Intel unveiled its full range of 11th-generation desktop processors today, codenamed Rocket Lake S, which are due to debut on March 30th, 2021. That release date is just two weeks from today, which is also when you'll be able to read reviews of the new hardware from Digital Foundry and other sterling outfits around the world.
The Blue Team is heralding up to a 19 per cent improvement in single-core performance (specifically, instructions per clock or IPC), up to 50 per cent better integrated graphics performance (thanks to Intel's new Xe graphics architecture) and support for PCIe 4.0 (allowing Intel to finally match AMD with support for high-speed SSDs). There are also new deep learning capabilities that should accelerate certain workloads, AV1 decoding and some interesting new overclocking features we'll get into later.
We'll be testing two chips to start, the Core i9 11900K and the Core i5 11600K, representing the top and mid-range options from Intel's new stack, on a Z590 motherboard - although Intel's new chips will also work on Z490 and H470 motherboards that have received a BIOS update to add support for the new CPUs, as both 10th-gen and 11th-gen CPUs use the same LGA 1200 socket. As well as these two models arriving soon at Digital Foundry's Bristol HQ, the full lineup incorporates some 19 11th-gen processors - not even mentioning the 11 refreshed 10th-gen parts and Pentium Gold processors that we won't be covering in this article. Here's how the whole family looks - note that the prices listed are for lots of 1000, so retail prices may be a few notes higher.
|Single/All Core Turbo
To keep this chart to a manageable size, note that there are asterisks(*) to denote processors which have a corresponding 'F' version, which comes without integrated graphics but costs slightly less - eg the 11900KF. We have also used daggers (†) to indicate processors with corresponding 'T' versions, which operate at a highly reduced 35W TDP and lower clock speeds, intended for use in all-in-one or other small form factor desktops - e.g. the 11900T. As usual, the 'K' suffix denotes an unlocked (and therefore overclockable) processor.
The big news with motherboards this time around is that Intel is finally allowing non Z-series motherboards to support memory overclocking. This means that you can actually run a 3600MHz or 4000MHz RAM kit at its rated XMP speeds on a B560 or H570 board, rather than being restricted to the official platform limit (which this time is 3200MHz for most high-end CPUs, up from 2933MHz on 10th-gen Core). AMD has long allowed unrestricted memory overclocking on even its budget boards, so it's great to see Intel adopt a similar position - as being restricted to 2933MHz and even lower values on past Intel generations meant that Intel systems based around a B-series or H-series board were leaving a lot of performance on the table in CPU-bound scenarios.
Dedicated graphics card performance should also be boosted on 11th-gen systems, as Resizeable BAR support has been added. This technology, also known as Smart Access Memory with AMD graphics cards, allows processors to access all available video memory directly, rather than going through a 256MB I/O buffer. This can improve performance by up to 15 per cent, depending on the game, graphics card and resolution, so it's good to see this feature as standard going forward. (Note that Z490 motherboards with 10th-gen processors can also be updated with a new BIOS to support this feature; we've been testing Resizeable BAR on a Z490 board with a Core i9 10900K, so you don't necessarily need an 11th-gen CPU and 500-series motherboard to access the feature.)
There are also some new overclocking tools available for enthusiasts. You can now set RAM frequency in Windows, rather than needing to reboot into the BIOS, which could be handy for more quickly finding a stable frequency. You can also choose between "Gear 1" and "Gear 2" modes, which essentially allow the memory controller to run either at a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio, potentially allowing some performance gains if your RAM can run at a higher frequency but the processor's integrated memory controller can't keep up. You can also set separate offsets for AVX2 and AVX512 workloads, as these tend to draw a ton of extra power, potentially leading to instability; the offsets allow you to essentially downclock the CPU just for these instruction sets so that thermals and power consumption remain at your preferred level. It's also possible to disable AVX instructions from running entirely.
We'll have to wait until the end of the month before we can publish performance numbers, but it's worth looking at Intel's claims in the meantime. At 1080p and high settings, the 11900K shows a 13 per cent improvement over the 10900K in Total War Three Kingdoms, nine per cent in Gears 5, eight per cent in Grid and 14 per cent in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. Unsurprisingly, Intel has also claimed victories against the Ryzen 9 5900X in all four games too, with around a 10 per cent frame-rate advantage in Total War and Flight Sim and closer to half that in Gears and Grid. Intel also shared a comparison of the 11600K and 10600K, with the newer chip seeing a 16 per cent gain in Total War and Gears, with a more modest seven per cent improvement in Grid and Flight Sim.
So there we have it - a whole new generation of Intel processors, again produced using that familiar 14nm++ process, with elements backported from their 10nm parts. This has unlocked a significant uplift in single-core performance to offset the reduced core count in the Core i9 parts. Combined with stronger integrated graphics and some much-needed changes for the new 500-series motherboards, and it's clear that this is a pretty sizeable release.
It's also plain to see the effect that the continued success of AMD's Ryzen processors has had on the CPU landscape, and it'll be fascinating to see whether Intel will be able to reclaim any lost ground with its 11th-gen parts. We look forward to testing these processors ourselves to let you know exactly how they perform, so stay tuned.