Intel's 13th-gen CPUs are hot, hungry, loaded with cores

X86 giant's 24-core i9 doubles as a space heater

Intel doubled down on "more power is better" with the launch of its 13th-gen Core processors at its Innovation event this week. With a 253W thermal design power (TDP) for its latest i9 and i7 desktop processors, water cooling might as well be a requirement.

Even Intel's consumer-focused i5 now has a 180W TDP. That's 10W more than rival AMD's flagship Ryzen 9 7950X, announced late last month.

However, for all that power and heat, Intel has seemingly managed to maintain its frequency lead and claim a core-count victory over the house of Zen. With this generation, code-named Raptor Lake, Intel has given its enthusiast-class desktop chips a healthy frequency boost while substantially upping core counts across the board.

The company's flagship i9 13900K features 24 cores and 32 threads with at least one of them capable of hitting 5.8GHz. With the extra wattage, additional cores, and architectural improvements introduced in this generation, Intel says the i9 delivers a 15 percent single-core and 41 percent multicore performance improvement compared to last year's 12900K.

To this end, Intel released flurry of cherry-picked internal benchmarks that show its new chips besting the two-year-old 5950X and going toe-to-toe with AMD's SRAM-stacked 5800X-3D in a selection of games and productivity apps. However, thanks to proximity to the Ryzen 7000 refresh, Intel conveniently avoided a direct comparison to AMD's next-gen chips.

Intel says performance and efficiency gains are driven by architectural improvements made to its Raptor Cove cores and refinements to its 10nm SuperFIN manufacturing process. This mostly boils down to large L2 and L3 caches and a lowered voltage-frequency curve that Intel says allowed it to achieve higher clocks.

These architectural enhancements also extend to Intel's 16-core i7 13700K and 14-core i5 13600K parts, which, in addition to a 200-400MHz max-frequency boost, have seen the number of efficiency cores doubled to eight. In many respects, Intel has shifted its lineup down, with the 13700K bearing more similarities to last year's i9 than the prior i7.

Here's a full breakdown of the SKUs:

  • Core i9 13900K: 8P/16E cores, 32 threads, with a max boost clock of 5.8GHz, a TDP of 253W, 68MB of total cache, and UHD 770 graphics. $589
  • Core i7 13700K: 8P/8E cores, 24 threads, with a max boost clock of 5.4GHz, a TDP of 253W, 54MB of total cache, and UHD 770 graphics. $409
  • Core i5 13600K: 6P/8E cores, 20 threads, with a max boost clock of 5.1GHz, a TDP of 181W, 44MB of total cache, and UHD 770 graphics. $319

Intel also offers all three SKUs as KF variants without onboard graphics for $564 for the i9, $384 for the i7, and $294 for the i5.

An AMD, Intel role reversal

The launch represents something of a role reversal for Intel and AMD. For many generations, AMD offered more cores, albeit often at lower frequencies, while Intel claimed the clock speed crown. This time around, Intel not only offers more cores across the board but does so at slightly higher frequencies. Intel's 24-core flagship beats out AMD's 16-core Ryzen 9 7950X in single-core boost clocks by 100MHz.

However, that's not the full story. AMD's chips still feature more performance cores capable of high 5GHz clocks than Intel's.

As a quick refresher, Intel's 12th-gen parts saw the chipmaker adopt a big-little core architecture, with efficiency cores tasked with running the operating system and background tasks, while hyperthreaded performance cores are dedicated to running user workloads or games. The architecture has long been popularized in smartphones and Arm-based computers that need to balance high performance and long battery life, but it's only recently made its way to the x86 arena.

Intel's 13900K may have 24 cores, but only eight of those are performances cores. By comparison, AMD's 7950X features 16 cores, all capable of hitting 5.7GHz, though likely not at the same time.

Frequency and core count are only two metrics, and it remains to be seen how Intel's architectural and process refinements will stack up against AMD's 7000-series parts, which also benefit from both a process shrink to TSMC's 5nm and a bevy of architectural and cache improvements.

Where's my 6GHz chip?

While Intel didn't say whether the company would release a follow-up to its enthusiast 12900KS SKU, the lack of a previously teased 6GHz Raptor Lake part seems to indicate one may be in the works.

With that said, during a press briefing, Intel claimed its Raptor Lake parts could top 8GHz — when drowned in a ready supply of liquid nitrogen.

And unlike AMD, which was uncharacteristically quiet on the topic of overclocking during its Ryzen 7000 desktop launch last month, Intel appears to be leaning into its enthusiast customer base. This includes new overclocking functionality built into the chipmaker's Extreme Tuning Utility designed to enable "one-click" overclocks for those new to the hobby.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. Many motherboard manufacturers have for years bundled similar functionality into their UEFI BIOSes as a value add. But it's interesting that Intel is being quite so enthusiastic.

New today: Check out The Next Platform on Intel's efforts to broaden its FPGA line-up.

AMD has also offered similar functionality in its Ryzen Master software for some time. However, the feature doesn't actually overclock the chip in a traditional sense, and instead tweaks the parameters of AMD's boost algorithm to achieve up to 200MHz higher clock speeds, in exchange for higher temps and power consumption.

While it's difficult to tell what switches and knobs Intel's auto-overclocking features actually tweak, in demos it appears to be tuning the voltage-frequency curve, enabling customers to push voltages up to achieve higher frequencies.

However, given the already high TDPs commanded by these chips, we recommend investing in a 280mm or 360mm closed-loop liquid cooler or custom water loop if you plan on pushing Intel's 13th-gen chips beyond stock settings.

If there's one area where Intel already has AMD beat, it's on price. The company's 13900K comes in at $589 or $564 if you forgo the onboard graphics. That makes Intel's flagship 15-20 percent less expensive on the high end compared to AMD's $699 7950X hardware.

The cost delta is even larger when you consider Intel is maintaining backwards compatibility with its 600-series motherboard chipsets and DDR4 memory support for this generation.

The chips will be available in mid-October and launch alongside a bevy of Z790 chipset motherboards. ®

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