For the longest time, Intel's had it made in the shade in the CPU market, owning around 90% of the consumer market and 99% of the server market in 2016. Then along came AMD's Ryzen family of multi-core processors, and the walls started crumbling down. First on the list was Intel's mid-range quad-core family, made immediately irrelevant. In short order, AMD released its Epyc datacenter processors and its Threadripper high-end desktop processors, and Intel was starting to look like the underdog that it had been beating relentlessly all these years. Suddenly, with the release of Intel's "8th-Generation" (more on that nomenclature later) processors, Intel's striking back, like the Empire it is.
So how did we get here? Let's go back a dozen years. In 2005, AMD was obliterating Intel at every corner. Its dual-core desktop processors made Intel's patched together dual-core Pentium IVs look like child's play, and AMD had a huge lead in server-class processors as well with its Opteron line. But in 2006, Intel came back with a vengeance, releasing the dual-core "Conroe" family, headlined by the ~$350 Core 2 Duo E6600. It beat up on AMD's Athlon X2 processors. Then in 2007 Intel stuck two of these together to make the legendary Core 2 Quad Q6600, and it was all over. AMD was down for the count. And yet Intel was relentless for five years, producing hit after hit, first with its x58-based high-end desktop chips, like the amazing four-core, eight-thread Core i7-920, released in late 2008, and then capping off a successful half-decade of products with the peerless "Sandy Bridge" family, whose members included the still-competitive Core i5-2500K and Core i7-2600K. Released in early 2011, they provided the last great generational leap in performance from an Intel platform.
Until today. Intel's 8th-gen processors, code-named "Coffee Lake,"are a breath of fresh air from the sleeping giant, and we're sure that if it hadn't been for AMD's shocking resurgence, Intel would have been content slumbering for another half-decade. But let's be clear here about what Intel has actually done. It has dropped prices. Nothing is revolutionary about the six new chips announced today (the Core i3-8100, Core i3-8350K, Core i5-8400, Core i5-8600K, Core i7-8700, and Core i7-8700K). These chips are all based on the Skylake design released in August 2015, which itself had been a rush-job to patch over the botched release of Intel's Broadwell line in 2014 (and by botched, we mean aborted).
So what exactly are these six processors? Well, let's get specific: three of these processors are actually available today, and three are being paper launched, and will likely begin shipping at the end of October. Let's start with the chips that you can actually buy today:
- Core i3-8100 3.6GHz Quad Core ($117) - Intel's first true quad-core available for less than $180, this is for all practical purposes a rebranded Core i5-7600, which is still selling today for $218. Folks, this is a serious deal!
- Core i3-8350K 4GHz Quad-Core, Unlocked for Overclocking ($179) - Nothing more than a rebranded Core i5-7600K, which is selling for $230 today, this is a great deal, but not mind-blowing like the Core i3-8100.
- Core i5-8400 2.8GHz Hexa-Core with 4GHz Turbo ($187) - This chip has no clear analog in previous designs, but the closest match is the Core i7-7700, a quad-core with Hyperthreading, which is selling for $281 today. In our testing, Hyperthreaded virtual cores provide 50% of the performance boost of an actual physical core, so a 4-core Hyperthreaded processor replicated a six-core, non-Hyperthreaded experience. Thus, you're getting a nearly $100 discount for equivalent performance.
Now, these are all very interesting processors, but what enthusiasts are really waiting for are the big guns:
- Core i5-8600K 3.6GHz Hexa-Core with 4.3GHz Turbo, Unlocked for Overclocking ($260) - for all intents and purposes, this is a match for the Core i7-7700K, which is selling today for $335. That's a $65 price drop (although the 7700K was $300 just a few days ago).
- Core i7-8700 3.2GHz Hexa-Core with 4.6GHz Turbo and Hyperthreading ($315) - there's never been anything quite like this CPU from Intel, as it's extremely powerful, but can't be overclocked. Even in its locked form, however, it matches Intel's Core i7-7800X, which is $363 right now and requires very expensive X299 motherboards.
- Core i7-8700K 3.7GHz Hexa Core with 4.7GHz Turbo and Hyperthreading, Unlocked for Overclocking (retail $360, marked up to $380 on backorder) - the fastest consumer CPU Intel has ever released, this decimates the Core i7-7800X thanks to its much higher Turbo clock and overclocking limits (5GHz is easily achieveable, while the 7800X could barely hit 4.5GHz). The 7800X, which was released just a few short months ago (literally in June!) for $390, is now entirely obsolete. The 8700K is 20% faster across the board, whether in stock form or overclocked.
To be clear, Intel probably isn't happy having to provide more performance for around the same amount of money, because over the past few years, it has been able to raise prices every time it raised performance. So what it's doing to recoup some of that loss is staggering its chipset release schedule. Through 2017 and into early 2018, all you'll be able to buy are high-end Z370-based motherboards, which typically carry a premium of at least $30-$50 over what a theoretical "H370" motherboard would cost, and offer just two benefits: overclocking support and dual-GPU SLI capability, neither of which will benefit the mainstream market much, if at all (only the three "K" processors can actually be overclocked). Making matters worse is that despite these chips being based on the same socket 1151 design that dates back to 2015, they actually require a tweaked socket layout. Oddly, Intel has forgotten how it typically designates a layout change when the physical size hasn't changed: it would use a version number. This is in essence socket 1151-v2. Unfortunately, Intel has seen fit to call these socket 1151 motherboards for 8th-generation processors, which is a mouthful, and a garbled one at that.
Overall, despite the clearly-rushed release of these 8th-gen processors, which are actually more like 6th-gen processors that have either had cores added or prices dropped, this is still the most significant CPU release from Intel since 2011. We're going to be taking a close look at whether Intel has earned the right to win back some market share lost to AMD over the past 6 months (by our estimates, about 20% of the desktop market). Certainly, for buyers of PCs in the $1,500-$2,500 range, the new Core i5 and Core i7 processors are worth waiting for, as they are big steps up from the Intel processors we'd been recommending in that price range previously. As for the Core i3 and Core i5 processors available today, they are also very compelling, especially the Core i3-8100 (at least once H370 motherboards appear next year). The 8350K and 8400, however, may have a tough time winning back marketshare from the AMD Ryzen 5 family of six-core, six-thread processors, especially given the much higher motherboard prices.
As always, feel free to refer to our Do-it-Yourself PC Buyer's Guides for the latest recommendations at every pricepoint.