It’s always tempting to upgrade your PC with shiny new silicon, and buying a new processor is a sure-fire way to give your system a boost.
That’s great, but it’s confusing too – Intel produces dozens of processors with different prices and specifications. You might also wonder which Core i chip to get in a new laptop.
They’re mostly split into three ranges. The general rule is easy: Core i3 chips are cheaper but weaker, Core i5 parts are mid-range, and Core i7 products are the most powerful mainstream options – but also the most expensive.
Don’t fret if your budget won’t stretch beyond Core i3: those chips are still ample for day-to-day computing tasks. Core i5 parts are more capable, with the power to handle a broader range of situations. And then, at the top of the stack, are Core i7 processors – chips suited to high-end work and gaming.
Intel’s latest chips are form its 9th-generation of modern CPUs. They use an architecture called Coffee Lake, which was also used for 8th-generation chips.
For this new range, Intel has improved clock speeds and reconfigured the arrangement of cores across the range. They offer a small improvement over 8th-generation chips, but not a sea-change. Still, they’re the parts you should be considering for new machines.
Intel has released 9th-generation parts for desktops and laptops. The range hierarchy is the same, no matter the form factor – Core i3 for entry-level, Core i5 for mid-range and Core i7 for high-end. It will be the same for 10th-generation chips too. On laptops, though, chips will generally be slower and they’ll sometimes have fewer cores.
It’s a lot to get your head around – so here are the core concepts.
Core i3 vs i5 vs i7: What processor do I need?
There’s a lot to consider when thinking about processors but, happily, there are firm conclusions that can be drawn about which chips are right for your rig or new laptop.
Core i3 chips are good for everyday computing. If you run web browsers, Office applications, media software and low-end games, one of these will be ample – but don’t expect a Core i3 part to handle content creation, serious photo-editing or video work. It’ll slow you down tougher games too.
Core i5 parts are better for most of these tasks. They will handle mainstream photo work and video editing, and they’ll be better for gaming. Choose one of these chips if you need a machine that’ll handle anything bar the toughest gaming and productivity tasks.
If you do want to run 4K games, handle tough creative applications or run intensive productivity tools, though, you’ll need a Core i7 chip alongside a dedicated graphics card. They’re superb, but expensive, and overkill for many users.
The same rules apply to laptops and desktop chips, although laptop users should pay more attention to low-power chips if they want better battery life.
No matter which chip you end up choosing, remember to check the core count, clock speeds and the cache. Don’t forget to consider your budget and what you actually want to do with your new CPU, too.
Also remember that a top-end Core i3 chip will often outpace an entry-level Core i5 part, and the peak Core i5 will sometimes beat the cheaper Core i7 CPUs. If you’re looking for clock speed rather than increased core counts, that’s an easy way to save some cash.
We'll discuss the Core i9 later after talking you through elements of the processor including clock speeds, Turbo Boost and cache.
How many cores do I need – and what’s happened to Hyper-Threading?
These days – and for the last few years – you won’t find any Intel Core i3 processors with just two cores (aka dual-core).
Now, instead, Intel’s affordable Core i3 chips all have four cores (aka quad-core). That means that you get more multi-tasking versatility and multi-threaded ability when handling basic computing tasks – so there’s more speed across the board than older dual-core chips.
The rest of Intel’s range has been improved, too. Core i5 chips now have six cores. That bodes well for tougher work software and for running lots of applications at once.
Top-tier Core i7 parts include eight cores – so you get even more power to handle demanding software and multiple apps simultaneously. That’s an improvement on the six cores included in previous Core i7s.
So, no matter which chip you buy, you’re getting enough cores to handle day-to-day computing. You only need to look at more cores if you want to run tougher applications – like high-end games, photo-editing tools or video software.
Previous generations of Core i3 and i7 processors relied on something called Hyper-Threading. It’s a technique that allows each physical core to work on two tasks at once.
It made sense on chips with fewer cores because it was a shortcut to better multi-tasking ability. However, Hyper-Threaded cores are never as effective as proper physical cores – and we’re getting more and more of those these days.
Combine that with the fact that not many consumer applications actually need the number of threads that Hyper-Threading sometimes supported – and it’s easy to see why it’s now a little redundant.
And, so, it’s gone – on mainstream desktop chips at least. Instead of Hyper-Threading, Intel’s latest Core i3, i5 and i7 chips now have enough improved physical cores to handle single-threaded tasks and mainstream multi-threaded workloads
On the desktop, Hyper-Threading is currently only included on Intel’s Core i9 chips. Those processors are expensive, with loads of cores, and they’re designed for professional workloads – like creative tasks and workstation applications. For general consumers, they’re just not relevant.
Hyper-threading remains more prevalent in laptops, where Core i5 and i7 parts still use this technology.
Clock Speeds, Cache & Turbo Boost
The core situation is easier than ever, then – you’re going to get either four, six or eight cores, and there’s no need to worry about Hyper-Threading.
Elsewhere, consider the speeds and cache of any new CPU. Higher speeds mean computing tasks are completed faster, and a larger L3 cache also improves performance.
There are two speeds to consider: the base speed and the ‘Turbo Boost’ speed.
Turbo Boost allows processors to dynamically increase their speeds if more computing power is needed – and if the CPU has the performance and thermal headroom to spare.
For the first time, Intel’s Core i3 chips now include Turbo Boost. The latest Core i3 chips range in speed from 3.6- to 4GHz, and their Turbo speeds range between 4.2- and 4.6GHz. They’ve got either 6- or 8MB of L3 cache.
Core i5 chips have base speeds that range between 2.9- and 3.7GHz, with Turbo speeds between 4.1- and 4.6GHz. They’ve got 9MB of L3 cache.
Core i7 parts are the most powerful. Their base speeds range between 3- and 3.6GHz and Turbo peaks sit between 4.7- and 4.9GHz. They’ve got 12MB of L3 cache.
What about graphics?
The graphics core used in 9th-generation CPUs is called UHD Graphics 630, and it’s nearly identical across all of Intel’s CPUs – at the high end they run a tiny bit quicker, but that’s it.
Don’t expect much from Intel’s integrated graphics. These GPUs will run Windows and handle basic media duties, like YouTube and 1080p video playback – and they support 4K monitors and 4K video. They can also run three displays at once.
However, UHD Graphics 630 chips can’t run games aside from extremely low-end titles – think browser-based games and stuff like Hearthstone at low resolutions. It’ll only cope with very basic photo-editing, and it won’t handle video work.
If you’re wanting a laptop that will handle gaming, look for one with a dedicated GPU like an Nvidia MX250 or similar.
The Intel 9th-Generation range
Intel’s 9th-generation ranges include loads of different desktop processors, but the majority of users should only concern themselves with a few key chips.
The most affordable Core i3 chip is the i3-9100. It’s a great starting point for well-balanced, everyday computing, and it only costs £90.
The other key Core i3 chip is the i3-9350K, which costs £139. It’s faster than other Core i3 chips, and it’s the only one that can be overclocked. That’s great if you want to do tweaking on a budget.
The i5-9400 is the most affordable Core i5 chip, at £180, and it includes six cores and has a Turbo speed of 4.1GHz. If you want to step up in the range, the i5-9600 peaks at 4.6GHz – and the i5-9600K is also unlocked for overclocking. Those parts cost £219 and £230.
The two key Core i7 chips are the i7-9700 and the i7-9700K. They run at 3GHz and 3.6GHz, and peak at 4.7GHz and 4.9GHz. They cost £339 and £380.
That ‘K’ suffix always means that a CPU is unlocked for overclocking. Some desktop chips also use the ‘F’ suffix, which means it’s a cheaper chip without integrated graphics. Chips with the ‘T’ suffix are low-power options – handy for small or silent systems.
In laptops, standard chips have the ‘H’ suffix, and ‘U’-branded chips are low-power alternatives.
What about Core i9 processors?
The Core i9 range contains Intel’s most powerful consumer chips. These parts are overkill for the vast majority of users, though. They have between ten and fourteen cores, and all have Hyper-Threading. They’ve got Turbo speeds that sometimes go beyond 5GHz, and huge amounts of cache.
Core i9 chips are designed for creatives who need power for high-end photo or video work. They’re also ideal for design tools, CAD applications, huge databases and other strenuous work software.
In short, Core i9 chips are not suitable for consumer PCs that just don’t exploit the power on offer. The price reflects that – Core i9 chips cost at least £450. You find many laptops with a Core i9.
Read more: What is a CPU?