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Intel Core i5 vs. i7: Which CPU is right for you?

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.

Intel Core i5 vs i7: What’s the difference?

Core i5 processors are great all-purpose chips, offering solid performance for gaming, web browsing, and light productivity tasks. Core i7 processors have a little more power, and they’re best for users running demanding applications and games at the highest settings.

Between a Core i5 and Core i7, though, there’s a lot more to the story. We’ve rounded up everything you need to know about these two product ranges across desktop and mobile. We’re using Intel’s most recent processors, but keep in mind that you can often find processors from the previous generation or two.

Should you buy a Core i5 or a Core i7?

An Intel Alder Lake Core i5-12600K CPU and its packaging.
Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

The i5 processors sit in a sweet spot of price versus performance. For most users, an i5 is more than enough to handle day-to-day tasks, and they can even hold their own when it comes to gaming. The most recent i5 chips top out at 10-cores on desktop and 12-cores on mobile with boost clock speeds reaching close to 5GHz.

You can run some intensive applications, such as Adobe Premiere, on an i5, but will see more of a benefit with an i7 than you might in gaming. The latest desktop i7s, in particular, offer more cores and threads, as well as boost frequencies above 5GHz. For video and audio editing, an i7 is ideal, even if you can handle some light tasks with an i5.

If you want to play games, browse the internet, and dip your toes into applications like Premiere or Photoshop, stick with an i5 (assuming you have a decent GPU backing it up). Those using professional applications frequently will want to opt for an i7 (or even upgrade to an i9, especially if you’re dealing with motion graphics and running simulations).

Intel Core i7 on Amazon

i5 versus i7 on the desktop

Teenager playing on a desktop gaming PC.Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Short of a few early processors in Intel’s branding scheme, i5s haven’t typically supported hyperthreading. A higher thread count was reserved for the more expensive i7s and i9s. However, to stay competitive with AMD’s Ryzen chips, Intel decided to bring hyperthreading down to i5s and even i3s with its 10th-generation Comet Lake and 11th-gen Rocket Lake desktop processors.

The latest 12th-gen Alder Lake series is the first desktop series built on the 10nm node, which was a well-needed transition from its seven-year-old 14nm architecture. With the new generation, CPUs come with a mix of performance and efficiency cores, giving unique configurations like 12-core or 8P + 4E processors, which means eight performance cores and four efficient cores — though only higher-end K-series and i7 and i9 models feature efficiency cores.

There are four main i5 CPUs right now: The i5-12600K, i5-12600, 12500, and 12400. Each step down is slightly worse, so the 12600K tops Intel’s current i5 offerings, while the 12400 sits on the bottom.

Each of these processers comes in multiple variations. The 12600K, for example, is unlocked for overclocking, while the 12600 is not. The 12400F doesn’t come with integrated graphics. You can deduce the processor’s features from the suffix. You can learn about Intel’s naming scheme in our CPU buying guide.

The 12600K sports 10 cores and 16 threads, with a TDP of 125 watts and a max turbo of 150W. The efficient cores or E-cores on this processor have a base clock of 2.80GHz and a boost clock of 3.60 GHz, while the performance cores (P cores) have a base clock of 3.7GHz and a boost clock of 4.9GHz. With those specs, the 12600K is a monster CPU for gaming and capable enough to handle applications like Photoshop and Premiere.

Like the range of i5s, the Core i7 processors come comes in several variations with different features. If you’re shopping for a desktop, make sure to look for the 12700K. It should be the most readily available chip, and it supports overclocking, though the 12700F will be the most affordable and still offers impressive performance.

The 12700K comes with a little more juice than the 12600K. It has a total of 12 cores and 20 threads, where the E-cores have a base clock speed of 2.7GHz and a boost clock of 3.80GHz; P-cores run on a base clock speed of 3.60GHz and a boost clock of 4.90GHz. On top of that, Intel offers Turbo Boost Max Technology 3.0 for this particular chip, which allows one to push it to 5GHz. It’s rated for a 125-watt TDP and 190W max Turbo TDP, though the processor can draw far more power when pushed or if you unlock its power limits in the BIOS for higher sustained clock speeds.

Out of all the current desktop offerings, we recommend the i5-12600K most as it represents an excellent value, with enough power for gaming and light productivity tasks. If you are looking for more performance, the i7-12700K is the way to go, but do remember that both of these chips run quite hot, so you’ll want to use a high-quality cooler. Another important thing to note is that with the 12th-gen, Intel has once again changed the CPU socket, which means that not only does one need a new motherboard, but also possibly a new cooler (or mounting mechanism) that can fit on the new LGA 1700 socket with a 78mm-by-78mm hole pattern.

i5 versus 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

The 12th-gen Alder Lake series expands to mobile devices with Alder Lake-U and Alder Lake-P for thin and light notebooks, while Alder Lake-H caters to high-performance notebooks.

The lineup is a bit complicated here, so bear with us. There are two i5 processors, the i5-1250P and i5-1240P, under the Alder Lake-P series, which is for performance-focused, thin and light notebooks. Both feature a total of 12 cores and a 16-thread setup, with the only difference being in the maximum frequency of the Iris Xe graphics. Under the Alder Lake-U series, meant for modern thin and light notebooks with lower TDP, are four models — i5-1230U, i5-1235U, i5-1240U, and the i5-1245U. All of these chips come with 10 cores and 12 threads but have different P-Core and E-Core clock speeds.

Similarly, the Core-i7 has various models under the Alder Lake-P and Alder Lake-U series. There are three performance-oriented models — i7-1260P, i7-1270P, and i7-1280P. The former two feature 12 cores and 16 threads and differ in the base and turbo boost clock speeds. The 1280P offers a slight edge over the two by including two extra performance cores, extra threads, higher turbo boost clock speeds, and a smarter cache.

Outside of thin-and-light laptops, Intel has its Alder Lake-H chips. The “H” is for high performance, and these chips are usually seen on gaming laptops. There are three models each under the Core i5 and Core i7 series. Sitting at the bottom of the queue is the i5-12450H having an octa-core (4E + 4P) layout with 12 threads and a peak turbo clock speed of 4.4GHz on the performance cores. Moving up the ladder, we have the i5-12500H and i5-12600H, both offering a higher core and thread count (12 cores and 16 threads), smarter cache, and higher execution units (EU) on the Iris Xe graphics. As for the Core i7, the 12650H packs a 10-core and 16-thread layout with 64 execution units on the Iris Xe graphics, while the more powerful 12700H and 12800H come with 14 cores, 20 threads, and more execution units for the graphics. In terms of clock speeds, there isn’t a huge difference between the three Core i7 models.

As with desktop chips, Core i7 CPUs tend to be a lot more expensive. If you were buying an XPS 13, for example, a Core i7 CPU can cost as much as $300 to $400 extra in an otherwise identical configuration.

A higher clock speed is better, so if you have the extra cash, a 12th-gen i7 is a great option. The i7-1280P consumes the same amount of power as the i5-1250P while boasting a higher boost clock speed, making it ideal for high-performance thin-and-xlight laptops. Core i5s are still excellent, though, representing solid midrange performance at a lower power demand.

It’s also worth mentioning Intel’s older Tiger Lake chips. They’re based on the same 10nm process as the newer-gen Alder Lake chips, although they introduced the next-gen Iris Xe graphics, which were a shift from the older Intel UHD. General compute performance isn’t much worse, though, so if you want to save some money, opting for a higher-tier Tiger Lake CPU instead of an Alder Lake alternative may be a good way to stay within your budget.

What about Core i9?

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 costs upward of $1,000 in the past. In 2022, however, they’re much more affordable.

The 12900HK is currently the most powerful chip offered by Intel in the mobile space, packing 14 cores and 20 threads into a laptop CPU. It comes with a clock rate ranging from 2.5GHz to 5GHz on the performance cores and 1.8GHz to 3.8GHz on the efficiency cores.

For desktop PCs, though, Intel’s most recent offering is the i9-12900K. It is definitely an impressive CPU, offering a big leap in performance compared to the previous generation of Core i9 models. It can be cranked up to 5.2GHz clock speeds and is a power guzzler with a rated turbo TDP of 241W.

If you have workloads that can use the extra power of an i7, consider springing for an i9 (especially if you can get a last-gen chip on sale).

Laptops are a different beast. Even the fastest laptop processor can perform poorly in the wrong machine, so it’s important to read individual laptop reviews.

Are more cores and threads necessary?

There’s now a smaller gap between i5 and i7 processors with Intel’s most recent round of offerings, particularly for desktop users. Your processor can process more information at once, thanks to more threads and cores. Instead of stressing a single core or thread, the processor spreads out the workload. So, the benefit of more cores and threads is clear: It allows the processor to better handle multitasking.

Computer components are complex; something that seems like a small feature can have a major influence in terms of your device’s output. Some applications are explicitly optimized to capitalize on multiple threats, in conjunction with most file compression and decompression, Adobe Premiere, and Handbrake apps.

There are only a few applications that still use a single thread or core from your computer. Most apps will use all of your processor’s threads and cores, so they run smoothly and efficiently.

If you’re looking for the best option for gaming, you’ll want no less than six or eight cores to get the smoothest graphics and experience no lag. Anything more than that, and the only benefits you’ll see are in production applications such as video editing and transcoding.

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