When it comes to processors, it can often be hard to decipher the string of numbers that distinguish them. Generally, though, the higher the number, the more powerful the chips are. Core i9s are more powerful than Core i7s, which are more powerful than Core i5s. Simple enough.
But when it comes to which you should buy, it becomes more complex. There are some important differences between them, especially when it comes to the latest generation.
To help you decide which is the right CPU for you, we’ve pitted the Intel i7 versus Core i9 to see how much you really get by upgrading.
Should you buy a Core i7 or i9?
In most cases, a Core i7 is more than enough. The new i7-10700K comes with the same eight cores as last gen’s i7-9700K, though with twice the number of threads, boosting the count from eight to 16.
That puts it on the same level as last generation’s i9-9900K for simultaneous thread support. The newer i7 even comes with a higher base and boost clock, at the cost of higher power and thermal demand (125 watts on the new i7 compared to 95 watts on the previous i9).
That makes comparing a Core i7 to a Core i9 directly tricky, as generations start to step on each other’s toes. In practice, CPUs like the 9900K and 10700K perform similarly, despite using a different socket and architecture. To make matters worse, these processors are the same price as of late 2020: Around $400.
If you’re buying the latest generation of Intel processors — Comet Lake on desktop and Tiger Lake on mobile — a Core i7 is more than enough for gaming, productivity, and light video or audio editing. Core i9s are for those who need absolute cutting edge performance in games or work tasks and don’t mind paying for the privilege.
Core i7 vs. Core i9 on desktop
There are three desktop i7 chips available from Intel’s most recent 10th-generation Comet Lake line, but they’re all very similar. The i7-10700 is the base model, clocking in at eight cores and 16 threads with a max turbo frequency of 4.8GHz. The i7-10700T is slightly slower with a max turbo of 4.5GHz, though it isn’t available as a stand-alone product. The “T” indicates a power-optimized lifecycle, making the i7-10700T a slightly less powerful chip meant for small, pre-built desktops.
For around $50 more than the i7-10700, you can pick up the “K” version, which means the chip is unlocked and you can overclock it. The unlocked version comes with a slightly faster base and boost frequency, topping out at 5.1GHz.
Core i9 CPUs have more cores and higher clocks than their same-generation core i7s. They’re the cream of the crop, though they tend to offer less value for the money. The i9-10900 comes with 10 cores and 20 threads, with a max boost frequency of 5.2GHz. Although a better performer overall, the i9-10900 is around $100 more expensive than the i7-10700, while the unlocked “K” version is more expensive again, offering the pinnacle of Intel desktop CPU performance whether you’re gaming or performing heady editing and CAD work.
Intel’s X-series HEDT CPUs offer up to 18 cores for workstation users, which can be useful for software that can take advantage of greater core counts. They are hard to recommend for anyone else, though, as they are very expensive for what they offer (especially when compared to the AMD competition) and are based on much older CPU technology.
Core i7 vs. Core i9 in laptops
Intel’s most recent CPU releases have all been mobile offerings, from the impressively-capable 9th-generation Core i7 and Core i9 chips to the 10nm Ice Lake, 10th-generation CPUs that started shipping in August 2019. The former starts with the six-core, 12-thread Core i7-9750H, which can boost up to 4.5GHz and maxes out with the stupendously powerful Core i9-9980HK, which has a full eight cores and 16 threads, plus a maximum single-core turbo speed of 5.0GHz. These were the first mobile processors with eight cores to be found in relatively thin and light laptops — and from the tests we’ve seen, they’re incredibly powerful in multi-threaded performance.
It was the most powerful mainstream mobile processor we’d ever seen, showing up in top configurations for the new Dell XPS 15 and MacBook Pro. But more recent Ice Lake processors offer some stiff competition. The top-tier Core i7-1068G7 CPU might not quite reach the same clock speeds (topping out at 4.1GHz on a single core), and it only has four cores and eight threads, but it does so for just 28 watts.
In comparison, the big Core i9 CPUs draw as much as 45 watts. One Core i7 Ice Lake CPU, the 1060G7, can operate with as low a TDP as 9 watts. They also enjoy much more capable, 11th generation, Intel Iris Plus graphics.
Although not commercially available yet, Intel’s latest 11th-generation Tiger Lake mobile processors have a number of improvements over last generation’s, particularly in Adobe applications with artificial intelligence (A.I.) processing and in applications that benefit from improved single-threaded performance. There’s a single chip from the i9 range in this lineup: The i9-10980HK. It’s an impressive chip, with eight cores, 16 threads, and a max boost clock of 5.3GHz. For i7s, there are three options: The i7-1160G7, i7-1165G7, and i7-1185G7.
These chips all come with four cores and eight threads, with max turbo speeds ranging from 4.4GHz on the 1160G7 to 4.8GHz on the 1185G7. All of these chips, including the i9, come with Intel’s new Xe graphics, too, and although the new tech isn’t as impressive as a discreet GPU, it can still put up reasonable frame rates at medium settings in games like Battlefield V.
There aren’t any laptops with Tiger Lake processors yet, but by the end of 2020, there should be more than 150 models. Price isn’t the only limiting factor in a mobile form factor, though. You should also consider thermals, which can either limit performance or lead to a less portable design.
The i9-10980HK has an extremely impressive boost clock on paper, but with a TDP of 45 watts (up to 65 watts), it’s a hot chip by mobile standards. By contrast, the slowest i7-1160G7 consumes between 7 and 15 watts, while the i7-1185G7 tops out at a mere 28 watts.
To be clear, these are all high-performance chips with a power budget to match. However, the i9 consumes significantly more power than all three of the competing i7s, and although it has a very high clock speed, you probably won’t reach it with standard mobile cooling solutions. This is true across generations. Core i9s have better specs and perform better with the right cooling solution, but not all laptops can make the most of their performance potential.
What about Core i5 CPUs?
If the price tags and features of the Core i7 and Core i9 CPUs seem a little overkill for what you’re planning to use them for, you’re in luck. Intel has a host of more affordable and modest options for you to pick from. They’re typically called Core i5 CPUs, and they offer most of the performance capabilities of the entry-level Core i7 CPUs for even less — and can even match some i9s in gaming when overclocked.
At the $200 to $300 mark, you might want to consider AMD’s Ryzen CPUs, too. They have the kind of core counts you’d only typically see with Core i7 and Core i9 CPUs, so they make for great multi-threaded workhorses, and with the recent 3000 series improvements to single-threaded performance, they’re almost as good as the Intel competition at gaming, too.