Intel Core i5 vs. i7 processors

If Core i5 CPUs are great for most people, do you really need a Core i7?

Intel’s Core i5 and i7 CPUs are still the most popular processors you can buy — and for good reason. But what’s the difference between them? Like most computer components, there are dozens of models at each tier to choose from, and it can get a little overwhelming.

It’s worth noting before we get started that we’re talking specifically about Intel’s 9th-generation and 8th-generation “Coffee Lake” chips here. A lot of the information applies elsewhere, but the newer chips tend to provide noticeable features and performance improvements over previous generations. You won’t save a lot of money buying CPUs older than these generations and most PC builders and laptop buyers will want to stay away from earlier Core i5 and Core i7 offerings.

Should you buy a Core i5 or a Core i7?

dell xps 13 2018 screen corelogo2
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

For most people, a Core i5, like the 8400, is going to be the most sensible choice — especially since the latest-generation i5s are typically comparable to the previous one’s i7s.

While there are a lot of factors in determining overall system performance, a Core i5 processor won’t usually end up bottlenecking your day-to-day performance. Most people, including gamers, will find a Core i5 perfectly adequate.

A Core i7 CPU, like the 9700K, makes sense only for users who don’t mind paying a premium for more power — or for users who often run demanding software like AAA video games at high framerates, perform video editing, or render 3D objects. If the best performance is what you’re looking for, it’s Core i7. That is unless you want to bump up to Core i9 (see below).

Intel Core i7 on Amazon

Core i5 vs. Core i7 on the desktop

best graphics card for gaming origin neuron desktop review lifestyle behind shoulder
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Desktop Core i5 and i7 CPUs can be most typically separated by their number of supported threads and clock speeds. While both tend to have the same number of processor cores (six for the eighth and ninth-generation and four for older ones), some have support for additional threads thanks to Intel’s hyperthreading technology. That means that they can support twice the number of threads, making them better at multitasking.

Typically all core i7 CPUs support hyperthreading on desktops, while the Core i5s do not. That was still true with the 8th-generation chips, like the Core i5-8600K and Core i7-8700K. With the ninth-generation though, hyperthreading was reserved for the Core i9 parts only, so the i7-9700K only supports eight threads.

Core i5 CPUs, like the i5-8400, typically have lower clock speeds too, though not significantly so. They also tend to have smaller cache sizes, meaning they don’t perform as well at repetitive tasks.

The added thread counts, clocks, and cache mean that Core i7 CPUs, like the super-powerful 8700K, offer better performance, but it comes at a cost. As our guide to the best Intel CPUs points out, higher-end i7 Chips can be a lot more expensive. That 8700K retails at $370, while the gamer’s favorite Core i5 9400F can be had for $150.

Core i5 vs. Core i7 on laptops

Dell XPS 13 9370 review | Laptop partially closed facing away from the camera at an angle showing lid and trim
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Mobile processors are a slightly different story. Where desktop Core i5s never feature hyperthreading, some mobile versions do, allowing mobile dual-core i5 processors to handle extra threads at once. Core i7 CPUs are still more powerful though. Where the eighth-generation Core i5 CPUs have four cores and support eight threads, most Core i7 chips have six cores and 12 threads.

You can usually tell a mobile chip by its naming convention too. A high-end gaming laptop might sport a Core i7-8750H. Like the desktop 8700K, it sports six cores and 12 threads, but its clock speed is noticeably lower (especially when it isn’t boosted) to help maintain lower temperatures.

Older generations have lower core and thread counts, with some dual cores in the mix — like the Skylake-powered Core i5-6300U, which is a dual-core chip with support for four threads. The performance differences between Core i5 and i7 CPUs are roughly comparable throughout generations though. Where core counts are occasionally the same, thread counts rarely are and clock speeds of Core i7s tend to outpace those of their Core i5 counterparts — like the 6300HQ and 6700HQ. As with the desktop chips, Core i7s tend to have larger caches as well.

Sometimes though, Core i5 CPUs can have higher clock speeds than an i7 chip. What does this mean? A quad-core with a high clock speed will beat a six-core with a low clock speed in applications that don’t use many cores; the six-core will be quicker in applications that do and will be better at multitasking. If the six-core has more cores and a higher clock speed, it will always be quicker.

As with desktop chips, Core i7 CPUs tend to be a lot more expensive. If you were buying a Surface Book 2, for example, a Core i7 CPU can cost as much as $500 extra in an otherwise identical configuration.

What about Core i9?

best laptops for video editing macbook pro 15 3

Intel’s Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs might be powerful, but they’re mainstream, consumer-targeted CPUs. Intel’s higher-end Core i9 chips are typically aimed more at professionals or the most affluent of gamers who need even more power, with most chips bearing that moniker having cost upwards of $1000 in the past. However, with Intel’s eighth and ninth-generation processors, it introduced some Core i9 CPUs that are worth considering too.

The Core i9-8950HK made its way into laptops like Apple’s MacBook Pro and, after some throttling issues were fixed, proved to be a powerful chip indeed. It sports six cores and 12 threads, and can turbo clock up to 4.6GHz on a couple of cores at a time. Not many laptops offer it as an option, but it’s one of the most powerful mobile chips available today.

In the desktop space, however, the Core i9-9900K is a real monster. With eight cores, 16 threads, and a clock speed that can reach 5GHz on a couple of cores at a time, it is the most powerful gaming CPU available today. It’s very expensive, especially compared with the competition from AMD, but for now, at least, it far outstrips anything else out there at its $500-600 price point.

Are more cores and threads necessary?

Overall, Core i5 and Core i7 chips differ in the way they handle processing information. Core i5 processors typically have fewer cores and can, therefore, support fewer simultaneous “threads.” These “threads” are used by software to manage multiple tasks simultaneously, rather than queuing everything up for execution one by one. In other words, they’re not as good at multitasking. Still, they’re great for most PC users, which is why we recommend the Core i5-8400 as the best Intel CPU.

Hyperthreading, a feature most commonly found in i7 CPUs, doubles the number of threads that a CPU can handle, though those “virtual cores” aren’t as powerful as physical cores. A Core i7 processor with six cores can actually handle 12 threads of data at once.

For concurrent processing tasks — when your PC needs to handle processor-intensive tasks at the same time — CPUs with lots of cores and lots of threads will perform better.

Product Review

Still waiting for a new Mac Pro? Corsair’s mini PC has all the power you'll need

With a modern 12-core Intel Core i9-9920X processor, Nvidia’s RTX 2080 Ti graphics, and 32GB of RAM, the Corsair One Pro is designed to woo creatives who demand more power from Apple’s Mac Pro. Like the Mac Pro, the best part of this PC…
Computing

Boost your PCs power by learning how to overclock your CPU

Is your PC just chugging along, a little slower than you'd like? Sometimes you just need a little more power under the hood. Before you pick up some new hardware, learn how to overclock your CPU.
Computing

Lenovo Legion, IdeaPad gaming laptops sport 9th-gen CPUs and 16-series graphics

Lenovo is expanding its gaming laptop range with a line of new Legion and IdeaPad notebooks that sport Intel's latest, ninth-generation Core CPUs up to an i7 and a choice of Nvidia graphics with options for everything up to an RTX 2080…
Computing

Intel’s new Core i9 processors bring 8-core power to laptops

Intel announced a new line of ninth-generation mobile processors that bring eight-core Core i9 processors to laptops. In addition, the company announced a slate of new desktops CPUs that bring the rest of the lineup up to date.
Computing

USB drive issue blocks some PCs from receiving Windows 10 May 2019 update

A USB drive error resulted in some PCs being blocked from receiving the Windows 10 May 2019 update. Microsoft decided to block eligible PCs with USB drives or SD cards attached from getting the update until the error is fixed.
Photography

Free your digital memories, and frame them, with the best photo printers

Printed photos are experiencing a revival at the moment, but you don’t need to go to a special lab. Here’s our favorite options for making quality prints, from pocket-sized printers to wide-format photo printers capable of spitting out…
Cars

Nvidia agrees with Tesla’s take on self-driving cars, but corrects specifics

Nvidia vice president Rob Csongor agreed with broad statements by Elon Musk at Tesla's April 22 Autonomy Investor Day. Csongor then took exception to what he termed were inaccuracies about Nvidia's self-driving car chip.
Computing

Tablet or notebook? Our favorite 2-in-1 PCs give you the best of both worlds

If you can’t decide if you need a tablet or a notebook, then don’t bother. The best 2-in-1 laptops are both, and they can provide all the power you need. Check out our list for the best 2-in-1s for any user.
Computing

Amal and George Clooney want to change the world. Can Microsoft help?

Microsoft and The Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ) unveiled the TrialWatch app Thursday morning, a new tool in CFJ’s ongoing TrialWatch effort to shine a light on injustice in courts around the globe – which too often are simply…
Computing

These are the best 13-inch laptops you can buy right now

With so much choice out there, how do you know which are the best 13-inch laptops? They should have beautiful screens, long battery life, and remain light and portable. This is a list of our favorites.
Computing

These gaming monitors will transport you to another dimension

What are the best gaming monitors you can buy right now? We select five that are all priced under $900 packing premium technologies like G-SYNC and FreeSync, high resolutions, and fast refresh rates.
Photography

Luminar Accent A.I. can now recognize faces for more natural instant edits

Want to edit faster? Skylum Luminar's latest update enhances the Accent A.I. to use machine learning for instant enhancements. The tool now recognizes faces for more natural skin tones along with other enhancements.
Computing

Intel’s 10nm desktop dreams may be dead — new road map pushes them beyond 2022

Intel may never release a competitive 10nm CPU on desktop if a new roadmap is to be believed. It suggests that Intel will rely on its 14nm process to at least 2022 and perhaps even beyond.
Computing

Turn your desk into a command center with the best ultrawide monitors

Top of the line ultrawide monitors have the deepest curves, the sharpest colors, and the biggest screens on the market. You’re going to want one, sooner or later. So why not sooner? These are the best ultrawide monitors you can buy now.