Intel recently launched its Z390 mainstream desktop platform and with it came the 9th generation of its Core i-series of processors headlined by the Core i9-9900K. In conjunction with the launch of a new range of ASUS, ROG, Strix, and Prime Z390 platform motherboards, the ROG team took up the challenge to push the performance of the new platform as far as possible, inviting an ensemble of the world’s most talented overclockers to our headquarters in Taipei for a week of seriously extreme overclocking. The outcome was 10 new performance world records and 11 global first places in the eight core category. In this article we go behind the curtain and see how the record-breaking scores were obtained.
Chart reproduced courtesy of HWBOT.org
Intel Core i9-9900K: the new mainstream top dog
Intel's 9th Gen lineup features the Core i5-9600K, Core i7-9700K, and the flagship Core i9-9900K, the company's first mainstream desktop part to boast eight cores and 16 threads. It arrives with higher turbo frequencies that stretch the legs of Intel's Coffee Lake architecture further than previous generations. In single and dual-thread operation the i9-9900K boosts to a milestone 5GHz, and it's capable of hitting an impressive 4.7GHz when all eight cores are engaged.
From an enthusiast and overclocking perspective, it is interesting to note that the Core i9-9900K uses a STIM (soldered thermal interface material) between die and integrated heatsink (IHS), a manufacturing decision that negates the need for de-lidding and thermal interface replacement in extreme system builds and overclocking scenarios. We were keen to see what the new chip could achieve in the hands of overclockers armed with the ROG Maximus XI Gene motherboard and a healthy supply of cryogenic cooling.
ROG Maximus XI Gene: Z390 weaponized
The ROG Maximus XI Gene packs a resolute VRM and an optimized 2-DIMM memory layout that gives overclockers the edge in CPU and memory overclocking. With a proud ROG legacy that stretches back over a decade, the Maximus XI Gene has extreme overclocking in its DNA, incorporating a host of specialist hardware features that we call the Overclockers Toolkit.
Extreme overclockers can engage the LN2 Mode jumper and gain access to the Slow Mode switch to bypass tricky benchmark passages, or use the Pause Switch to fine tune settings in mid-flight. Other examples include Probit measuring points that assist with accurate voltage readings, and a MemOK button to aid system memory training. In short, the Maximus XI Gene is equipped to give extreme overclockers their best shot at glory.
Assembling the team
The secret to sporting success lies in having the best players on your team. ASUS is fortunate to have the support of several overclockers around the world who share our passion for leading edge performance. In the weeks prior to launch, we invited five such overclockers to our office in Taiwan with one objective: to smash as many world records as possible.
Clockwise from top left to right: Stavros, Elmor, rsannino, alex@ro, der8auer, fredyama
In-house overclockers Jon Sandstrom (Elmor), Peter Tan (Shamino), and TL (Coolice) were joined by popular YouTuber Roman Hartung (der8auer) of Germany, as well as Alex Nedelcu (alex@ro) from Romania, Italian number one Roberto Sannino (rsannino), Greece’s Stavros Savvopoulos (OGS), and the legendary Fumiyoshi Yamamoto (Fredyama) from Japan. Each member of the team was selected with a specific skill set in mind. Fredyama is a master in the historically relevant SuperPi test, Stavros is an expert in legacy 3D benchmarks, and Alex and Roberto are virtually peerless in modern 2D benchmarks such as Cinebench and GPUPI for CPU.
The journey begins before the team arrives and involves hundreds of hours of preparation. TL and Peter started by binning each of the Core i9-9900K CPUs at our disposal. Binning involves first testing and noting CPU voltages, followed by performance testing at subzero temperatures using a specially designed LN2 mounting pot that is optimized for the task (it's basically a lower mass pot that allows for faster temperature shifts and more expedient binning). Binning CPUs is an essential tactic that ensures the best possible outcome further down the line.
An ROG Maximus XI Gene, prepped and ready for subzero overclocking
Preparation is not just about binning CPUs, though. It also involves motherboard preparation. Around 10 ASUS Maximus XI Gene motherboards were stripped of their heatsinks and coated with moisture-resistant spray paint, followed by a layer of Vaseline. This prevents moisture from penetrating the PCB, an inevitable consequence of exposure to cryogenic temperatures. Absorbent towels are then folded and pressed into place around the CPU mounting area and memory slots to further prevent moisture build-up. We readied the ROG Strix RTX 2080 Ti cards for sub-zero action by removing their coolers to create space for the specialized GPU cooling pots mounted directly onto the cards. Again, we insulated the card’s PCB to prevent moisture penetration. Once the hardware was prepped, it was time to start testing.
Testing the waters
With the team assembled and the hardware prepared, we moved onto a phase of discovery and adventure. Each new processor platform arrives with its own distinct and often quite idiosyncratic qualities. A major part of the job description is to proverbially prod and poke the new silicon to reveal its advantages, its fallibilities and ultimately, its bugs. Competitive overclocking often involves devising workarounds and solutions to odd, unexpected problems that occur once we enter the realm of sub-zero cooling.
After pushing the new CPU, chipset, and GPU using LN2, a more intimate level of knowledge is revealed; voltage settings, memory timings, optimal temperature ranges, plus details regarding OS optimizations and driver choices – dozens of small details that can make a massive difference to the eventual score produced.
Extreme overclockers use LN2 (liquid nitrogen) to remove thermal constraints from the performance equation. CPUs and GPUs will get exponentially hotter as you raise frequencies, apply more volts, and up the performance of the chip. LN2 drops your hardware to temperatures of around -190 degrees Celsius. To move beyond this, your cryogenic adventure will require a chapter using Liquid Helium, a substance which has a theoretical temperature of -268.9 degrees Celsius, the lowest boiling point of any of the known elements.
Several hands on deck helping to optimize the vital moment when the LHe is engaged.
Working with cryogenic substances like LN2 can seem to be a somewhat dangerous endeavor. In reality however, nitrogen in both its liquid and gaseous forms is quite inert, accounting for 78% of the air that we breathe. LN2 overclocking is safe as long as you follow some basic safety procedures. In most regions around the globe, acquiring LN2 doesn’t break the bank either, which is why it is widely used for extreme overclocking.
Liquid helium is another beast entirely, requiring some genuine expertise during handling. It’s also substantially more expensive to acquire, demanding specialist equipment that includes a delivery arm with sufficient insulation to withstand temperatures of up -270 degrees Celsius. With several sessions under their belt, Elmor, Shamino, and TL have mastered the art of handling and getting the most from liquid helium in benching sessions.
Having spent several days testing the performance of the Core i9 9900K in specific benchmarks using LN2, it’s time to find that extra edge using LHe and the lower temps it offers. Considering the high price of LHe and speed at which it burns up, it makes sense to first take the rig as a far as possible using LN2. Once the CPU is cooled to -190 Celsius threshold, LHe is used to take temperatures down to around -230 degrees. From here it’s possible to push clocks even higher and improve our previous best scores.
Several of the new world record scores were achieved during these brief LHe sessions. A 100-liter canister of LHe can provide less than thirty minutes of constant pouring, which means you had better know what you’re doing when the moment arrives. Having seasoned veterans of competitive live overclocking contests in your ranks means having steady, capable hands in that crucial window of opportunity. Alex@ro and rsannino are two of the most decorated competitive Overclockers you will find active today, with a proven track record of keeping a steady head when stress levels are at their highest.
der8auer's World Record with i9-9900K
To learn more about overclocking the Core i9-9900K on air and water, plus footage from the LHe session at ASUS HQ in Taipei, check out this video from Roman ‘der8auer’ Hartung: