What’s the Difference Between an i3, i5, or i7?


best-intel-processors[1]When it comes to confusing product naming schemes, Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 take the cake. Like seriously what is a Core i7 4790k? What the heck does all this mumbo jumbo even mean?  Wouldn’t it be simpler to just label a processor with how many gigawatts they run and then call it good? Let’s dig a little deeper into all of this.

When the Pentium 4 launched in 2000, an equivalently clocked Pentium 3 was actually faster because it could do more work with each clock cycle. As a customer, you would expect the product with the higher number to be the better one right? Well therein lies the problem. Not all megawatts and gigawatts are created equal. Rating a processor that way is like rating a car based on what RPM the engine runs at. It’s not actually a real indication of how fast the processor is.

One of AMD’s attempt to move away from this started in the early 2000s with their P.R. or performance rating naming scheme, where their processors were given a four digit model number that enthusiasts believe was based on the performance AMD felt that they delivered compared to an Intel CPU of that clock speed. But, this fixed nothing. They were still indirectly naming according to clock speed. It wasn’t until Intel introduced the Core series, a line of CPUs that dramatically outperform their predecessors at much lower clocks, that the megawatts war ended because Intel needed to shift their marketing away from frequency.

Here’s what we have today. Other than the very bear bones Pentium’s, a Core i3 will be your most basic option with two processing Cores and hyper-threading, more about this feature are here for better multitasking. It will have a smaller cache, it will consume less power and it will generally perform worse than the Core i5, but it will cost less, which leads us to the Core i5. I wish I could say it was as simple as well, Core i3s have two cores and Core i5s have four cores, the number of Cores equals n minus one, where n is the number after the little i, but it’s not.

Mobile Core i5s have two cores in hyper-threading, while desktop ones mostly have four Cores and no hyper-threading. What they all have in common is improved onboard graphics and Turbo Boost, more about this feature here. For temporary performance enhancements when your system needs a little bit more oomph. With oomph in mind, Core i7s. Number one, all Core i7s have hyper-threading for heavy workloads and number two, that’s the noise your brain is going to make as I finish my explanation here.
A Core i7 can have anywhere from two processing Cores in an alter book, all the way up to eight in a work station. It might support anywhere from two sticks of memory, all the way to eight. It can have a TDP anywhere from around 10 Watts all the way to 130 Watts, so there’s a ton of variety here and that’s for a reason. Core i7s tend to have more cache, faster turbo boost and better onboard graphics than the lower tier processors and I guess other than that, the best summary I can give is this, a Core i7 represents the best thing Intel could build for a given use case with the biggest drawback being the higher price tag.

When you boil it down, that’s all the i whatever numbers represent, good, better, best within a given segment. Beyond that on their own, they’re pretty much meaningless. The numbers and letters afterwards mean something if you use the guide from before, but the safest way to shop is to dig around an ark and look at the features, Core counts and clock speeds of the CPUs you’re comparing to figure out how they stuck up, with the good news being that as long as you compare within one brand and within the same product generation, those metrics will actually mean something.