Time goes by, and even now the Intel Core i5 and i7 are still the most popular processors on the market, and with good reason. But what is the difference between them? Like most computer components, there are dozens of models at each level to choose from, which can make things a bit overwhelming.
We are talking specifically about Intel’s 10th generation Comet Lake and 11th generation Tiger Lake processors. While much of the information applies to earlier models as well, newer chips tend to provide other features and performance improvements over past generations.
Also, keep in mind that you won’t save much money by buying older chips, and most PC and laptop manufacturers steer clear of past Core i5 and Core i7 models.
Between Core i5 and i7: which one should you buy?
i5 processors are in a sweet spot of price vs. 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 latest i5 chips top out at six cores on desktop and four cores on mobile with 4GHz boost clock speeds.
With a Core i5 you can run some intensive applications, like Adobe Premiere, but with an i7 you will see more benefits in games. 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 handling some light processing with an i5.
If you want to game, browse the internet, and dive into applications like Premiere or Photoshop, stick with an i5 (assuming you have a decent GPU to back it up). Those who use professional applications frequently will want to opt for an i7 (or even upgrade to an i9, especially if it involves motion graphics and running simulations).
Core i5 and Core i7: desktop computers
Short of some early processors in Intel’s current branding scheme, i5s do not typically support hyperthreading . A higher thread count was reserved for the more expensive i7 and i9. However, to remain competitive with AMD’s Ryzens, Intel decided to add hyperthreading to the 10th generation Comet Lake desktop chips i5s and even i3s.
Intel continued that trend with its 11th generation Rocket Lake platform. There are three i5s offered by the manufacturer: i5-11600, 11500, and 11400. Each step down offers less performance, so the 11600 tops the offerings, while the 11400 sits at the bottom.
Each of these processors comes in multiple alternatives. The 11600K is unlocked for overclocking , while the 11400F does not have integrated graphics. You can deduce the characteristics of the processor from the suffix.
The 11600K has six cores and 12 threads, with a TDP (thermal design power) of 125 watts. It has a base clock of 3.9GHz and a boost clock of 4.9GHz. With those specs, it’s a monster CPU for gaming and capable of handling apps like Photoshop and Premiere.
Rocket Lake only has a single i7 chip: the i7-11700. Like the i5s range, it offers variations with different features. If you’re shopping for a desktop computer, be sure to look for the 11700K. It should be the most available chip and it supports overclocking .
The 11700K comes with a bit more power than the 11600K. It has eight cores and 16 threads, a base clock of 3.6GHz and a boost clock of 5GHz. It’s rated for a 125-watt TDP, though the processor draws more power when pushed or if you unlock its power caps in the BIOS for higher clock speeds.
Of all the desktop options, we recommend the i5-11600K. It has enough power for gaming and light productivity tasks. The i7-11700K isn’t a bad processor, but it doesn’t improve much over the previous generation, other than exaggerating the thermal and power demands.
If you’re interested in an i7, we recommend the latest generation i7-10700K. It’s cheaper than its 11th-gen counterpart, you can use a cheaper motherboard, and it offers a similar level of performance.
Core i5 vs. Core i7 and laptops
Intel typically starts its generations with the mobile market first, and Intel’s 11th generation processors are no different. The new Tiger Lake mobile chips are starting to make the rounds.
The alignment is quite simple. There are two i5 processors, the i5-1130G7 and 1135G7, each of which comes with four cores and eight threads. Similarly, there are three Core i7s, the i7-1160G7, i7-1165G7, and i7-1185G7, and they all match the same number of cores and threads as the i5s. The difference: Each of the chips has a slightly different boost clock speed, starting at 4.0 GHz with the i5-1130G7 and going up to 4.8 GHz with the i7-1185G7.
As with desktop chips, Core i7s tend to be much more expensive. If you were shopping for a Surface Book 2, for example, a Core i7 processor can cost up to an additional $500 in an identical configuration.
Just because of the change in cache size, from 8MB on the i5 to 12MB on the i7, the two ranges are pretty much 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).
However, if you have the extra cash, 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.
Also, Intel’s older Ice Lake chips are worth mentioning. They are based on the same 10nm process as the new generation Tiger Lake chips and have a major graphical improvement over the 8th generation, but they can’t compare to Tiger Lake Xe graphics.
Overall computing performance isn’t much worse, so if you want to save some money, going for a higher-tier Ice Lake processor over a Tiger Lake can be a good way to stay within your budget.
To make things even more confusing, Intel also offers 10th-gen Comet Lake Core i5 and Core i7 chips. The overall computing performance is much better than Ice Lake thanks to the higher clock speeds, but the graphics performance is again worse.
If you’re not interested in gaming, these slightly older chips can save you a few bucks (especially if you’re browsing the used market). However, Tiger Lake processors come with Intel’s new Xe graphics.
Integrated graphics aren’t ideal for gaming and Xe doesn’t change that. However, Intel is much closer to matching entry-level gaming laptops with Xe, going up to 60 FPS on medium settings in titles like Battlefield V and Civilization VI .
What about the Core i9?
Intel’s Core i5 and Core i7 processors may be powerful, but they’re still consumer-oriented general-purpose chips. Intel’s higher-end Core i9s are typically aimed more at professionals or wealthier gamers who need even more power, as most chips bearing that name cost well over $1,000 in the past. However, with the 8th and 9th generation processors, Intel released some Core i9 CPUs that are also worth considering.
The Core i9-8950HK made its way into laptops, it has eight cores and 16 threads. It comes with a base speed of 2.4 GHz and a boost speed of 5.3 GHz. Some laptops, like the extremely expensive Alienware Area-51m, actually come with an i9 desktop processor.
However, for desktop computers, Intel’s most recent offering is the i9-11900K. As powerful as it is, we recommend sticking with the last generation 10900K. The 10900K is not only cheaper, but also has fewer issues with power and thermals, and comes with two more cores and four more threads.
You can find the 10900K for around $400, which is only slightly more expensive than a competing i7. If you have workloads that can use the extra power of an i7, consider getting an i9 (especially if you can get a next-gen chip).
Laptops are a different matter. Even the fastest laptop processor can malfunction on the wrong computer, so it’s important to read the most recent reviews available on the computers you’re interested in.
Are more cores and more threads necessary?
The gap between the i5 and i7 processors has narrowed with the latest offerings from Intel, especially in desktops. More cores and threads means that your processor can handle and process a lot of different information at once.
Instead of stressing a single core or thread, the processor distributes the workload. So the benefit of more cores and threads is clear: it allows the chip to handle multitasking better.
However, like all computer components, the story is not that simple. Some apps are optimized to take advantage of multiple threads, including Adobe Premiere, Handbrake, and most file compression and decompression apps.
There are very few applications that use a single core or thread these days, but some are better optimized to take full advantage of the cores and threads your processor offers.
As long as you buy a latest generation i5 or i7 from Intel, you’ll get at least four cores and eight threads, which is more than enough for web browsing and light productivity tasks. For gaming, six and eight cores are ideal, and anything else only shows real benefit in production applications for video editing and transcoding.