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The processor is the brain of a computer — but understanding the difference between processors requires a lot of brainpower of your own!

Intel hasn’t made it any easier for customers with their strange naming schemes, and the question we get asked most often is: What’s the difference between an i3, i5, or i7 processor? Which one should I buy?

It’s time to demystify that. In this article, we won’t be touching on Intel’s other processors like the Pentium series or the new laptop-centric Core M series Intel Core M: What's so Great About the Processor? Intel Core M: What's so Great About the Processor? The Intel Core M is the most hyped processor in years, and with good reason: it's at the heart of a new revolution in laptops. Read More . They’re good in their own right, but the Core series is the most popular and confusing, so let’s just focus on that.

Understanding the Model Numbers

Purely speaking, it’s very simple. An Intel Core i7 is better than a Core i5, which in turn is better than a Core i3. The trouble is knowing what to expect within each tier. Things go a little deeper.

First, i7 does not mean a seven-core processor! These are just names to indicate relative performance.

Typically, the Core i3 series has only dual-core processors, while the Core i5 and Core i7 series have both dual-core and quad-core processors. Quad-cores are usually better than dual-cores What Does "Dual Core" & "Quad Core" Mean? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Does "Dual Core" & "Quad Core" Mean? [MakeUseOf Explains] At one point, our computers had a central processing unit (CPU) with a single core. These days, most CPUs you'll come across are dual core, quad core, or even octo core. We'll explain exactly what... Read More , but don’t worry about that just yet.

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Intel releases “families” of chipsets, like the new 6th generation Skylake family Intel Skylake CPUs: 3 Things to Know Before Upgrading Intel Skylake CPUs: 3 Things to Know Before Upgrading Thinking of upgrading to an Intel Skylake CPU but not sure if you should? Here's what you should know to help make that decision easier. Read More or the older 5th generation Haswell family. Each family, in turn, has its own line of Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 series of processors.

You can spot which generation a processor belongs to by the first digit in its four-digit model name. For example, the Intel Core i3-5200 belongs to the 5th generation. Remember, Intel’s new generations won’t support Windows 7 Why Windows 7 Won't Work On Intel's Current & Next Gen CPUs Why Windows 7 Won't Work On Intel's Current & Next Gen CPUs Microsoft doesn't want you to use old Windows versions on new hardware. Users on Intel Skylake processors won't receive updates for Windows 7 after July 2017. And next generation processors will be Windows 10 only. Read More , but since Windows 10 is a free upgrade anyway, go for the latest generation possible.

Pro Tip: Here’s a useful rule of thumb. The other three digits are Intel’s assessment of how the processor compares to others in its own line. For example, an Intel Core i3-5350 is superior to the Core i3-5200 because 350 is higher than 200.

End Letters: U vs. Q. vs. H vs. K

Things have changed since we last looked at Intel’s processor list Decoding Intel's Laptop Processor List [Technology Explained] Decoding Intel's Laptop Processor List [Technology Explained] The modern computer processor has always been a complex piece of technology, and that shows no signs of changing. Such complexity brings a challenge to companies such as Intel. Making great products is one thing,... Read More . The model number will typically be followed by one or a combination of the following letters: U, Y, T, Q, H, and K. Here’s what they mean:

intel-core-i3-i5-i7-product-name

Understanding these letters and the numbering system above will help you know what a processor offers just by looking at the model number, without needing to read the actual specifications. Of course, before making a buying decision, it’s advisable to check the details at ark.intel.com.

You can find the meaning of other suffixes at Intel’s guidelines on processor numbers.

Hyper-Threading: i7 > i3 > i5

As you can see above, Intel specifically writes U and Q for the number of physical cores. Well, what other kinds of cores are there, you ask? The answer is virtual cores, activated through a technology called Hyper-Threading What Is Hyper-Threading? [Technology Explained] What Is Hyper-Threading? [Technology Explained] Read More .

In layman’s terms, hyper-threading allows a single physical core to act as two virtual cores, thus performing multiple tasks simultaneously without activating the second physical core (which would require more power from the system).

If both processors are active and using hyper-threading, those four virtual cores will compute faster. However, do note that physical cores are faster than virtual cores. A quad-core CPU will perform much better than a dual-core CPU with hyper-threading!

The Intel Core i3 series has hyper-threading. The Intel Core i7 series supports hyper-threading, too. The Intel Core i5 series does not support it.

Turbo Boost: i7 > i5 > i3

On the other hand, the Intel Core i3 series does not support Turbo Boost. The Core i5 series uses Turbo Boost to speed up your tasks, as does the Core i7 series.

Turbo Boost is Intel’s proprietary technology How Intel Turbo Boost Works How Intel Turbo Boost Works Intel's Turbo Boost feature is quite useful but may not be so easy to understand for those who have never used it. Here's what you need to know. Read More to intelligently increase a processor’s clock speed if the application demands it. For example, if you are playing a game and your system requires some extra horsepower, Turbo Boost will kick in to compensate.

Turbo Boost is useful for those who run resource-intensive software like video editors or video games, but it doesn’t have much of an effect if you’re just going to be browsing the web and using Microsoft Office.

Cache Size: i7 > i5 > i3

Apart from Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost, the one other major difference in the Core line-up is Cache Size. Cache is the processor’s own memory and acts like its private RAM — and it’s one of the little-known specs that slows down your PC 5 Little-Known Specs That Could Be Slowing Down Your PC 5 Little-Known Specs That Could Be Slowing Down Your PC We'll take a look at five lesser known factors that affect your computer's performance, and show you how you can always get maximum bang for your buck when upgrading. Read More .

intel-core-i3-i5-i7-cache

Just like with RAM, more cache size is better. So if the processor is performing one task over and over, it will keep that task in its cache. If a processor can store more tasks in its private memory, it can do them faster if they come up again.

The Core i3 series typically has up to 3 MB of cache. The Core i5 series has between 3 MB and 6 MB of cache. The Core i7 series has between 4 MB and 8 MB of cache.

Graphics: HD, Iris, Iris Pro

Ever since graphics were integrated on the processor chip What Is An APU? [Technology Explained] What Is An APU? [Technology Explained] Read More , it’s become an important decision point in buying CPUs. But like with everything else, Intel has made the system a little confusing.

There are now typically three levels of graphics units: Intel HD, Intel Iris, and Intel Iris Pro. You’ll see a model name like Intel HD 520 or Intel Iris Pro 580… and that’s where the confusion begins.

Here’s a brief example of how mind-boggling it can be. Intel HD 520 is a basic graphics chipset. Intel Iris 550 is better than Intel HD 520, but also basic. But Intel HD 530 is a high-performance graphics unit and is better than Intel Iris 550. However, Intel Iris Pro 580 is also a high-performance graphics unit and better than Intel HD 530.

The best advice for how to interpret these? Just don’t. Instead, rely on Intel’s naming system. If the processor’s model ends with an H, you know it’s a high-performance unit.

Comparing Cores i3, i5, i7

Intel-core-i3-i5-i7-table-comparison

Generally speaking, here’s who each processor type is best for:

  • Core i3: Basic users. Economic choice. Good for browsing the web, using Microsoft office, making video calls, and social networking. Not for gamers or professionals.
  • Core i5: Intermediate users. Those who want balance between performance and price. Good for gaming if you buy an HQ processor or a Q processor with a dedicated graphics processor.
  • Core i7: Professionals. This is the best Intel can do right now.

How Did You Choose?

This article provides a basic guide for anyone looking to buy a new Intel processor but is confused between Core i3, i5, and i7. But even after understanding all this, when it’s time to make a decision, you might need to choose between two processors from different generations because they’re priced the same.

When you’re comparing, my best tip is to head to CPU Boss where you can compare both processors and get a detailed analysis Do You Really Need The Most Expensive CPU? Find Out With CPU Boss Do You Really Need The Most Expensive CPU? Find Out With CPU Boss Picking out a CPU for your next computer is no mean feat. Of course, if you build your own desktop, you can usually go with a single motherboard and just swap out the CPU as... Read More , as well as ratings. If you don’t understand the jargon, just go with the rating and the basic advice. If you understand jargon, CPU Boss has all the details you’ll need.

What other advice do you have for someone who is similarly stuck while buying a PCU and needs to make a choice?

  1. YUSUF FURQON YUDHA TAMA
    October 25, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    THANKS FOR INFORMATION .
    THAT MAKE ME KNEW , WHAT KIND OF MY LAPTOP MUST BE UPGRADE

  2. FJ
    October 15, 2016 at 6:03 pm

    Thank you for the clear comparisons between Intel Cores!

    I am looking for a new laptop. I don't play video games, but occasionally edit photos with Win apps. For the rest, I mostly use the computer for Spotify, Explorer, Mail, Office, and the internet browser (but I often leave multiple tabs open).

    Is an i3 sufficient for me, or is opting for an i5 worth it?

    • Scott Christen
      October 19, 2016 at 12:09 am

      I think that an i3 will be sufficient. Tip: Look on eBay for better prices.

  3. gfsfgh
    September 7, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    I suggest to decide following way:
    If I really want to have great performance I choose i7
    If I don't really need a great performance but I really need Virtualization technology I choose i5
    If I don't really need Virtualization technology I choose i3

    As you see I put i5 and i3 in the same category in terms of performance. This is because I really don't see a huge step in performance between these two CPUs (obviouselly there is, but not worth to pay attention)

  4. Robert
    August 31, 2016 at 8:22 am

    Core i3 processors can be a perfectly fine for value-conscious and budget-constrained gamers. It offers similar performance to i5 processors in most games, and generally adequate performance even in games where the i5 does have an advantage. In a certain budget ranges, the $40-60 you can save by going with an i3 can allow you to go up a tier or two in the GPU department, which is generally much more important when it comes to gaming than CPU performance.

    CPU Boss is not a good site for making a determination as to which processor to buy. A consumer layperson probably shouldn't put too much effort into trying to understand the technical properties of the processor they're buying, or pay any attention to synthetic benchmarks. Instead the focus should be on real-world performance benchmarks for the specific games (or types of games) and applications that they plan on using.

  5. Haley
    August 14, 2016 at 5:31 pm

    I am looking to purchase a new hp: i'm trying to decide which to choose from, the HP Pavilion w /Intel Core i5-6200U or the Intel Core i7-6500U Processor. This article really helped me in understanding the difference between the processors and the different tiers, but my question is:

    Does the processor type and speed have anything to do with the life of the lap top? Of course in all things, as they age they slow down; but if an i7 processor lasts longer as far as speed and efficiency, i would consider making that investment.

    I appreciate any help! Thank you

    • Robert
      August 31, 2016 at 8:45 am

      CPU choice shouldn't have any appreciable difference in the life or reliability of a laptop, especially when comparing CPUs with the same architecture and the same properties when it comes to power draw (as is the case with the i5-6200U and i7-6500U).

      Also, most components in a PC do not slow down over time. The reason PCs seem to slow down is generally due to the fact that newer software is written with the expectation that it will be run on newer/more powerful hardware, and accumulated bloat from background processes as the user installs more stuff without doing any housecleaning.

      Something like a broken fan or dust-clogged air intakes and heatsinks could result in lower speeds (since modern PCs will tend to throttle down in speed when temperatures get too high) and PC parts are subject to wear and tear, but usually part failures tend to result in symptoms like system instability or the loss of specific functions.

  6. Pranav
    August 3, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    Good work. Technology explained in the best way!

  7. boubou
    August 2, 2016 at 6:37 am

    very good script ! congratulations

  8. dhilip
    July 6, 2016 at 3:55 am

    its helpfull for laptop buyers!!!!

  9. Rico
    June 9, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    Some i5s do support hyperthreading; all the i5s used by MacBooks have this functionality.

    • Zap
      August 5, 2016 at 10:53 am

      From brousing ark, it seems i5 with 2 physical cores gets Hyper-Threading, while Q models with 4 physical cores dont. This seems to apply at least since Haswell. Ex. i5-6300HQ - 4 cores, but no hyper; i5-6300U - 2 cores, but has hyper.

  10. Holman
    May 26, 2016 at 1:22 am

    Perfectly understood!! Very clear the concepts .. Great article

  11. l_mckeon
    May 17, 2016 at 12:18 am

    It varies with the application but hyper-threading typically increases throughput by 25% to 30% over non-hyper-threaded cores.

    • beowulf
      July 4, 2016 at 7:41 am

      nuts!! HT when doesn't make performance worse gives 5% Máx!!!!

    • l_mckeon
      July 5, 2016 at 4:21 am

      @beowulf: I'm just repeating what the crowd doing grid computing report. In those applications it's all cores running 24/7 all the time, so the results you get may depend on what you're doing.

  12. Pravin Kumar
    May 16, 2016 at 8:27 am

    Well-explained, Mihir. I had some confusion in choosing my next notebook. Your article cleared it.
    Thanks, man.

  13. Greg Zeng
    May 15, 2016 at 10:08 am

    It is pointless if the software you run cannot use the extra CPU cores. If the application cannot use four or more cores, then adding these extra cores will see no better performances.

  14. Richard Jenkins
    May 15, 2016 at 6:53 am

    Why only cover intel. I'm using intel and generally very happy with my i7, but isn't AMD something for people to consider?

    • Andrew Gulak
      May 21, 2016 at 3:54 pm

      I was an AMD fan for years... Until I have an FX9370 (water cooled) AND a Vishera 8350 fry within a month of each other for no apparent reason. I have a Core Two Duo from a build when they cam out almost 10 years ago that still runs great, and I have to say, the i7 Skylake that I got in January (as a replacement for the 9370) absolutely blows the 9370 away, without sucking down 225 watts.

  15. neal
    May 15, 2016 at 1:28 am

    sorry but my core i5 mobile processor has 2 cores and 4 threads, is this not hyperthreading? seems to contradict the above

    • Danny
      May 15, 2016 at 10:17 pm

      @neal

      Same here. Two cores, four logical processors = hyperthreading. Some i5 do have hyperthreading, contrary to the article above. See: i68.tinypic.com/qxqds4.png

      • John Appleseed
        July 7, 2016 at 2:44 pm

        I have the sky lake i3 and am using a Gtx 960 oc and use it for gaming with no problem. At this point I don't really c how your processer matters unless you are doing virtual reality games or are using extream programs. Any game that I have played so far runs very smooth and looks better then any ps4 or Xbox 1 game I have played. So for this guy to say you can't game with I3 I say bull chit.

  16. nick
    May 14, 2016 at 6:42 pm

    The U processors basically replaced the M. M is for mobile processors and hasn't been used for a few years, so yeah the author should have mentioned this if someone is buying a used laptop etc.

    • Mihir Patkar
      May 14, 2016 at 6:52 pm

      M is actually new, Nick. The Core M came out last year, and now they're doing m3, m5, and m7 processors. http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/processors/core/core-m-processors.html

      • Kannon Yamada
        May 15, 2016 at 10:04 pm

        Nick might be thinking of graphics cards. For Intel processors, M stands for modular -- meaning it's not soldered to the mainboard. I don't even think Intel makes M series mobile processors anymore. At least, they haven't announced any for Skylake.

        I had a Core i3-4000M laptop. It was probably the best value laptop I've ever purchased.

        Anyway, thanks for the great article Mihir!

  17. Robopop
    May 14, 2016 at 4:17 pm

    OK found the link to intel page... oops

    • Mihir Patkar
      May 14, 2016 at 6:53 pm

      Ha, and I saw this later! :D

  18. Robopop
    May 14, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    My processor is i5-3210M. No mention of the 'M' suffix in your article?

    • Mihir Patkar
      May 14, 2016 at 6:53 pm

      Ah no, sorry, we needed to cut Intel's insanity at some point :D

  19. mik
    May 14, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    Well....better get an ssd first and assume the cpu after...

    • Mihir Patkar
      May 14, 2016 at 6:53 pm

      I don't entirely agree with this, tbh.

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