Intel Core i3, i5 and i7: Which processor is best for you?

When looking at a new processor for your PC, you will likely compare processors from Intel and AMD. Intel's most popular processors in the desktop world are the Core i3, i5, and i7 product lines. The Core i3 is entry level, and Core i7 processors are the more powerful hyper-threaded quad-core options.

Depending on your requirements, or if you need a faster and more capable CPU, you may want to go for an i5 or an i7. If you're on a budget, Core i3 may be your best option.

That's it, right? Unfortunately not. Intel's model numbers can be rather confusing. For example, do you know the difference between a Core i5-6400 and an i5-7600K? Not only are there tiers and different processor models, but also generations.

Here are some detail that should help you decide between the main families of processors, as well as the specific chips within each tier.

What do the numbers mean?

Intel

It's actually really easy to determine the generation a particular processor belongs to. Taking the examples above, the Core i5-6400 is sixth generation, while the i5-7600K is part of the most recent, seventh-gen. Simply look at the first digit in a model number, and you'll be able to tell if it's a newer or older processor.

The latter three digits determine the SKU and just how powerful the processor is within its immediate product line. The Core i5-7600K is more advanced than the i5-7500, for example. If you wish to go for the more capable CPUs, be sure to check the higher model numbers within a product line. It's worth noting if you're considering Intel's 7th-gen processors that they only support Windows 10.

What about the K located at the end of the Core i5-7600K? That is a suffix Intel uses to show specific features the processors sport. Here's a quick list of those suffixes:

  • H - High-performance graphics.
  • K - Unlocked for overclocking.
  • Q - Quad-core (four physical cores).
  • T - Optimized for efficient desktop computing.
  • U - Ultra low power, usually found on laptop processors (slower than desktop chips).

This should solve the mystery of the codenames, but we always recommend double-checking processor features and specifications on store listings and Intel's Ark platform.

Which Intel processor right for you?

Intel Inside

Now that we have the more complex processor codenames out of the way, here's a brief overview of the three processor families:

  • Core i3: Dual-core processors with hyper-threading.
  • Core i5: Quad-core processors without hyper-threading.
  • Core i7: Quad-core processors with hyper-threading.

There are a number of differences between these product lines. The Core i3 processors don't support Intel's Turbo Boost technology, for example, and they also sport less cache than their Core i5 and Core i7 counterparts. Cache is an important specification that helps the processor perform specific tasks more efficiently. Think of it as the CPU's own super-RAM.

Intel's Core i3 is ideal for people who don't require much power. These processors are more affordable, and they have hyper-threading for improved performance under load but aren't powerful enough for advanced gaming or intensive applications. This line of CPU is best suited for PCs that will be used for email, word processing, light gaming, communications and web browsing.

The Core i5 takes a quad-core processor and strips out hyper-threading. This paves the way for four physical cores to handle everything Windows can throw at the component. The Core i5 family of processors is considered optimal for gaming and productivity. They won't destroy a budget and will be more capable of handling intense tasks than Core i3s.

We recommend the Core i7 series of processors for enthusiasts or for users who will be handling extreme applications, such as video and photo editing. This is the best of the best when it comes to Intel's processor offerings, sporting the most cache, the largest number of physical and virtual cores, and the most advanced integrated graphics.

The Core choice is yours

Should you require a helping hand with a few examples for different PC builds, take a look at our buyer's guide for desktop processors:

Best CPU for your custom PC

Tools like CPU Boos are also available to help make comparisons between two processors a little easier. Generally speaking, Core i3s are more affordable, Core i5s are good for most general purposes, and Core i7s are for enthusiasts and those who require maximum performance.

Rich Edmonds
Senior Editor, PC Build

Rich Edmonds is Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him over on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

58 Comments
  • GPUs: If you have up to 980/Fury/480/1060, an overclocked i5 will do. Higher and you need i7. If you want the most out of your Intel CPU, get *at least* 3200 MHz DDR4 ram.
  • Testing ddr4 2400 against 3200 showed no real world difference in any benchmarks beyond memory speed and it showed zero real world performance gains in games or video editing applications. Someday in the future...Maybe 4 years from now that slight boost might help... Something but even when compared against slower ddr3 there were no benefits even when comparing quad channel mode As for the needing an i7...That's true at least it will be when vulkan. And dx12 take off. For dx11 games a quad core it at 3+ GHz gets the job done even with a GTX 1080 at 4k 30fps.
  • You've been watching the wrong benchmarks.
  • there is no comparison between intel and amd, Intel is simply better than amd, even the new AMD that coming in a few month will not compare to the new i7...
  • AMD-based PCs are cheaper (CPU, mobo, RAM). That's important for many users.
  • its better to go with a kaby lake pentium than the exist amd cpu
  • for the classic retards that downvote when they have no idea https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrKFPTgs32I
  • According to the videos shown, the new AMD CPU's actually do look comparable. So far we've only seen them run as high as 3,4 GHz, so when they are properly clocked, they should be close.
  • I have high hopes that AMD is competitive this cycle but I just can't take their word or cherry picked benchmarks after the bulldozer fiasco
  • It's a bit premature to state that the forthcoming AMD processor, with a brand new architecture, is not as good as the new Core i7. It will be hard for AMD to catch up though because they are really far off the mark right now. But we should all hope that they do catch up and surpass the Core i7 so that Intel has to respond accordingly. After all, it is because of AMD that Intel was forced to leave the Pentnium 4 and move to the Core architecture, and they've been crushing AMD ever since.
  • Your magic powers predicted the future?
  • I'd say the i3 is more than adequate for tons of people. It's still faster and more efficient than the previous generation of CPUs, and gives a better performance vs battery balance (whereas Celeron, Pentium, etc are guzzlers still). But I think we build this "it's too slow" mentality simply because we have faster chips available, so we recommend friends and family to avoid the i3 because it's the lowest, when really you can get solid sub 500$ computer with an i3 that would meet their needs. I'm all for faster, but we need to remember that not everyone is us, and some of us get by with just iPad (I do now), and some just need a low end laptop for basic things and light entertainment.
  • Personally I recommend people to avoid Intel Atom and Celerons as they are genuinely slow at the moment - maxed out cpu usage having win10 + Firefox with 6 tabs open + discord. About 5-6 years ago the i3s were pretty slow but modern ones have made significant advancements. Personally I recommend people a new Intel Core i3 laptop for web browsing and multitasking or a new Pentium if they're on a budget and don't mind some visible minor latency.
  • I'm pretty sure the Core i3/5/7 generation was never slow.
  • The first and second gen i3s were fairly slow back then - especially on Win7 which is much less optimised than Windows 10
  • Get out of here. 3.3+ GHz Westmere i3 were plenty fine back in 2010.
  • I'm talking about the Mobile laptop processors, desktop have been mostly fine
  • I'm talking about the Mobile laptop processors, desktop have been mostly fine
  • If they don't mind AMD though, I would definitely recommend a new 9000 series AMD A9/A10 processor over a new pentium or core i3, as performance is similar for a lower price. The trouble with that though is that there's much less choice... :/
  • the kaby lake pentium have half i3 price and they perform pretty similar
  • On desktop I can confirm your claim (if comparing a 4th gen i3 with 7th gen pentium). On laptops I'm more skeptical...
  • Well what type of optimizations need to be made for my Surface Pro 2 with Inter Core I5? Chrome and Internet Explorer can still be slow to load some sites and I thought the I5 would automatically cancel out those scenarios. Other than that the SP2 has been fine and I'll probably upgrade next year.
  • Try disabling unnecessary background services. To do this, press win + r, type msconfig and hit enter. Then go to the services tab and check "hide all microsoft services". Now uncheck all services except for stuff like "Intel" or your antivirus brand. Restart your PC and it should be a bit quicker already
  • Don't. You will most probably break things.
  • Only if you don't know what you're doing. I gave clear instructions not to disable system related services by hiding all Microsoft ones and not disabling stuff like Intel services and your antivirus. It is safe to do on a Surface provided you follow the exact instructions I provided. I know it's safe because I'm a hobby computer technician and have been doing it for years. It is only unsafe if you disable system services - disabling third-party services that you don't need such as the excessive Google Update service (google products check for updates on launch with that service disabled rather than checking hourly) is perfectly safe and will improve performance
  • Another thing you could try is reducing the amount of startup items. To do this, open task manager and click expand, then go to the startup tab. Disable startup items with high impact, but make sure ones by Intel or Microsoft are left enabled. Restart your pc and it should be a bit quicker
  • Thanks Paint_Ninja. I'll give those suggestions a shot later.
  • You're welcome. :) One last thing I can recommend that is about prevention rather than a remedy is to get unchecky from http://unchecky.com *before* installing anything on your new PC. Unchecky automatically declines "offers" and background apps often bundled with popular Win32 software installs
  • I went from an fx8350 to an i7 and their was a huge difference in performance most of my games saw significant improvement in frame rate
  • So all i5 are quad cores
    In every generation???
  • yes (not counting the mobile variants, those are dual core for the most part)
  • Well, this is confusing the hell out of me. I've been eyeing up a Razor Blade Stealth. If i7's are quad, then why does their website list it with a "7th Gen Intel® Core™ i7-7500U Dual-Core Processor with Hyper Threading 2.7GHz / 3.5GHz (Base/Turbo)​"?  
  • cause the mobile varation are differents
  • This article should have discussed that. I'm also curious about the battery life differences between the different processors, especially the i5 and i7, such as in the Surface Book and Pro.
  • 7th Gen Intel® Core™ i7-7500 [b]U[/b] It's a low powered processor, usually for ultrabooks. A bit surprising though, as I'm more used to Razer using HQ (High Powered for gaming, Quad Core processors) in their devices.
  • This article is good but does little to describe how the mobile processors are different. An I3 for desktop is faster than most if Intels mobile processors, even most of the mobile I7. I7 for desktop is quad core for mainstream desktop, but they've also got 6 core, 8 core, and I think a 10 core extreme edition processor now too. I7 for mobile can represent the fastest 4.5W part, which is Core M at a faster clock and renamed. It can be a duel core 15W part, like most ultra books, and it can be a 45W quad core part. Basically Intel has a confusing naming scheme.
  • Last time I remember Intel having a clear naming convention was up to Pentium 4.  From 8088 to Pentium 4, things were clear.  It started to get confusing when dual-core CPUs started with the Core2 series.  Then the multi-core and hyper-threading started, mobile processors too complicated things, there were some in P4 days but not as much.  Nothing is clear since multi-core started.
  • I miss the days of Pentium 4 vs Athlon 64. Both AMD and Intel had good naming schemes and it was easy to tell processors apart.
  • I have a Surface Pro 4 i5 8gb and it seems spot on for almost everything I've thrown at it so far (small scale photo and video editing, some gaming and lots of media consumption and internet work) is it worth opting for a similarly spec'd device as my next one e.g. Surface Book i5, will the programs I use now get more optimised or will they seem sluggish by next year? Any advice appreciated
  • There is no way of telling. Some stuff (such as Windows) will get more optimised while other stuff may get heavier... Ideally a lower but 3 years newer cpu tier will match your current processor, but it's very variable as improvements are not entirely predictable (a new architecture may be a breakthrough or a minor improvement). It's something you'll need to check on a case-by-case basis, assuming you're not planning to upgrade in the far future (e.g. 5 years time)
  • 7th generation only supporting Windows 10... What does that mean exactly?  They only make drivers for Windows 10 or it prevents other OS to run on them?  If I'd want to build a Linux machine, would it run with the 7th gen if that Linux distribution had the correct drivers?
  • It should work with Linux provided you have the drivers. Intel just doesn't make new drivers for older Windows versions like Win7 as it consumed a lot of time, money and resources.
  • If you're having to ask this question, then that proves you're not ready for Linux.
  • Really helpful article... I had many misconceptions before reading this article.. Thanks
  • I would be careful classifying the i3 as entry level. I have a broadwell i3 in my laptop and I can do video editing with reasonable rendering speeds and even fire up some games.
  • What about 'intel inside' logos designs? Do they mean anything?
  • No. It's just a marketing scam. Whenever you see that logo, it's leading you to believe that there's an Intel CPU in there but in reality, it's an AMD processor with an Intel chipset.
  • What is hyper threading and where do you use it?
  • That's describing how many needles the CPU could thread if a CPU could thread needles. It's just a silly useless benchmark used by marketing departments.
  • Not first at all retards GAF
  • CPU "Boos"? I doubt if autocorrect did that.
  • It is cpu boss
  • Yeah I know that.
  • Well, my laptop is i3, but i run android studio, unity, and visual studio, with two emulators and....
  • i3 for web and multimedia i5 for multitasking and a bit of gaming i7 for getting **** done
  • That's always been my philosophy. I will say that my current machine is a Samsung AIO with an i5 it isn't much for gaming, but I was pleasantly surprised with how it handles just about every other job I can throw at it. I do a lot of multimedia creation. Video, photo, and a ton of audio. Very happy with my purchase. It has also gone from 8 to 8.1 then to 10 flawlessly.
  • I usually come to a conclusion that I need a certain processor then when I'm shopping I see that a better CPU is on sale for cheaper than the one I initially intended. I end up going with the cheaper/better CPU.
  • It is worth noting here that most common i5 processors are dual core, and any U processor is dual core too.  There are too many laptops out there using core i7 U processors, which really aren't that zippy.