Intel i9-9900K Review - AMD Pushing Progress

by Michael "SKYMTL" Hoenig     |     October 17, 2018

Understanding The Z390 Platform

We have been hearing whispers about this new Z390 chipset since mid-2017 - even before the Z370 chipset was released - and while you might expect that much development time to lead to something special, the truth is that this latest Z-series chipset is merely a very necessary update over its elderly predecessor.

While the Z370 PCH was the flagship chipset for the 8th Generation Core processors, it certainly wasn't the most modern or fully featured in Intel's arsenal. In fact, since it was essentially a clone of the Z270, it was positively ancient when compared to the other Intel 300-series chipsets, namely the Q370, H370, B360, H310. By virtue of being released later, those 'lower-end' PCH were actually cutting-edge by comparison.

Not only did these newer chipsets finally feature native support for USB 3.1 Gen2 (except the H310), they integrated a portion of Wi-Fi connectivity into the chipset allowing for native 802.11ac Wi-Fi support, they came with Intel's latest Management Engine (ME) firmware, and had a bunch of new low-power mode capabilities. To put a cherry on the sundae, they were also fabricated with a more modern 14nm manufacturing process, instead of 22nm like the Z370 and Z270...and Z170.

With this new Z390 PCH, Intel is simply adding all of the above features to the Z-series, allowing it to finally match the capabilities of all the existing Q/H/B 300-series PCH variants, albeit with the few obvious enthusiast extras like overclocking.

Now it should be mentioned that if none of what you read above (or below) excites you, but you're still interested in one of these new 9th Generation core processors, then you might as well pickup a discounted Z370 motherboard since they fully support these new CPUs once their BIOS has been updated.

At the most fundamental level it must be understood that the new 9th Generation Core processor + Z390 PCH platform offers the same number of PCI-E 3.0 lanes as the previous platform. There are a total of 40 available PCI-E 3.0 lanes, 16 of which originate from the CPU and the remaining 24 from the chipset. Furthemore, the link between the CPU and PCH remains a DMI 3.0 interconnect, which offers bandwidth equivalent to about four PCI 3.0 lanes or roughly 4GB/s.

The processor's lanes are directed towards the two PCI-E x16 graphics card slots (to be divided in either 16x/0x or x8/8x), while the chipset's ample bandwidth is utilized for everything else: USB, SATA, LAN, PCI-E x1/x4 slots, etc. One of the benefits of having this much chipset bandwidth is that you can design a motherboard with more than one high-speed storage interfaces, even though each full-speed M.2 slot requires four PCI-E 3.0 lanes in order to support properly support the latest NVMe or Optane Memory/Optane SSD devices. However, as we have seen, motherboard manufacturers may elect to utilize PCI-E switches in order to disable a few unused SATA ports and/or the PCI-E x1/x4 slots in order to reroute the freed up bandwidth towards a second or even third high-speed M.2 slot. Like on previous mainstream platforms, there is native support for up to six SATA 6Gb/s ports, which support Raid 0/1/5/10 and Intel Rapid Storage Technology.

While the above is mostly old news, what is new is the native USB 3.1 Gen2 connectivity. Whereas both the Z270 and Z370 chipsets have supported up to ten USB 3.0 ports and fourteen USB 2.0 ports - but relied on third-party controllers for higher-speed USB 3.1 Gen2 support - this new Z390 PCH natively supports up to six USB 3.1 Gen2 10Gbps ports. This catapults Intel's enthusiast chipset over AMD's best, since the X470 only natively supports two such high-speed ports.

Another manner in which Intel is one-upping its rival is by integrating wireless connectivity into the chipset. This is not a middle-of-the-road Wi-Fi implementation either, but high-end 2T2R 802.11ac Wave2 MU-MIMO Wi-Fi, which supports 160Mhz channel bandwidth and a maximum theoretical speed of 1733Mbps. There is also support for Bluetooth 5.0, which promises data transfer speeds of up to 2Mbps and a range that is four time greater than Bluetooth 4.2. Intel have been able to achieve this new level of integration by utilizing their Integrated Connectivity (CNVi) architecture, which allowed them to move a portion of the functional blocks required for Wi-Fi onto the Z390 PCH. There still needs to be a Wi-Fi module to house the antenna and PHY, but overall it will be simpler and cheaper for motherboard manufacturers to include wireless connectivity on their motherboards.

There is also an update to Intel's controversial Management Engine (ME) firmware, from version 11 to version 12. While this new update obviously brings forth some security improvements, there is also some new low-power mode capabilities. For example, while your desktop is in a deep sleep state, Intel Smart Connect - in coordination with Windows 10's Modern Standby feature - can download data/update emails without having to wake up the rest of the system. When you're ready to read your emails, the Wake-on-Voice feature will allow you to command your PC to turn on, which is at least partially made possible Intel's improved Smart Sound DSP audio processing technology.

As we mentioned above, although you need to be a giant nerd to notice or care, this new PCH is actually a fair bit smaller than the Z170/Z270/Z370 chipsets since it is manufactured on some variant of Intel's 14nm process. Those previous Z-series models were manufactured on a 22nm process, which evidently wasn't an issue since they all have the same 6W TDP as this latest Z390 offering.

Now since these new Intel 9th Generation Core processors are going to be drop-in compatible with existing Z370 motherboards (via BIOS update), the big question is obviously what motherboards manufacturers are going to do with this new chipset and its associated capabilities to differentiate from the previous motherboard models. To figure that out let's compare and contrast the new ASUS ROG STRIX Z390-E GAMING to its predecessor:

ASUS ROG STRIX Z370-E GAMING vs. STRIX Z390-E - Click on image to enlarge

While the ROG STRIX Z390-E GAMING is a clear evolution of the STRIX Z370-E, we can confidently state that it is a greater departure than the Z270-E to the Z370-E was. Part of this is due to the newfound capabilities of this modern platform, but another aspect is that ASUS have added some really intriguing aesthetic details...and we're not talking about the new all-black theme.

First let's get the superficial out of the way, the PCH heatsink and secondary M.2 slot heatspreader are now two distinct parts, whereas it was a monoblock heatsink on the previous model. Obviously the PCH heatsink looks vastly different as well, and it now features a fabric tag on it which is something we have never seen before. It even has a hidden "Join ROG" message if you flip it upwards.

The rear I/O cover has also been heavily revised. It features integrated RGB LED lighting in both the ROG logo and also in the new extremely unique holographic mirror portion of the cover. It is rather hard to capture the effect properly without having the photographer reflected in the surface, haha.

While the overall layout is largely untouched, the new Z390-E features three instead of four PCI-E x1 slots, which is probably due to the additional USB 3.1 Gen2 connectivity - more on that below - since those high-speed ports need additional bandwidth and that means something needed to get the axe.

The STRIX Z390-E features a 8+2 phase CPU VRM, with eight MOSFETs for the CPU cores and two MOSFETs for the integrated GPU. This is the same as its predecessor, which might surprise those expecting a beefier VRM to handle the eight-core i9-9900K model. However, ASUS have switched to very latest ON Semiconductor NCP302045 MOSFETs, which can not only handle a ton of current, but also feature built-in thermal protection.

Whereas some competitors have been outfitting their upper-tier Z370 and Z390 motherboards with three M.2 slots, ASUS seems content enough to continue with only two. This is not a bad choice by any means, since actually running three M.2 slots with NVMe drives means that you are required to disable a fair bit of other connectivity/expansion slots. On the Z390-E you can have both M.2 slots operating in PCI-E 3.0 x4 mode without losing any of the six native SATA 6Gb/s ports or anything else for that matter.

Click on image to enlarge

While the Z390-E gains two additional high-speed USB 3.1 Gen2 ports on its rear I/O panel - which is obviously one of the highlights of this new chipset - it does lose the Z370-E's angled internal USB 3.0 header, which is where you could usually plug in your cases front-panel USB cable to. ASUS is perhaps betting on the fact that newly released cases are increasingly going to be supporting the USB 3.1 Gen2 header (which you can see below the 24-pin ATX power connector).

Those two antenna jacks are connected to a Wi-Fi module that houses the latest Intel Wireless-AC 9560 controller, which is one of three modern Wi-Fi solutions that are natively supported by this platform. As mentioned above, it is a 2T2R 802.11ac Wi-Fi solution that supports all the latest technology like MU-MIMO and Wave2 (160Mhz channel bandwidth), and a maximum theoretical speed of 1733Mbps. It also supports Bluetooth 5.0, which has significantly greater range and transfer rates than the Bluetooth 4.X standard.

Click on image to enlarge

This new STRIX Z390-E model features a pre-installed fan bracket attached to one of the MOSFET heatsinks - which can be populated by the included 40mm Assistant Fan - whereas the previous Z370-E merely included the bracket in the accessories bundle and came without a fan. While this might seem like an ominous sign, we think that it is a wise choice since no matter how capable the CPU VRM might be, there is no harm in dissipating the heat generated by the power demands of a highly-clocked eight-core processor. Having said that, it will be very interesting to see whether this tiny little fan is quiet enough to warrant using, since such small diameter fans are notorious for being annoying whir.

Click on image to enlarge

Another new addition - one that is proprietary to ASUS - is the Node header. This is a proprietary bi-directional interface that allows ASUS motherboards to communicate with other system components. Specifically, the idea that you will be able to augment products with monitoring and control features via the motherboard's hardware and software. Apparently there is an FSP power supply with temperature monitoring & fan control on the way, as well as an In Win case with an OLED front panel, and likely quite a few other products.

While the MemOK! switch has been found on enthusiast-oriented ASUS motherboards for almost a decade, it always required users to open their case and actually flip the switch whenever they encountered memory-related POST issues. Now with MemOK! II, users can simply leave the switch on and the motherboard will systematically apply three different memory profiles and gradually increases DRAM voltage until the system is able to POST successfully.

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