including one dedicated liquid cooler pump header, and that's really it as far as enthusiast features go.
In the box, you get a Wi-Fi antenna, a padded rear port shield, a two-way SLI HD bridge, a thermal sensor extension, AURA LED controller cables, SATA cables, the vertical M.2 bracket, and some cable ties and labels. It isn't the most elaborate, enthusiast-friendly package we've seen from Asus, which solidifies this as a sensible choice for everyday users. If you want outrageous overclocking, ultra-niche features and way more bling, look elsewhere.
Intel Core i9-7900X and Asus ROG Strix X299-E Gaming performance
Setting up our test bench was fairly easy. The oversized Core i9 CPU requires a socket with two levers for adequate retention pressure, and the board has more than enough clearance for large coolers. We used a Cooler Master MasterLiquid 240, which is a fairly simple model with a 2x120mm radiator, and had no trouble whatsoever mounting it with the brackets included for the previous-generation LGA2011-3 socket since there is no physical change between that and LGA2066. The waterblock has a simple Cooler Master logo which lights up in white, and the most remarkable thing about the whole unit is how silent it is in operation. We only really heard it spin up when running relentless all-core stress tests to check overclocking stability, which was quite noisy. It costs around Rs. 7,500 in the market which makes it pretty good value for money.
We then popped in a quad-channel Corsair Vengeance LED RAM kit consisting of four 8GB sticks for a total of 32GB. These DIMMS are slightly taller than usual and feature heat spreaders with white LEDs. Corsair advertises its own Corsair Link software as well as support for AURA Sync, but neither of those utilities work on the X299 platform. The LEDs pulse by default, but not in sync with each other, leave alone the rest of the system. Third-party tweaking tools can set the LEDs to always on or off, but there's no official control scheme yet which is a pretty big weakness for a feature that is promoted so heavily. We left the RAM running at DDR4-2666 for all our non-overclocked tests. This kit is not yet listed on Indian sites, but will sell for around Rs. 32,000 with your choice of white, red or blue LEDs - lower speed grades sell for a bit less.
We're going to compare the Core i9-7900X with last year's Broadwell-E Core i7-6950X, the Kaby Lake Core i7-7700K and an AMD Ryzen 7 1800X. We used the latest drivers and versions of Windows 10 that were available at the time of each review. Our test bed configuration was as follows:
|CPU||Intel Core i9-7900X||Intel Core i7-7700K||Intel Core i7-6950X||AMD Ryzen 7 1800X|
|Motherboard||Asus ROG Strix X299-E Gaming||Asus Maximus IX Hero||Asus X99 Deluxe II||MSI X370 Xpower Gaming Titanium|
|RAM||4x8GB Corsair Vengeance LED DDR4-3466||2x8 GB Kingston HyperX DDR4-2666||2x8 GB Corsair Vengeance LED DDR4-3200||2x8 GB Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4-3000|
|SSD||256GB Samsung SSD 950 Pro||250GB WD Blue SSD|
|Cooler||Cooler Master MasterLiquid 240||Cooler Master Hyper 212X||Noctua NH-U12S SE -AM4|
|Graphics card||XFX Radeon R9 380X DD BLK OC 4GB||NA||MSI Radeon RX 470 Gaming X||XFX Radeon R9 380X DD BLK OC 4GB|
If we look at performance alone, we see that the i9-7900X posts many of the highest scores and lowest times we've ever seen. It clearly outpaces the quad-core i7-7700K by a huge margin, and improves upon the 10-core i7-6950K by quite a bit too. It is an absolute beast at multi-threaded workloads such as content creation and parallel number-crunching. As a general rule for most people, single-GPU gaming with today's games (at least without encoding and streaming video simultaneously) doesn't scale up enough to justify the expense of an HEDT platform.
We did a bit of casual overclocking using Asus' bundled AI Suite 3 utility. It allows for a fairly wide range of settings to be adjusted, but has an overdone and confusing interface typical of manufacturer bloatware. In automatic mode, the tool will push the limits of your CPU in 100MHz increments, adjusting voltages and RAM speed along the way. We managed to boot at 4.7GHz but could only run tests stably at 4.6GHz. The RAM was pushed up to 3200MHz. At this speed our Cinebench R15 multi-core test score rose from 2,190 to 2,362 and POVRay's trace time dropped from 55 seconds to 51 seconds - not bad for such a modest tweak. Manual overclocking with a more powerful cooler should yield better results.
It's no surprise at all that the new i9-7900X overshadows last year's i7-6950X completely. We saw Intel's first consumer 10-core desktop beaten in some tests by the much less expensive i7-6700K when it was brand new, and earlier this year, AMD's Ryzen 7 1800 joined the party as well. Intel has worked to restore balance to its lineup and we see that the i9-7900X is significantly less expensive, but neither the performance improvement nor the cost reduction are enough to make it a clear-cut winner now that AMD is firing on all cylinders.
The AMD Ryzen 7 1800X isn't a match, but it does come very close in a lot of tests and even pokes out a bit ahead in a few, which should raise some eyebrows considering the price difference between the two. AMD's direct competitor to the i9-7900X at the same price is the 16-core Threadripper 1950X, and the battle between the two could very easily mirror what's been happening consistently at lower price points this year. Stay tuned for our Ryzen Threadripper review.
|Intel Core i9-7900X||Intel Core i7-7700K||Intel Core i7-6950K||AMD Ryzen 7 1800X|
|Cinebench R15 CPU single-threaded||191||61.23||165||159|
|Cinebench R15 CPU multi-threaded||2190||987||1848||1603|
|POVRay*||55 seconds||2 minutes, 0 seconds||1 minute, 8 seconds||1 minute, 16 seconds|
|Basemark Web 3.0||372.71||494.64||NA||378.71|
|PCMark 8 Home||3917||4010||3779||3939|
|PCMark 8 Creative||6088||4055||6078||5148|
|PCMark 8 Work||3036||4943||3123||4577|
|3DMark Fire Strike Ultra (Physics)||21,890||NA||20,995||18,757|
|SiSoft SANDRA CPU arithmetic||335.89GOPS||152.45GOPS||258.6GOPS||232GOPS|
|SiSoft SANDRA CPU multimedia||1.44GPix/s||458.52Mpix/s||753.41MPix/s||459.54Mpix/s|
|SiSoft SANDRA CPU encryption||20.56GB/s||10.1GBps||11.71GB/s||15.37GBps|
|SiSoft SANDRA CPU performance/Watt||1090.72MOPS/W||1323MOPS/W||1539.31MOPS/W||NA|
|SiSoft SANDRA cache bandwidth||517.66/s||198GB/s||298GB/s||216.68GBps|
|HyperPi*||12.452 seconds||11.141 seconds||15.534 seconds||19.343 seconds|
|Handbrake video encoding*||41 seconds||1 minute, 1 second||1 minute, 4 seconds||55 seconds|
|7zip file compression*||1 minute, 31 seconds||2 minutes, 26 seconds||1 minute, 38 seconds||2 minutes, 50 seconds|
|Ashes of the Singularity||26.1fps||NA||31.2fps||24fps|
|Deus Ex: Mankind Divided||46.3fps||NA||60.2fps||47.9fps|
|Metro: Last Light Redux||55.67fps||NA||45.16fps||36.33fps|
|*lower is better|
Intel's new Core i9-7900X replaces last year's flagship, but is only the entry-level model in its category this year. Pricing is a lot better too - you can get better performance for half as much money now. If that makes this CPU seem tempting, there are more factors to consider. First of all, can your workload really take advantage of so many cores? If time is more valuable than money, the answer could very well be yes, but you'll still have to figure out where that balance lies. For the first time ever, you can choose between six and 18 cores in increments of two, and this CPU represents just one stop on that continuum.
Secondly, there's the huge spanner that AMD has merrily tossed into Intel's machinery. Ryzen 7 CPUs are way cheaper and give you eight cores, and Ryzen Threadripper will give you 16 of them at the same price, plus 50 percent more PCIe bandwidth. If that wasn't enough, we now know that Intel's mainstream 8th-gen 'Coffee Lake' CPUs are launching in just a few weeks, and some workloads do benefit more from a new architecture than more cores. Consdering that it's early days for all these products (especially in India), our best advice is to wait. The i9-7900X is a great CPU, but there are so many more options right around the corner that blindly buying one right now is a bad idea.
It's also important to factor in the total cost of building an HEDT system. The CPU and motherboard we tested today have refreshingly sensible prices but the necessary quad-channel RAM kit, water cooler, graphics card, SSD(s), power supply and cabinet will all cost quite a bit.
If or when you do decide to pull the trigger, the Asus ROG Strix X299-E Gaming is an excellent foundation on which to build your new PC. It isn't the best for showing off and it doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles, but it has everything you need for a solid all-rounder workstation. We were happy with its features, stability, and performance.
Intel Core i9-7900X
Price: Rs. 66,000 + GST
- 10 cores for half the price of last year's model
- Excellent performance across benchmarks
- Server-grade architectural features
- Competition from AMD and other Intel product lines
- Overall platform cost
Ratings (Out of 5)
- Performance: 5
- Value for Money: 3.5
- Overall: 4
Asus ROG Strix X299-E Gaming
Price: Rs. 22,000 + GST
- Uncomplicated setup process
- Understated design
- Well designed UEFI BIOS
- Integrated Wi-Fi
- M.2 slots not designed very well
Ratings (Out of 5)
- Features: 4.5
- Performance: 4.5
- Value for Money: 4.5
- Overall: 4.5