Intel has faced a number of major issues this year in the consumer space, most notably its ongoing struggles to ship 10nm CPUs and a massive shortfall of 14nm production as well, leading to low supplies and price spikes. On top of that, rival AMD has had a banner year across nearly every product category, putting additional heat on Intel. As a company that was considered for nearly a decade to be without competition, things have not been easy. While plans for 2020 make it look like there is a good chance of a recovery on the horizon, we aren’t quite there yet.
Right now, Intel’s consumer CPU portfolio is heavily fractured, and many people will be wondering how and why there are 8th, 9th, and 10th Gen options in the market simultaneously. As most enthusiasts will know, these generation numbers now have very little to do with which architecture is actually being used, and the 10th generation is especially confusing – if you’re looking for a laptop, the 10th Gen badge might lead you to a 14nm Comet Lake CPU or a vastly different 10nm Ice Lake one, and you might never know the difference.
At the very opposite end of the market, the high-end desktop space, Intel has also launched new X-series CPUs with 10xxx numbering, and though they aren’t technically marketed as “10th Gen”, they exist within the same timeline. These new CPUs are meant for heavy content creation and multitasking, primarily in professional workstation environments, and are based on the 14nm ‘Cascade Lake-X’ architecture which is a refresh of the familiar Skylake-X which underpinned the Core X-series 9xxx and 7xxx lineups.
The huge news here is pricing – with AMD’s very competent Ryzen Threadripper family to contend with, Intel has dropped the cost of the new X-series by over half. The new flagship 18-core Core i9-10980XE is officially priced at $979 (approximately Rs. 70,000 plus taxes) as opposed to $1,979 (approximately Rs. 1,40,000 plus taxes) at launch time for its predecessor, the 18-core Core i9-9980XE.
It’s inevitable that this CPU will be compared with the recently launched third-generation AMD Ryzen Threadripper family. We’re going to see whether Intel’s latest high-end CPU with 18 cores can compete with the equivalently priced 24-core Threadripper 3960X in our full review.
Intel Core i9-10980XE architecture and specifications
The 2019 refresh of the Core X-series, known as the Cascade Lake-X family, is comprised of four models. There’s the 10-core Core i9-10900X, the 12-core Core i9-10920X, the 14-core Core i9-10940X, and the flagship 18-core Core i9-10980XE which we’re reviewing today. Notably, there’s no 16-core model, at least not yet, which prevents a direct comparison to AMD’s Ryzen 9 3950X or previous-gen Threadripper 2950X.
Cascade Lake succeeds Skylake for some of Intel’s Xeon W and Xeon Scalable processors for workstations and servers, in addition to the high-end desktop (HEDT) market. All these chips use a 14nm manufacturing process. The X-series won’t be competing with AMD’s absolute top-end, the upcoming 64-core Threadripper 3990X.
The Core i9-10980XE has a base speed of 3GHz with a Turbo Boost speed of 4.6GHz. Notably, Intel’s X-series CPUs also support Turbo Boost Max 3.0, which can now take the four highest performing cores up to 4.8GHz for as long as there’s power and thermal headroom. There’s Hyper-Threading so each core can run two threads simultaneously. The TDP rating is 165W, and there’s 24.75MB of L3 cache memory. RAM support goes up to 256GB of DDR4-2933 across four channels. Intel’s Optane Memory accelerators are supported as well. There’s no integrated GPU and no cooler included in the box, as is typical of high-end CPUs.
Unlike AMD’s current-gen offerings, Intel still uses the PCIe 3.0 interconnect standard, not PCIe 4.0. There are a total of 48 PCIe lanes which is four more than Skylake-X offered. You’ll need a motherboard with Intel’s X299 controller, and though this means there is backward compatibility with the previous generation of motherboards, you can find newer refreshed models in the market. If you’re buying now, be aware that there probably won’t be a further generation that can use the same platform.
Importantly, the Cascade Lake-X family introduces hardware-level mitigations against speculative execution exploits. The well-known Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities affected Intel’s CPUs particularly badly, and its most recent launches have introduced fixes that go beyond what software patches can do. Another interesting new capability is Intel’s Deep Learning Boost instruction set, which claims to improve AI inference calculations by up to 2X.
Asus ROG Strix X299-E Gaming II features and specifications
As its name suggests, the ROG Strix X299-E Gaming II is a refresh of the ROG Strix X299-E Gaming model, which we reviewed when the first-gen Core X-series debuted. It’s odd that Asus releases gaming-branded motherboards for this workstation-class CPU, but there is a slight overlap and the name is less important than the features. Asus has taken advantage of the four extra PCIe lanes that a Cascade Lake-X CPU has to offer with three full-length PCIe slots that can be run as x16/x16/x8 and three M.2 slots for NVMe SSDs.
You also get eight SATA ports, integrated Intel Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5, 12-phase voltage regulators, and a small OLED panel next to the CPU socket that can show diagnostic information or your own graphics.
The rear panel features Gigabit as well as 2.5Gigabit Ethernet ports, three USB 3.2 Gen2 (10Gbps) Type-A ports and one Type-C port, two more USB 3.2 Gen1 (5Gbps) ports, and four USB 2.0 ports, plus optical S/PDIF and analogue audio outputs. Front panel headers give you even more connectivity.
In terms of design and usability, we’re not fans of Asus’ recent “cyber text” aesthetic with “geeky” words and phrases printed all over. We think this is cheesy, but some people do like it a lot. There is some RGB accent lighting over the rear IO port cluster but if you want anything beyond this, you’ll have to get your own accessories or light strips and plug them into motherboard headers. The board itself is plain black all over, so if you disable the few lights there are, you can achieve quite a sober look.
You’ll notice a tiny fan within an enclosure covering the VRMs. There are also plenty of headers sprinkled around the board for case fans and radiators. If you’re planning to overclock your CPU there are two auxiliary 8-pin power connectors in addition to the 24-pin ATX connector for stability.
We had no trouble setting up and using this motherboard. We did notice that the RAM slots are awfully close to the first PCIe slot, and the retention clips touched the backplate of our graphics card. You’ll want to use a liquid cooler primarily so you don’t have to have a huge CPU fan in the way. The third M.2 slot is vertical, so you’ll need to screw in a metal retention plate to make sure your SSD doesn’t get accidentally knocked out of place or snapped.
If does feel a little as though this motherboard is caught between trying to be a consumer model and fitting in workstation-level components. We think that Asus could have gone with EATX dimensions rather than trying to cram everything into the ATX form factor, given the target market.
A prompt to install Asus’ Armory Crate software pops up in Windows 10 as soon as you boot up for the first time. Controversially, Asus decided a while ago to embed this software into its motherboard BIOSes so there’s no way to avoid it running. At least the software is relatively unobtrusive and well designed. It let us update all necessary drivers, and this is also where you’ll control your RGB LEDs and Asus ROG peripherals.
The Asus ROG Strix X299-E Gaming II sells for roughly Rs. 42,000 which makes it pretty good value for a HEDT motherboard. You can still use pre-refresh X299 boards (with a BIOS update) to save some money, but you’ll probably want the most up-to-date features you can get if you’re spending so much anyway.
Intel Core i9-10980XE performance
Our test bench consisted of the Intel Core i9-10980XE CPU and Asus ROG Strix X299-E Gaming II motherboard as well as 32GB (4x8GB) of DDR4-3200 Corsair Dominator RAM, a 1TB WD Black NVMe (2018) SSD as the boot drive, a 1TB Samsung SSD 860 Evo, a Sapphire Nitro+ Radeon RX 590 graphics card, Corsair H115i Platinum 280mm AIO liquid cooler, Corsair RM650 power supply, and Asus PB287Q 4K monitor. We used Windows 10 v1909 with all the latest updates, plus the latest BIOS and drivers installed.
Testing was fairly straightforward. We ran all our usual synthetic benchmarks and real-world performance scenarios. You can see the scores obtained by the Core i9-10980XE compared to those of the Core i9-9900K, AMD’s Ryzen 9 3900X and Threadripper 3960X. In many cases, it’s worth checking exactly how much of a difference you can get with a mainstream Core i9 or Ryzen 9 CPU, as opposed to the HEDT Core X-series and Ryzen Threadripper CPUs.
|Intel Core i9-10980XE||AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3960X||AMD Ryzen 9
|Intel Core i9-9900K|
|Cinebench R20 CPU single-threaded||452||504||495||NA|
|Cinebench R20 CPU multi-threaded||8,729||13,265||6,785||NA|
|POVRay*||35 seconds||23 seconds||41 seconds||57 seconds|
|VRAY CPU*||37 seconds||25 seconds||48 seconds||1 minute, 2 seconds|
|Corona Renderer Benchmark*||57 seconds||38 seconds||1 minute, 19 seconds||1 minute, 42 seconds|
|Blender Benchmark*||8 minutes, 55 seconds||5 minutes, 54 seconds||10 minutes, 59 seconds||15 minutes, 21 seconds|
|Basemark Web 3.0||444.89||453.29||549.99||394.61|
|PCMark 10 Extended||7,967||7,743||6,807||3,435|
|3DMark Fire Strike Ultra (Physics)||28,111||25,437||27,471||21,550|
|SiSoft SANDRA CPU arithmetic||496GOPS||697GOPS||366GOPS||282.45GOPS|
|SiSoft SANDRA CPU multimedia||2.13GPix/s||2.4GPix/s||1.26GPix/s||918.22MPix/s|
|SiSoft SANDRA CPU encryption||25.65GBps||41.3GBps||18.09GBps||12.12GBps|
|SiSoft SANDRA cache bandwidth||701.53GBps||1.43TBps||589.9GBps||307.32GBps|
|SiSoft SANDRA memory bandwidth||52.19GBps||63.52GBps||26.62GBps||21.85GBps|
|7Zip file compression*||1 minute, 8 seconds||56 seconds||1 minute, 33 seconds||2 minutes, 12 seconds|
|Handbrake video encoding*||37 seconds||31 seconds||35 seconds||39 seconds|
|*lower is better|
Intel is clearly pushing its older architecture and manufacturing process here. We see that AMD’s 24-core Ryzen Threadripper 3960X pretty much obliterates the Core i9-10980X in most content creation tests, though it is also more expensive and has a much higher TDP rating. Compared to the still-impressive Core i9-9900K, we see how the Core i9-10980XE benefits from increased memory bandwidth, illustrating the whole point of the HEDT segment.
We don’t have a 16-core Ryzen 9 3950X to compare against, but extrapolating from our 12-core Ryzen 9 3900X results, we can see that things would be pretty close, if not evenly matched, a lot of the time. AMD seems to have the upper hand in most cases, thanks to the Zen 2 architecture and potentially also PCIe 4.0 support. While the mainstream Ryzen 9 series won’t have as much grunt to offer in many situations, the overall platform cost would be much lower.
Keep in mind that our tests aren’t geared towards exploiting Intel’s DL Boost features, or AI processing in general, so there’s additional scope for specific workloads to benefit. We also tried a bit of gaming, though we didn’t focus on it for the purpose of this review. Unless you’re encoding and streaming video while gaming all on the same PC, the mainstream Core i9-9900K or even something less powerful would be more than enough.
Intel has done the only thing it could have done. By ceding the high end and launching the Core i9-10980XE at half the price of its predecessor, it can get away with an incremental improvement over the previous release. Framed in terms of performance-per-dollar, not just performance, this is a fairly big leap – though not one that buyers of the Core i9-9980XE will be happy about.
This CPU is sandwiched between two solid options. One one side, there’s the AMD Ryzen 9 3950X which has 16 cores but could be constrained by having only 24 PCIe lanes and dual-channel memory. On the other, the Ryzen Threadripper 3960X would give you 24 cores and way more system-level bandwidth, but it’s more expensive and has a much higher TDP.
The Core i9-10980XE has therefore created something of a tiny niche for itself – if this chip cost as much as the Threadripper, we’d have written it off completely. The way things look now, the Core i9-10980XE could still be a decent choice for those who trust and want to stick with Intel. It would also work for those who want a solid workstation for multitasking or running multiple different kinds of applications that might or might not take advantage of very high core counts.
If you can afford the Threadripper, go for it. If you want to save money on the overall platform level, the 16-core Ryzen will give you most of what you need in most cases. If you think your workloads will benefit from Intel’s specific optimisations and features, but have found the X-series too expensive in the past, this could be your chance to jump on board. You will have to account for very poor market availability though, and the cost of an X299 refresh motherboard.
Intel Core i9-10980X
Price (MOP): Approximately Rs. 70,000 plus taxes
- 18 cores plus a huge price drop
- Good overall performance, AI optimisations
- Reasonable TDP
- Competition from AMD on multiple fronts
- X299 platform won’t have much of a future
Ratings (Out of 5)
- Performance: 4.5
- Value for Money: 4
- Overall: 4
Asus ROG Strix X299-E Gaming II
Price (MOP): Rs. 42,000
- Understated looks
- Up-to-date connectivity including Wi-Fi 6
- OLED diagnostic display
- Easy to set up and use
- Relatively cramped layout
Ratings (Out of 5)
- Features: 4.5
- Performance: 4.5
- Value for Money: 4
- Overall: 4.5