Intel Core i9-10980XE Review: Winning the middle

Intel's $1,000, 18-core CPU occupies a tight performance space between competing AMD CPUs.

Credit: Gordon Mah Ung

Gaming Performance

Did you really buy a 16-core or 18-core CPU to play games?! said that old time gamer who doesn’t understand that besides playing games, you might also stream it to multiple platforms at once and then also re-edit it, add in 3D graphics and other core-count-intensive actions that old-school gamers just don’t get. 

So yes, gaming can be important to someone who also needs a big, fat, hairy CPU. We’ll also say that we essentially skip reporting performance at 2566x1440 resolution, because you’re just GPU-bottlenecked most of the time and the performance gap between any of the CPUs is fairly marginal. And if you’re playing at 4K resolution, even with the mighty GeForce RTX 2080 Ti, it’s not going to matter which CPU you have 9 out of 10 times.

The first game is Gears of War 5, which is fairly GPU-bound even at 1080p. What we can see is that higher clocks matter, and it doesn’t look like the Core i9-10980XE has quite enough. The fastest is Intel’s all-5GHz Core i9-9900KS chip. The Core i9-9900K follows next, and then the pair of Ryzen chips. The Core i9-10980XE is in last place but in the grand scheme of things, the game is well-playable on all five CPUs. So, we wouldn’t make a federal case out of it.

core i9 10980xe gears IDG

The lower clock speeds of the Core ii-10980XE places it in last place.

Gaming, by and large, does like Intel, and as we move to Shadows of the Tomb Raider at 1920x1080 set to Highest Quality and with DXR turned off, the Core i9-10980XE pulls ahead of both Ryzen chips and is outpaced only by the 5GHz Core i9 chips. But again, just as its slower performance in Gears of War 5 wasn’t a huge deal, this isn’t really either.

core i9 10980xe sotr IDG

Intel chips lead in Shadows of the Tomb Raider

Sometimes with testing, nothing makes sense. Far Cry 5 is one of those games that runs better on Intel despite the Ryzen and Radeon logos splashed in your face at launch. We handily see the high-clock Core i9 chips lead the way. And yes, Ryzen chips just do poorly in Far Cry 5, as we expect. In fact, this is what we’ve come to call the “Ryzen gap,” where games simply run 15 to 20 percent slower on AMD.

But what explains the performance of the Core i9-10980XE? It should arguably be running at a slightly higher clock speed than the Ryzen chips, yet the results are essentially a tie. We’re simply at a loss here, and in a few benchmarks it’ll get even weirder.

core i9 10980xe fc5 IDG

Far Cry 5’s results are plain weird

Our next game is Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Again, it’s at 1920x1080 set to Ultra quality. We use this game in particular because it was one of the games that was optimized in the days of first-gen Ryzen, which plain dragged in gaming against Intel. The result? Let’s call it a wash. Yes, technically the 5GHz Core i9-9900KS is out in front, but not enough to really matter. And yes, the Core i9-10980XE is technically slower, but not enough to really matter.

core i9 10980xe deus ex IDG

We’ll this a wash overall

Our next game is the DirectX12 poster child: Ashes of the Singularity. The game was one of the first optimized games for multi-core CPUs under DX12. The reality is it doesn’t scale up to the core counts we have today. The results are again mostly a wash: The Core i9-10980XE is last, but not by enough to matter.

core i9 10980xe ashes IDG

The 18-core Core i9 is in last place yet again but not by a significant amount.

Most of the games we ran are GPU-intensive. The reality is most of the games played today aren’t like that at all. To look at that category of eSports game, we use Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege at 1080p ad, with quality set to Ultra. In a better look for the Core i9-10980XE, it’s basically dead even with the Core i9-9900K. All three Core i9 chips have decent margins over the Ryzen 9 chips, but we’re already running in the 360-fps range, so it’s not like anyone’s hurting for frame rates. 

IDG

All three Core i9 chips lebut not by huge margins.

Our conclusion on gaming is that the Core i9-10980XE pulled out respectable, but not stellar scores. But then, so do the Ryzen 9 3950X and Ryzen 9 3900X. Basically you can’t make a bad choice, so don’t chose on gaming performance, rather choose on the activities surrounding the gaming. If you do indeed need to render 3D graphics to drop in a game video, more cores will help—and also cost more money.

Performance analysis

We’ll close off by looking at the performance of the Core i9-10980XE running from 1 thread to 36 threads, using Maxon’s older Cinebench R15. If you look at the graphic below, you can immediately see the issue for Core i9-10980XE: At no point does it ever hold a commanding lead over Ryzen 9.

core i9 10980xe vs ryzen 9 3950x IDG

Ryzen 9 3950X basically never lets the Core i9-10980XE get in front of it in Cinebench.

Presented as percent difference, it looks far more drastic for Core i9, which is essentially under water against the 16-core Ryzen 9 3950X the entire time.

Granted, Ryzen 3000-series chips simply rock Intel in Cinebench these days. And if we could run V-Ray Next or another renderer this way, the Core i9 situation would likely improve. The only problem with that is while the situation is likely to improve, it’s only going to improve a little. Even if the Core i9-10980XE held a 7-percent advantage, it’s supposed to, as it has two more cores and costs 25 percent more.

core i9 10980xe vs ryzen 9 3950x percent diff IDG

The Core i9-10980XE is basically underwater the entire time against the cheaper Ryzen 9 3950X and that’s not good.

What about DL Boost?

One cool new feature of the Intel’s new Cascade Lake X chips is the support for DL Boost which accelerates AI and Inference work loads. You’re not seeing the results here because they include an unreleased CPU. We can tell you that yes, it looks like applications and tasks that take advantage of Intel’s DL Boost give it a big leg up over the competition. So yes, if you’re an AI or machine language researcher or developer, just having access to this in an 18-core, $1,000 chip is a reason to consider Core i9.

Conclusion

When Intel slashed prices a month ago on its new Core i9 CPUs, we thought the move was a sign that Intel was getting serious about AMD and was ready for the long fight.

Seeing the performance of the Core i9-10980XE though, we now realize the move was really more about survival. If Intel had launched the Core i9-10980XE at the same $2,000 price as its predecessors, it would have been immediately irrelevant in the face of the Ryzen 9 3950X. And yes, at $2,000 it would be crossing the path of the 32-core Ryzen Threadripper 3970X.

In the end, while some might say $1,000 is still too expensive, we think it’s actually not too horrible of an ask in the grand scheme of things. Yes, $800 would make us feel better but considering the CPU it replaces started at $2,000, we’re not expecting miracles.

core i9 10980xe 3 Gordon Mah Ung

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Gordon Mah Ung

PC World (US online)
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