Intel Core i3 vs i5 vs i7 vs i9: Which CPU is Best for You?

Intel Core i3 vs i5 vs i7 vs i9Are you considering a new Intel processor, but you’re unsure of which Core series to opt for? In this post, we’ve highlighted the main differences and use-cases for all of Intel’s Core type processors to help you find the right option for your needs.

Intel’s 12th Gen ‘Alder Lake’ CPUs are now on the market, and its 11th Gen ‘Rocket Lake’ CPUs are still holding strong. While its current 12th generation looks promising and gives us a fresh lineup of some of the best gaming CPUs, the likelihood of pricing fluctuations, potential stock issues, and a present lack of 12th Gen motherboard availability makes it difficult to know exactly how things will pan out for the new generation – for that, 11th Gen is still here to take up the slack.

Whichever generation we’re talking about, deciding between Intel Core i3, i5, i7, and i9 CPUs is pretty easy once we know the price of each processor and how it performs. Especially if we take AMD’s Ryzen lineup out of the equation.

Looking only to Intel’s 11th Gen we see that, as far as price-performance ratios go, Intel’s budget Core i3 and midrange Core i5 offerings are far superior to its top-end offerings, and at the high-end the Core i7 is a better choice than the Core i9 unless money is of no concern. General comparisons aside, which CPU you choose ultimately depends on your budget and what you use your PC for. Let’s take a look at these latest Core i3, i5, i7, and i9 CPUs to get a better picture.

Intel Core i3: Best Budget Option

Intel Core i3-10100f

This year, instead of giving us shiny new Core i3 processors based on the Rocket Lake architecture, Intel instead refreshed its 10th Gen Comet Lake i3 CPUs, essentially giving us the same chips that we saw in 2020 but with a slight boost to clock speeds. That’s okay, though, because these chips still do just fine for budget computing. And make no mistake, an Intel Core i3 chip is about as budget as you can get while still being able to game comfortably and maintain a super smooth desktop experience for light to moderate workloads.

There’s one refreshed Core i3 CPU that particularly stands out: the Intel Core i3-10105F. This is the only chip we’d recommend from the new i3 range, because the others come too close to midrange prices to remain competitive. The i3-10105F is a 4-core, 8-thread CPU with a base clock of 3.6GHz and a boost clock of 4.3GHz.

Retailing on Amazon for about $100, it’s cheaper than its main competitor, the AMD Ryzen 3 3300X, and is much easier to find in stock than the AMD chip. For this price, you’re getting something that’s far from midrange territory, but which can hold its own in games and most day-to-day workloads. If you’re using a high-end graphics card this CPU will likely act as a bottleneck, but if you’re going for something cheap and cheerful this is the processor to get. Just be aware that it lacks integrated graphics, meaning you’ll have to pair it with a dedicated graphics card to get any video output at all.

Intel Core i5: Best All-Around Choice

Intel Core i5-11400Intel’s Core i5 CPUs are the ones that really stand out in Intel’s 11th generation. Offering great value, they’ve dethroned AMD from the entry-level gaming market and are very competitive in the midrange market. The main chips to look out for are the Core i5-11400F and Core i5-11600K.

The existence of the Core i5-11400F is the reason why we only recommend the cheapest out of the Core i3 CPUs – because if you spend much more you might as well get the Core i5-11400F.

For a $157 Intel-recommended price tag (which is admittedly cheaper than you might find in practice thanks to current stock issues) with the i5-11400F you’re getting a 6-core, 12-thread CPU that boosts up to 4.4GHz. The base clock is a little on the low side at 2.6GHz, but if you unlock its power limits in your BIOS (providing you have a motherboard that allows you to do so) and pair it with one of the best CPU coolers, these clock speeds ramp up nicely.

Once power limits are unlocked, the i5-11400F can very nearly keep up with the more expensive i5-11600K and AMD Ryzen 5 5600X when gaming, and it beats the AMD Ryzen 5 3600 and 3600X by far. Crucially, it’s much more powerful than the i3-10105F, and isn’t too much more expensive than this chip when available at its Intel-recommended price. Once power limits are unlocked, it tears through mutli-threaded tasks, too. Just like with the i3-10105F, however, make sure you have a dedicated graphics card running alongside it, because it lacks integrated graphics.

Another 11th Gen option would be to go for the Intel Core i5-11600K. This processor, like the last, is a 6-core, 12-thread chip, but its base clock is much higher at 3.9GHz and it boosts up to 4.9GHz. For this increased horsepower you’ll be looking to spend around $260, though – $100 more than its lower-clocked sibling. The ‘K’ means it can be overclocked, and the lack of an ‘F’ means it has integrated graphics, unlike the i5-11400F.

But the 11th generation of Intel CPUs is notoriously poor when it comes to overclocking potential, so unless you’re a real overclocking enthusiast the unlocked clock multiplier is little reason to opt for the i5-11600K. The two main advantages of this chip over the i5-11400F are that it has integrated graphics and it offers better multi-core performance out of the box (without having to mess with power limits). But if you have one of the best gaming motherboards and a decent cooler, opting for the Core i5-11400F and unlocking those limits is probably the better choice.

Alternatively, you could go for a 12th Gen Intel Core i5-12600K, which is looking like a fantastic option providing platform costs drop and the CPU’s retail price doesn’t shoot up, which is always a possibility with new chips. The i5-12600K has six P-Cores and four E-Cores for a total of 16 threads, and its P-Cores can boost up to 4.9GHz. This $299 MSRP chip is so good that it beats the entire 11th Gen Intel lineup in productivity and gaming tasks, and it often matches the high-end AMD Ryzen 9 5900X and bests the Ryzen 7 5800X on both of these fronts, too. Just as soon as its price settles and more 12th Gen motherboards hit the market, this may very well be the best gaming CPU available in terms of price-performance.

Intel Core i7: Best 8-Core CPU Option

Intel Core i7-11700KLikely thanks to Intel taking a 10nm core design and upscaling it for 14nm production, its 11th CPU generation caps out at only 8 cores. This has meant that its 11th Gen Core i9 chips are pretty lacklustre in comparison to AMD’s high-end offerings. But it’s also meant that Core i7 chips are the most inviting ones at Intel’s high-end. In particular, the Intel Core i7-11700K.

The Intel Core i7-11700K is an 8-core, 16-thread CPU with a base clock of 3.6GHz and a boost clock of 5GHz which retails for about $400. For this price – $140 more than the i5-11600K and $240 more than the i5-11400F – you’re getting a processor that performs only a little better than the i5-11600K in games, but which is a fair bit more powerful when it comes to multi-core workloads, as is to be expected thanks to its two extra cores and four extra threads. And compared to the Intel Core i9-11900K, the performance deltas are slim, making the Core i7-11700K much better bang for your buck at the high-end. It’s unlocked for overclocking, too, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to squeeze a great deal of extra performance out of Intel chips in this generation.

Comparing to AMD, though, the i7-11700K’s gaming and multi-core performance is similar to the Ryzen 5 5600X, a much cheaper chip. What’s more, the Ryzen 7 5800X, a similarly-priced chip, does much better handling multi-core workloads. So, if getting an AMD CPU is an option, you’ll get better value from a 5600X or 5800X. But if you only care about gaming and don’t need best-of-the-best multi-core performance, the i7-11700K keeps up with these AMD chips just fine. If you’re set on sticking with Intel and don’t want to pay an arm and a leg, the i7-11700K’s about as powerful as you can get from its 11th Gen lineup without opting for Intel’s 10-core Core i9-10900K, which would mean losing out on some longevity thanks to its lack of PCIe 4.0 support.

But now Alder Lake is out, and the Intel Core i7-12700K is retailing for a $419 MSRP. And, just like the Core i5-12600K described above, the Core i7-12700K looks set to overthrow all other competing CPUs from their respective thrones. With 8 P-Cores, 4 E-Cores, a whopping 20 threads, and a P-Core boost clock of 5GHz, this processor beats 8-core CPUs like the AMD Ryzen 7 5800X and Intel Core i7-11700K by a mile, both in single-core and multi-core tasks, as well as in gaming to lesser extent. If prices settle in a reasonable spot and more 12th Gen motherboards hit the market, this new CPU will likely be the go-to for non-flagship productivity.

Intel Core i9: When Money is no Concern

Intel Core i9-11900KThanks to it being capped at eight cores, the price of Intel’s 11th Gen Core i9-11900K isn’t really justified over the Core i7-11700K for the vast majority of people. If you need multi-core grunt, which is the real reason to opt for a high-end CPU these days thanks to how GPU-bound modern games and systems are, then you’d be better off getting a 12-core AMD Ryzen 9 5900X or even a last-gen Intel Core i9-10900K.

The Core i9-11900K might suit some people, however. This $550 CPU, which is essentially a better-binned Core i7-11700K, has 8 cores and 16 threads just like the i7, but it boosts up to 5.3GHz. Its Thermal Velocity Boost (TVB) allows it to reach this max boost without manually overclocking, but to make the most of it you should pair it with a good CPU cooler. It’s also the only 11th Gen Intel CPU that supports 3200MHz RAM speed in its recommended ‘Gear 1’ memory setting – in other words, without having to overclock your memory and void your warranty.

Unfortunately, when it comes to framerates, the i9-11900K still lags slightly behind the much cheaper AMD Ryzen 7 5800X, and it runs pretty much neck-and-neck with the AMD Ryzen 5 5600X, a chip that’s almost half its price. And with more powerful Intel Alder Lake CPUs now on the market, the Core i9-11900K looks ever more redundant.

If prices settle and 12th Gen motherboards become more abundant, Intel’s Core i9-12900K should be a much better offering than its previous-generation counterpart. The 24-thread (eight P-Core, eight E-Core) Core i9-12900K can boost up to 5.2GHz on its P-Cores, and it now feels like a flagship chip worthy of its MSRP, which is $599. It tops every productivity and gaming chart, with few exceptions, and its only real competition is the more expensive AMD Ryzen 9 5950X. That said, it pays for this with power usage and heat output, unfortunately topping these charts, too, by a mile. But if you want flagship performance, that’s the price you have to pay.

Intel Core i3 vs i5

Deciding between an Intel Core i3 and i5 CPU should be pretty simple, as it’s merely a matter of budget. The best value Core i3 chip in the 11th generation is the i3-10105F, a 4-core, 8-thread CPU that boosts up to 4.3GHz. The best value Core i5 chip, providing you don’t mind unlocking its power limits and have a motherboard that will allow you to do so, is the i5-11400F, a 6-core, 12-thread CPU that boosts up to 4.4GHz.

If you can only afford to spend $100 on a CPU, the Core i3-10105F is your go-to, and it should run any game just fine, only bottlenecking higher end graphics cards. But if you can afford to dish out an extra $50 or $60, opting for an i5-11400F will get you a CPU that shouldn’t significantly bottleneck any high-end graphics card, and which can handle more strenuous multi-threaded workloads. Just remember to run a dedicated graphics card alongside these processors, because the ‘F’s in their names mean they don’t have integrated graphics.

Intel Core i5 vs i7

It’s clear where the real value lies in Intel’s 11th and now 12th CPU generation: with its Core i5 chips. The Core i5-11400F can hold its own against more expensive chips when its power limits are unlocked, and the i5-11600K offers very competitive out-of-the-box performance. The main Core i7 offering, however – the i7-11700K – only beats these Core i5 processors by a slim margin in games, and yet costs a fair amount more at about $400. Where it makes up for this extra cost is in its multi-core performance, thanks to its 8 cores and 16 threads that can easily handle heavy multi-threaded workloads.

The real choice between an Intel Core i5 and i7, then, boils down to whether you see yourself undertaking many tasks that rely on multi-threading capability, such as encoding, video editing, 3D rendering, and so on. If you see yourself doing any of this, the Core i7-11700K is a better option than the i5, but if you don’t, the Core i5-11400F is a much better value proposition that will handle gaming and day-to-day tasks very well providing its power limits are unlocked. And if you don’t want to mess with the power limits, or if you don’t have a motherboard that will let you, the i5-11600K is your best bet from the 11th generation.

On the other hand, if you’re willing to take the plunge on Intel’s 12th generation this early, the Core i5-12600K looks to be the best value chip on the market at the moment for gaming, and the Core i5-12700K looks to be the best value chip for productivity and heavily multi-threaded workloads. Providing prices and stocks stay stable, and more compatible motherboards hit the market, these chips should make their 11th Gen counterparts redundant.

Intel Core i7 vs i9

The decision between an Intel Core i7 and i9 CPU is pretty simple in the 11th ‘Rocket Lake’ generation. The Core i9-11900K is capped at 8 cores and 16 threads just like the Core i7-11700K, and yet it costs $150 more, making it worthwhile in only a couple of very niche use cases. Don’t get me wrong, the i9-11900K is powerful, it’s just not $550 worth of powerful when there are options like the AMD Ryzen 9 5900X or even the 10-core Intel Core i9-10900K on the table.

What’s more, now that Alder Lake is here, the Core i9-11900K looks almost entirely redundant. For those who don’t want to splash out on a Core i9-12900K, the Core i9-10900K is a great value option providing it’s in stock at a reasonable price. And if you’re wanting best-of-the-best performance, the i9-12900K blows the i9-11900K out of the park, along with every other chip apart from the AMD Ryzen 9 5950X. You pay for this performance with high power draw and thermal output, meaning you’ll need a pretty decent cooler and a good motherboard to keep this chip running optimally – but if you want the very best gaming and productivity performance, you can’t do better for the price.

Jacob Fox

Jacob's been tinkering with computer hardware for over a decade, and he's written hardware articles for various PC gaming websites. Outside of the wonderful world of PC hardware, he's currently undertaking a PhD in philosophy, with a focus on topics surrounding the meaning of life.

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