With the release of the highly-anticipated i9-9900k, gamers running Intel systems may still be wondering whether it’s worth upgrading to this pricey CPU, even over less-expensive options like the i7-9700k and the year-old i7-8700k. It can be tempting to default to the latest flagship model, but that may not be the best option for every builder.
All three CPUs are rated for the same TDP and (for the most part) share compatibility with the same motherboards. They come with the same integrated GPU, can support up to 64GB of RAM, have the same 16 PCIe lanes, and their base clock speeds are roughly the same.
There are two significant architectural differences between these three CPUs:
- The i7-9700k is the only one that doesn’t offer hyper-threading, as it has eight cores and eight threads.
- The i7-8700k has six cores, while the other two have eight.
On the surface, the raw power (highest boost clock and most threads) of the i9-9900k would make it appear to be a clear winner for any application.
Why isn’t the i9-9900k always the best choice?
If you’re a video editor or a digital artist, where multi-core speed matters, the i9-9900k is hands-down the better option. This is not the case in gaming. Video games (at least for now) rarely use more than four cores, which makes the presence of more cores nearly always superfluous. While the i9-9900k is unmatched in multi-core speed among its consumer-grade Intel brethren, it averages less than 5% difference in single-core and quad-core speed against the i7-9700k in non-overclocked tests. In overclocked rigs, the margin is even thinner.
Yes, you read that right. A 1-5% speed boost in gaming performance for the i9-9900k, even though the i9-9900k costs roughly 25% more than the i7-9700k!
The lack of hyperthreading in the i7-9700k may also be considered an unintuitive advantage for gamers. Hyper-threading is designed to handle certain kinds of data in a smarter, more efficient way. Few games are designed to take advantage of hyper-threading, however, so hyper-threading is largely beneficial for other non-gaming types of workloads. It has little impact on actual gaming performance in the vast majority of circumstances.
Hyper-threading also makes CPUs run hotter, leading to higher temperatures and power levels at the same speed; under identical coolers and equally-strenuous workloads, the i9-9900k will run significantly hotter than the i7-9700k. Despite the fact that both the i9-9900k and the i7-9700k are rated at a TDP of 95 W, real-world tests by Jarred Walton over at PC Gamer have demonstrated a 60% increase in TDP on the i9-9900k compared to a 20% increase on the i7-9700k while under identical heavy load.
The i9-9900k is presently $530 USD, while the i7-9700k is almost $100 cheaper. In buying the i9-9900k, you would be paying an extra $100 for a very small gain. The near-identical gaming performance and lack of hyper-threading makes the i7-9700k the better-value choice for a gamer.
What about the i7-8700k?
The i7-8700k was released at the end of 2017, and the passage of time has gradually dropped its price so that it’s now $30-40 USD less than the i7-9700k. However, benchmark tests place the i7-9700k as averaging 5% faster in single-thread speed and 10% faster in quad-core speed than the i7-8700k. The i7-8700k also has six cores with twelve threads, meaning it has the same (hotter-running, workstation-oriented) hyper-threading technology found on the i9-9900k.
With a loss of 5-10% in performance and the presence of hyper-threading, it’s unlikely to be worth buying the i7-8700k just to save about 10% on price.
Anyone looking to build a high-end pure gaming rig should seriously consider the i7-9700k for their next CPU. With an insignificant difference in single-core and quad-core performance to the i9-9900k, its lack of hyper-threading, and superior performance (yet similar price-to-performance ratio) to the i7-8700k—the i7-9700k offers the dedicated gamer the best bang for their buck among Intel’s top-shelf offerings.
Only gamers that have money to spare (and so may not care about its inferior price-to-performance ratio) and who want to squeeze the most power possible out of their rig (even if the performance increase is very small) should splurge on the i9-9900k.
Now, this article is just about pure gaming builds. But if your interests and/or work lie elsewhere—with something like video editing, 3D rendering, audio production, or high-end streaming—then the i9-9900k becomes a solid contender alongside AMD options like Threadripper CPUs. And in that situation, I would also recommend that you read my previous article comparing the i9-9900k to the i7-9800x.