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Intel Core i5 vs. i7 processors

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 10th-generation Comet Lake and 11th-generation Tiger 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?

Bill Roberson/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 six cores on desktop and four cores on mobile with boost clock speeds north of 4GHz.

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

Core i5 vs. Core i7 on the desktop

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Short of a few early processors in Intel’s current 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 desktop processors.

That makes Comet Lake i5s much more suitable for 3D modeling, video editing, and heavy multitasking than even some i7s from generations past, even if 10th-generation Core i7 CPUs will beat most i5s at all of these tasks. There are a lot of options in Intel’s current i5 lineup, though most of them are purpose-built for system integrators. As far as commercially available chips, Intel has three options, some with variations: The i5-10400, i5-10500, and i5-10600. All three have six cores and 12 threads, with the $260 i5-10600 setting itself apart with a 4.8GHz boost clock. For around $20 more, you can also buy the “K” version of this processor, which is unlocked for overclocking, and offers some of the highest performance potential of its entire generation.

The i7 lineup is more limited, based around the i7-10700 and its corresponding unlocked chip. If you don’t plan on overclocking, the i7-10700 is an excellent choice. It’s around $40 more than the i5-10600 while coming with eight cores and 16 threads (plus a 4MB boost to Intel’s Smart Cache). The unlocked version is less impressive because it’s around $80 more expensive than the competing unlocked i5, and $100 more expensive than the locked one. An overclocked 10600K is a more cost-effective chip for gamers, though workstation users could benefit from the extra cores of an i7.

As model numbers and price increase, so does performance. For around $150, you can stick with i5-10400, which is still a great processor for gaming and multitasking. If, however, you’re not interested in overclocking and already planning on spending $250 to $300 on a processor, it’s worth springing for the i7-10700. It’s only slightly more expensive than the competing i5-10600 while offering a boost to core and thread count, as well as cache size.

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

Intel usually begins its generations with the mobile market first, and the 11th-generation of Intel processors is no different. The new Tiger Lake mobile chips are just starting to make the rounds. Although Tiger Lake laptops aren’t commercially available yet, they will be soon, with notebooks like the MSI Prestige 14 showing off Intel’s latest generation through the end of 2020 and into 2021.

The lineup is fairly straightforward. There are two i5 processors, the i5-1130G7 and 1135G7, each of which comes with four cores and eight threads. Similarly, there are three i7 processors — the i7-1160G7, i7-1165G7, and i7-1185G7 — and they all match the same core and thread count as the i5s. The difference: Each of the processors has a slightly different boost clock speed, starting at 4.0GHz with the i5-1130G7 and topping out at 4.8GHz with the i7-1185G7.

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.

Minus a change in cache size — from 8MB on the i5s to 12MB on the i7s — the two ranges are mostly the same. A higher clock speed is better, but you can get by with a lot less (especially considering how much more expensive i7s can be in mobile configurations). If you have the extra cash, though, an 11th-gen i7 is a great option. The i7-1185G7 consumes the same amount of power as the i5-1135G7 while boasting a higher boost clock speed, making it ideal for high-performance, thin and light laptops.

It’s also worth mentioning Intels older Ice Lake chips. They’re based on the same 10nm process as the newer-gen Tiger Lake chips and were a major graphical upgrade over the 8th generation, but can’t hold a candle to Tiger Lake’s Xe graphics. General compute performance isn’t much worse, though, so if you want to save some money, opting for a higher-tier Ice lake CPU instead of a Tiger Lake alternative may be a good way to stay within your budget.

To make things even more confusing, Intel also offers 10th-generation Core i5 and Core i7 Comet Lake chips. General compute performance is much higher than Ice Lake’s thanks to higher clock speeds, but graphical performance is worse again.

If you’re not interested in gaming, these slightly older chips can save you a few bucks (especially if you browse the secondhand market). Tiger Lake processors come with Intel’s new Xe graphics, though. Integrated graphics aren’t ideal for gaming, and Xe doesn’t change that. However, Intel is a lot closer to matching entry-level gaming laptops with Xe, climbing toward 60 frames per second at medium settings in games like Battlefield V and Civilization VI. 

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 cost upward 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, 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’s a powerful processor. The newer i9-10900K, however, is the best gaming CPU available today. It tops out at 5.3GHz with 10 cores and 20 threads, verging into Intel Extreme Edition territory. It comes with a price tag to match, though. Stock is low, so although the processor technically retails for $530, as of late 2020, you’ll end up spending around $650.

That extra price buys you extra performance, but only a little bit. By comparison, the i5-10600K offers six cores and 12 threads, and with some manual overclocking, you can achieve gaming results on par with the i9-10900K. Even better, Intel’s leading 10th-gen i5 costs less than $300.

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.

When you purchase the latest generation of i5 or i7, you’re receiving approximately four cores and eight threads. These cores and threads are just right if you’re using your computer to browse the Internet, use word processors, and complete similarly light tasks.

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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