A few weeks ago Intel launched a new collection of 9th-generation H-series processors for gaming and high-performance laptops, meaning we'll get to see some of those in the latest models as we revisit laptops to see how these new chips stack up.
Intel’s last couple of product lines have been a bit confusing, with multiple code-names and architectures split across different series. Current U-series chips for ultraportable laptops are still branded as 8th-gen and are codenamed Whiskey Lake, while newer H-series chips get a bump up to 9th-gen and form part of Coffee Lake Refresh, the same as current desktop CPUs.
Most of Intel’s 9th-gen laptop parts aren’t particularly exciting and don’t bring much to the table. The Core i5s are still quad core, eight thread parts and the Core i7s are still six core, 12-thread models. We’re still on 14nm with whatever number of pluses we’re up to. The iGPU is also the same, if you care much about it in this sort of form factor.
Where the improvements are coming depends on the CPU. For the Core i5 models, we’re getting very modest clock speed jumps. The 9300H is just 100 MHz higher for base and boost clock, while the 9400H doesn’t even get a base clock increase, just an additional 100 MHz increase to the boost. L3 cache of 8MB stays the same.
For the Core i7s we do get a cache increase from 9MB to 12MB and the 9750H has received the biggest clock jump relative to the popular 8750H: it goes from a 2.2 GHz base and 4.1 GHz boost, to a 2.6 GHz base and 4.5 GHz boost. So that’s a 400 MHz increase across the board. The 9850H is more modest again, with no base clock gain and 300 MHz extra on the boost.
Given the 8750H and now the 9750H are the most commonly used H-series processors, especially for the majority of gaming notebooks, we do find these specification breakdowns interesting. The 9750H sits a lot closer to the 9850H than the corresponding 8th-gen parts, and the 9750H is the only chip to get 10-20% percent clock increases. It looks like Intel has targeted gains for this CPU specifically, knowing how popular it is, to ensure that at least some 9th-gen parts deliver actual performance increases.
With that said, while the 9750H has muscled in on the 9850H’s territory, the 9850H gains a new feature that’s unique to that processor, which Intel calls Partial Overclocking. This just means OEMs can set up to a 5.0 GHz turbo frequency if they want to, depending on the device and its cooling capabilities.
And then of course are the new Core i9 models, which bring 8 cores and 16 threads to laptops to match top Core i9 desktop models. The i9-9980HK can even reach 5.0 GHz, like the 9900K, within a 45W TDP. These eight-core Core i9s replace the single 8th-gen Core i9, which was still a six core part with higher clocks.
While it is interesting to see 8-core CPUs come to laptops in a claimed 45W TDP, Intel state they are targeting “Musclebooks” with these chips. Intel just made up Musclebooks as a product category but essentially they refer to those super chunky beastly gaming laptops and equally hefty workstations models that come with a big price sticker. This leaves the Core i9 as more of a niche CPU rather than an 8-core laptop CPU accessible to all.
Intel Coffee Lake H-Series Core i7 Line-up
The focus of this review is on the Core i7-9750H which is the new mainstream H-series laptop CPU that will be seen in many gaming laptops moving forward. Specifically we want to check out the difference between the 9750H and the 8750H which will be a drop-in replacement or upgrade for same laptop models. With the staggered releases between Nvidia on the GPU side, and Intel on the CPU side, many laptops are available with the same GPU inside but a choice between the 9750H or 8750H.
We can anticipate this isn’t quite like the jump from the Core i7-7700HQ to the i7-8750H where we went from four cores to six cores, so performance gains should be more modest.
A final word on the spec front before digging into some performance stuff, Intel does list the maximum Turbo clock for the 9750H at 4.5 GHz, although this only applies to a single core. With two cores active it drops to 4.4 GHz, then it follows down in 100 MHz increments for each additional active core, down to 4.0 GHz for six cores.
This differs again from the 8750H, which allows 4.1 GHz on up to two cores, 4.0 GHz on up to four cores, then 3.9 GHz on six cores. So when the 9750H is fully utilized on six cores, its maximum turbo clock does end up only 100 MHz higher than 8750H. Something to keep in mind and shows that a good portion of Intel’s improvements have targeted single or low core count usage.
For testing the Core i7-9750H we received two laptops from Gigabyte and MSI. The Gigabyte model is the Aorus 15, which also features a new 240 Hz display but is a little on the loud side with a somewhat annoying cooler noise profile. The second machine is the MSI GE75 Raider, a larger 17-inch laptop. Both occupy that sort of mid-size, mid-tier option in the market, so it’s nice and refreshing not to test a cooling-restricting slim and light the first time around.
Both laptops come equipped with GeForce RTX 2070 laptop GPUs, the full laptop variant not Max-Q. We’re also getting 16GB of dual-channel DDR4-2666 which is the maximum speed the 9750H supports -- no change with these new CPUs towards supporting higher frequencies. Both have 1080p displays as well and fast NVMe SSDs.
The first thing we want to explore, and this is crucial for the rest of the performance section, are power limits and clock speeds. Laptops are a highly restricted form factor so even if Intel gives a CPU the option to run at up to 4.0 GHz across six cores, power limits will almost always prevent the CPU from actually hitting those clocks in long term workloads, unlike fully unleashed desktop systems.
What we’ve seen over the last few years with Intel’s H-series products is that OEMs tend to ignore the actual TDP ratings in favor of higher PL1 and PL2 limits, which pushes up clock speeds. With quad-core Core i7-7700HQ laptops we typically saw PL1, or the longer term turbo limit, sitting around 45W. With the i7-8750H, in many laptops that jumped up to 52W or thereabouts, which is notably higher than the actual 45W TDP, with time limits removed.
We're not going to get into the whole TDP argument about whether this is in-spec or out of spec behaviour but at the end of the day, OEMs felt they could handle the new six-core CPUs in their designs with a higher power limit, and to achieve better performance they allowed it. And with the i7-9750H we’re again seeing around a 52W PL2 limit, although in the MSI model it’s a little higher at around 54W.
PL2 limits have also increased a bit to allow the higher short term turbo frequencies. The i7-9750H test laptops were configured to 80W, compared to 70W for the 8750H. But the real story here is that PL1 limit: given the 9750H is basically the same architecture, built on the same process node with the same core configuration, we can’t really expect higher real world clock speeds within the same power limit.
Cinebench R20 MT CPU Clock Speed Average
And that’s basically what we get in terms of actual clock speeds. The Core i7-8750H in the Gigabyte Aero 15 X9 sits around 3.1 GHz long-term in a Cinebench R20 run, after initially hitting 3.3 GHz. The newer Core i7-9750H in the Gigabyte Aorus 15 sits around 3.1 GHz long term in a Cinebench R20 run, after initially hitting 3.3 GHz. In other words, identical behaviour.
So when we look at Cinebench R20 performance, lo and behold both systems perform roughly the same in the multi-threaded test. The MSI model does clock slightly higher and therefore performs slightly better, but not considerably so. The simple fact is it takes more than simply increasing clock speeds on paper to achieve a real-world performance improvement when every other aspect of the CPU remains the same, including its power limitations. And this is what we’ll see throughout these performance charts.
Here’s another one for Cinebench R15 with a much wider range of systems in the charts. The MSI model performs well in the multi-threaded test but it’s not the fastest system, and gets beaten by an Asus laptop with the i7-8750H. The Gigabyte model is more middle of the pack, it’s not slow, but it’s nothing special.
It is a little more favourable to the MSI model in the single-threaded test where it clocks in 13% faster than the average Core i7-8750H result. That’s where those higher single-core clocks coming to play.
In x264 encoding, the Core i7-9750H laptops perform well in pass 1, but the Gigabyte system falls back to the pack in the second pass. The MSI model is outright fastest but very slightly ahead of the well-performing Asus models, to the tune of one percent. Not exactly the upgrade some would want.
Handbrake is similar. This is a long test that falls almost entirely under the PL1 limit and again, while the MSI model performs well, it’s not the outright fastest system and gets beaten by two Asus models. The Aorus 15 is no faster than Gigabyte’s Aero 15 X9.
Our Premiere benchmark with Lumetri effects, while it does utilize the GPU somewhat, becomes CPU limited after you are running a GTX 1060 or so. So once again we’re in a situation where the MSI model is not the fastest but performs well, while the Gigabyte model is no different to most Core i7-8750H laptops.
You’ve probably seen a chart like this the previous few times: Adobe Photoshop with the CPU-limited Iris Blur effect is a good showing for the 9750H but isn’t ultimately faster than the 8750H.
Finally we see something slightly different in 7-Zip. The two Core i7-9750H laptops sit atop the charts, but only just: the Gigabyte model is 1% faster than the fastest 8750H laptop, while the MSI model fares a little better, slotting in 4% faster. This will hardly sway anyone to a 9th-gen system.
MATLAB doesn’t benefit from the Core i7-9750H over the Core i7-8750H. Same performance depending on which two systems you directly compare.
Here are a few final charts to summarize this whole situation nicely. Here we have the Gigabyte Aorus 15 with its Core i7-9750H pitted against the average Core i7-8750H result. We’re seeing a tiny 2.8 percent performance gain on average, and that evaporates to a performance deficit when compared to one of the fastest Core i7-8750H laptops we’ve tested (Asus Strix Scar II).
The results are a little more favorable for the MSI model: 8 percent faster than the average Core i7-8750H laptop is a strong result and there are particularly good results in Cinebench single-thread and 7-Zip compression. But compare that to a fast Core i7-8750H variant (will depend on a laptop's specific configuration and cooling profile) and that margin is cut to just 4 percent.
Something we haven’t discussed is how the 9750H stacks up against the quad-core Core i7-7700HQ, a common upgrade path for many buyers coming from previous generation gaming laptops. As the Core i7-9750H is very similar to the 8750H, we’re looking at up to 50% gains or higher in some workloads, with an average in this selection of 42 percent.
For gaming, unfortunately we didn't have a 8750H laptop also equipped with a RTX 2070 to make a proper apples-to-apples comparison, however our impression so far is that like with the productivity workloads, there haven’t been any progress in performance when you are CPU limited. CPU-heavy games like Hitman 2 aren’t faster than expected and the 9750H doesn’t have noticeably higher clock behaviour than the 8750H in games. At best we anticipate a ~5% improvement depending on the laptop model, but there are many other variables at stake here. Having, say, only single-channel memory will make a larger impact than having the 8750H over the 9750H.
Looking at the spec sheet, we can't act surprised by this outcome. The foundations for the new Core i7-9750H are identical to the Core i7-8750H, but with Intel showing up to 400 MHz increases in base clocks and boost clocks – which admittedly drop to as low as 100 MHz when looking at the full clock table – we were expecting a little more. And we think a lot of buyers might be expecting more as well, hence the point of this review. The reality is we didn't find the Core i7-9750H to be definitively faster than the Core i7-8750H in real world implementations. The two CPUs are about the same, and at best the 9750H is slightly faster if you get a favorable match-up between two laptops. But it might also be slightly slower, as evidenced by our benchmarks.
Bottom line, there’s not much difference between the 8750H and 9750H. So if an 8750H system with otherwise equal specs is cheaper than a new 9750H system, you should pick the previous-gen model. You could argue it’s a bit of a pointless product and we'd have been fine continuing on with the same performance from the trusty old 8750H.
But that doesn't make it a bad product. If you find a Core i7-9750H laptop at a good price it should be as good as the typical 8750H system and will definitely provide a big performance jump over 7th-gen laptops or older. But it’s not something you’d upgrade to from an 8th-gen Core i7 and you really shouldn’t believe it’s faster just based on the spec sheet. At least with the way OEMs implement these processors these days.