Intel Somehow Squeezes More Performance Out of Its 11th-Gen Desktop Processors, but I’m Not Sure It Should Have

Intel Somehow Squeezes More Performance Out of Its 11th-Gen Desktop Processors, but I’m Not Sure It Should Have
Photo: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo
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Just when you think Intel couldn’t do anything else with its desktop processors on that old, 14nm node, it manages to do something else. I thought the company hit a limit with its previous generation, although the gains it does make gen-over-gen aren’t the most impressive. Between Intel’s long, fraught saga getting its architecture down to 7nm and the ongoing global chip shortage, it feels like the company would have been better off skipping this generation altogether. And probably the last one, too.

However, the Core i9-11900K is Intel’s answer to AMD’s Ryzen 9 5950X and Ryzen 9 5900X. The company needed to do something to keep pace with AMD, and sort of managed to pull it off, albeit with little fanfare. Intel based its 11th generation of desktop CPUs on its Cypress Cove architecture, or rather its Ice Lake 10nm node and then ported back to 14nm.

But even with the 14nm node past its expiration date, Intel’s new mid-range Core i5-11600K yet again outshines the enthusiast-level Core i9 — if you’re building a PC strictly for gaming, that is. If you need something with more multi-core processing power, then you’re going to want something other than the Core i5-11600K’s six cores and 12 threads.

Intel Core i9-11900K and Core i5-11600K

WHAT IS IT?

Two of Intel's 11th-generation of desktop processors, one enthusiast CPU and one mid-range CPU.

PRICE

$840 MSRP for the Core i9, and $419 MSRP for the Core i5.

LIKE

The Core i5-11600K has excellent performance for the price.

NO LIKE

This is what Intel's 10th generation of desktop processors actually should have been.

All benchmarks were performed with the following PC configuration: Asus ROG Maximus XIII Hero Z590 motherboard, Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 GPU, G.Skill Trident Z Royal 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR4-3600, Samsung 970 Evo NVMe M.2 SSD 500GB, Seasonic Focus GX-1000, and a Corsair H150i Pro RGB 360mm for cooling. An Asus ROG Crosshair VIII Hero X570 was used for the Ryzen 9 5950X.

Because companies often update their BIOS and drivers, I re-tested the Ryzen and older Intel chips, although there’s not much difference between these latest results and the previous ones. What’s interesting is the gen-to-gen comparisons, and the comparisons to the Ryzen chip. (Unfortunately, I did not have a Ryzen 9 5900X to add to the comparisons below.)

When it comes to non-gaming applications, it’s the same old story: Intel leads in single-core performance because it has higher clock speeds than AMD, but AMD leads in multi-core because it has more cores than Intel. The Core i9-11900K is an 8-core, 16-thread processor than can get up to 5.3GHz, and the Ryzen 9 5950X is a 16-core, 32-thread processor that tops out at 4.9GHz, like the Core i5-11600K.

But for 3D rendering or video transcoding, more cores are the way to go. Even the Intel Core i9-11900K can’t fend off AMD’s Ryzen 9 5950X in all of the below multi-core benchmarks. It takes the Core i9-11900K nearly a minute longer to render the same image in Blender and transcode a video from 4K to 1080p at 30 fps in Handbrake.

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Higher is better.

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Higher is better.

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Higher is better.

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Higher is better.

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

3D rendering speed. BMW test from Blender's demos. Lower is better.

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Transcoding a 4K video to 1080p 30 fps. Lower is better.

Gaming performance is where things get complicated for the Core i9-11900K and Core i5-11600K. To summarize as concisely as possible, all frames per second gains are at 1080p on ultra (or highest graphical setting) across every processor. But sometimes there isn’t even a difference at that resolution. If you look at Metro Exodus with ray tracing on at 1080p, all CPUs average 104-105 fps with the RTX 3080, which isn’t surprising considering that GPU can bottleneck some games at lower resolutions.

Generally, that applies to games which rely on the CPU more than the GPU. Also, performance across CPUs tends to plateau at higher resolutions with the same GPU. So that’s why you’ll see the Core i5-11600K with the same level of performance as the Core i9-11900K in, say, Shadow of The Tomb Raider at 4K. Basically, if you have a powerful GPU and you want to game at 1440p or above, it doesn’t matter if you go with the 11th-gen Core i9 or Core i5.

Another curve ball: The 11th-gen Core i5 is a near-equivalent to the 10th-gen Core i9. It also gained, on average, 10-20 fps at either 1080p or 1440p over the 10th-gen Core i5, where the gen-to-gen gain for the Core i9 was only about 5-10 fps. That alone makes the Core i5-11600K a more attractive option for gaming due to its gen-over-gen performance increase for the price, $419 compared to the new Core i9’s $800+ price tag. But when you compare the Core i9-11900K to the Ryzen 9 5950X, $800 is a steal compared to that $1,000+ Ryzen chip.

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Frames per second

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Intel does have a new way to boost performance on the Core i9-11900K, too, which casts a more attractive light on its gen-to-gen performance. It’s a feature called Adaptive Boost Technology, and its goal is the same as Turbo Boost Max 3.0 and Thermal Velocity Boost — to increase core frequency — but it goes about it in a different way.

Where Turbo Boost Max 3.0 boosts the frequency of only one or two cores at a time, and Thermal Velocity Boost increases the frequency of all cores by 100Mhz only if the CPU temperature is below 70 degrees Celsius, Adaptive Boost Technology will raise the frequency if three or more cores are active and if it can do it within the CPU’s power budget. The first two kick in automatically, but Adaptive Boost needs to be enabled manually in the BIOS for it to take effect. Unfortunately, Adaptive Boost doesn’t seem to be available on anything lower than the new Core i9-11900K. The option to enable it is there with the Core i5-11600K, but I did not see a performance boost in the same games as the i9-11900K.

Unlike my previous experience with the Core i9-10900K, the 11th-gen chip was actually able to top out at 5.3GHz thanks to the Adaptive Boost. (Although, it was able to do the same with it off because the maximum CPU temperature never went over 65 degrees Celsius). Depending on the game and resolution, the Core i9-11900K was able to match the Ryzen 9 5950X performance or overtake it.

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Frames per second

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art

For instance, with Adaptive Boost turned on, the i9-11900K gets the same fps as the Ryzen chip in Shadow of The Tomb Raider at 1080p, but it overtakes the Ryzen chip in Far Cry 5 by 20 fps. On average, the difference between Adaptive Boost on and off is just 7-8 fps, though, so it’s not like you’re getting any major gains there.

And like the first round of game benchmarks, the only difference in performance is at a 1080p resolution. Turning Adaptive Boost on does not change what scores the Core i9-11900K receives in Cinebench, Geekbench 5, Blender, and Handbrake either, although the multi-core score in Cinebench and Geekbench 5 are higher by about 600 points.

Taking all that into consideration…it’s tough to recommend the Core i9-11900K even if you’re upgrading from a 9th-gen or older. The Core i5-11600K is a much better value proposition, and if you want to stick with Intel, I think those building a mid-range PC — especially for the first time — won’t regret the purchase.

If you’re holding out for Intel’s 12th generation of desktop processors, I don’t think you’ll regret that decision either. If you currently have a 10th-gen chip, you should definitely, definitely wait until the next generation at the earliest. Intel recently announced it would actually release a 7nm chip by 2023, so maybe that’ll really happen (let’s just say we’ll believe it when we see it).

But I’ll be honest: If you’re still rocking a Z390 motherboard with Intel’s old socket, take a serious look at AMD’s desktop processors. You’re going to have to get a new motherboard anyway, so might as well get something a little more exciting.

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  • The Core i5-11600K has a better value proposition.
  • Very small, gen-to gen performance gains with the Core i9.
  • The Adaptive Boost Technology only increases the fps in games by a few frames (1080p resolution only) and does nothing for rendering nor transcoding.
  • It feels like Intel is trying to buy as much time as it can until 7nm chips finally arrive.