Intel’s 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.

Core i5 processors are great all-purpose chips, offering solid performance for gaming, web browsing, and light productivity tasks. Core i7 processors have a little more power, and they’re best for users running demanding applications and games at the highest settings.

Between a Core i5 and Core i7, though, there’s a lot more to the story. We’ve rounded up everything you need to know about these two product ranges across desktop and mobile. We’re using Intel’s most recent processors, but keep in mind that you can often find processors from the previous generation or two.

Should you buy a Core i5 or a Core i7?

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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 closing in on 5GHz.

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.

Thankfully, Intel continued that trend with its 11th-gen Rocket Lake platform. There are three main i5s right now: The i5-11600, 11500, and 11400. Each step down is slightly worse, so the 11600 tops Intel’s current i5 offerings while the 11400 sits on the bottom.

Each of these processers comes in multiple variations. The 11600K, for example, is unlocked for overclocking, while the 11400F doesn’t come with integrated graphics. You can deduce the processor’s features from the suffix. You can learn about Intel’s naming scheme in our CPU buying guide.

The 11600K sports six cores and 12 threads, with a TDP of 125 watts. It has a base clock of 3.9GHz and a boost clock of 4.9GHz. With those specs, the 11600K is a monster CPU for gaming and capable enough to handle applications like Photoshop and Premiere.

Rocket Lake only has a single i7 chip: The i7-11700. Like the range of i5s, this processor comes in several variations with different features. If you’re shopping for desktop, make sure to look for the 11700K. It should be the most readily available chip, and it supports overclocking.

The 11700K comes with a little more juice 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 can draw far more power when pushed or if you unlock its power limits in the BIOS for higher sustained clock speeds.

Out of all the current desktop offerings, we recommend the i5-11600K most. It represents an excellent value, with enough power for gaming and light productivity tasks. The i7-11700K isn’t a bad processor per se. It just doesn’t improve on the previous generation much, all while exaggerating power and thermal demands.

If you’re interested in an i7, you’re better off with last-gen’s i7-10700K. It’s cheaper than the 11th-gen counterpart, you can use a cheaper motherboard, and it offers a similar level of performance.

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 currently offers its Tiger Lake processors for thin and light laptops. These chips pack in as much power as possible while keeping power and thermal demands low.

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.

Intel offers some variations of each of these processors for system makers and certain use cases. The company expanded its Tiger Lake lineup in early 2021 with the i7-1180G7, i5-1145G7, and i5-1140G7. Like the other chips, the only thing that separates these processors is clock speed.

Outside of thin-and-light laptops, Intel has its Tiger Lake H35 chips. The “H” is for high performance while the “35” notes the 35-watt TDP. The best of the bunch is the i7-11375H, which features four cores, eight threads, and a boost clock of 5GHz. the i7-11370H is identical, just with a lower clock speed.

Intel offers a single high-performance i5 in this range: The i5-11300H. It has less cache than the i7s and comes with a lower clock speed, though it still comes with four cores and eight threads.

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 costs upward of $1,000 in the past. However, with Intel’s eighth- and ninth-generation processors, it introduced some Core i9 CPUs that are worth considering, too.

The 10950HK rules the roost in the mobile space, packing eight cores and 16 threads into a laptop CPU. It comes with a base clock of 2.4GHz, though it boosts up to a blistering 5.3GHz. Some laptops, like the massively expensive Alienware Area-51m, actually come with a desktop i9.

For desktop PCs, though, Intel’s most recent offering is the i9-11900K. As powerful as it is, we recommend sticking with last-gen’s 10900K instead. Not only is the 10900K cheaper, but it also has fewer issues with power and thermals, and it 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 springing for an i9 (especially if you can get a last-gen chip on sale).

Laptops are a different beast. Even the fastest laptop processor can perform poorly in the wrong machine, so it’s important to read individual laptop reviews.

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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