As impressive as Intel’s high-end Core i7 and Core i9 CPUs are, there’s much greater value to be had at the lower-end of the scale. Core i3 and Core i5 CPUs offer powerful cores for gaming and work at a much more modest price than their higher-end counterparts. But which is best for your next system?
To help you decide, we’ve put together a deep-dive look at the newest and best CPUs from Intel in both the Core i3 and Core i5 range. Whether you want to game all night on a prebuilt system, or build a new PC for work-related productivity, this guide will help you find the right CPU for you.
What’s out there?
Before we dig into the minutia of the individual processors and what they can do, let’s take a broad look at the latest range of CPUs from Intel on desktop and mobile for both Core i3 and Core i5 designs.
Intel’s desktop range of CPUs have lost some ground to AMD in recent years, but they’re still excellent for gaming and work and, thanks to the increased competition, have more cores and higher clocks than ever.
|Cores||Threads||Base clock||Boost clock||Graphics||TDP||Cost**|
|Core i5-9600K*||6||6||3.7GHz||4.6GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.15GHz||95W||$ 220|
|Core i5-9600||6||6||3.1GHz||4.6GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.15GHz||65W||$ 210|
|Core i5-9500*||6||6||3.0GHz||4.4GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.10GHz||65W||$ 155|
|Core i5-9500T||6||6||2.2GHz||3.7GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.10GHz||35W||$ 192|
|Core i5-9400*||6||6||2.9GHz||4.1GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.05GHz||65W||$ 155|
|Core i5-9400T||6||6||1.8GHz||3.4GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.05GHz||35W||$ 182|
|Core i3-9350K*||4||4||4.0GHz||4.6GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.15GHz||91W||$ 183|
|Core i3-9320||4||4||3.7GHz||4.4GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.15GHz||62W||$ 155|
|Core i3-9300||4||4||3.7GHz||4.3GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.15GHz||62W||$ 140|
|Core i3-9300T||4||4||3.2GHz||3.8GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.10GHz||35W||$ 143|
|Core i3-9100*||4||4||3.6GHz||4.2GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.10GHz||65W||$ 89|
|Core i3-9100T||4||4||3.1GHz||3.7GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.10GHz||32W||$ 122|
* These CPUs are also available as an “F” variant. That means they ship with no onboard graphics. All other specifications are identical to the original vesrion.
** All prices for major CPUs were correct at the time of this writing based on active listings at major retailers. “T” chips, however, are not on sale to the general public. Cost is based on MSRP at launch.
Intel’s laptop processors have been much more impressive over the past year, with new 10nm options with excellent onboard graphics, as well as higher-clocked 14nm alternatives.
|Cores||Threads||Base clock||Boost clock||Graphics||TDP|
|Core i5-1035G7||4||8||1.2GHz||3.7GHz||Iris Plus (11th generation) @ 1.05GHz||12-25W|
|Core i5-1035G4||4||8||1.1GHz||3.7GHz||Iris Plus (11th generation) @ 1.05GHz||12-25W|
|Core i5-1035G1||4||8||1.0GHz||3.6GHz||UHD @ 1.05GHz||13-25W|
|Core i5-1030G7||4||8||0.8GHz||3.5GHz||Iris Plus (11th generation) @ 1.05GHz||12W|
|Core i5-1030G4||4||8||0.7GHz||3.5GHz||Iris Plus (11th generation) @ 1.05GHz||12W|
|Core i3-1005G1||2||4||1.2GHz||3.4GHz||UHD @ 0.9GHz||13-25W|
|Core i3-1000G4||2||4||1.1GHz||3.2GHz||Iris Plus (11th generation) @ 0.9GHz||12W|
|Core i3-1000G1||2||4||1.1GHz||3.2GHz||UHD @ 0.9GHz||12W|
|Core i5-10210U*||4||8||1.6GHz||4.2GHz||UHD 620 @ 1.10GHz||10-25W|
|Core i3-10110U*||2||4||2.1GHz||4.1GHz||UHD 620 @ 1.00GHz||12.5W|
|Core i5-9400H||4||8||2.5GHz||4.3GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.10GHz||45W|
|Core i5-9300H||4||8||2.4GHz||4.1GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.05GHz||45W|
|Core i5-8500B||6||6||3.0GHz||4.1GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.10GHz||65W|
|Core i5-8400B||6||6||2.8GHz||4.0GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.05GHz||65W|
|Core i5-8400H||4||8||2.5GHz||4.2GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.10GHz||45W|
|Core i5-8300H||4||8||2.3GHz||4.0GHz||UHD 630 @ 1.00GHz||45W|
|Core i5-8279U||4||8||2.4GHz||4.1GHz||Iris Plus 655 @ 1.15GHz||28W|
|Core i5-8269U||4||8||2.6GHz||4.2GHz||Iris Plus 655 @ 1.10GHz||28W|
|Core i5-8259U||4||8||2.3GHz||3.8GHz||Iris Plus 655 @ 1.05GHz||28W|
|Core i5-8257U||4||8||1.4GHz||3.9GHz||Iris Plus 645 @ 1.05GHz||15W|
|Core i3-8100B||4||4||3.6GHz||N/A||UHD 630 @ 1.05GHz||65W|
|Core i3-8100H||4||4||3.0GHz||N/A||UHD 630 @ 1.00GHz||45W|
|Core i3-8109U||2||4||3.0GHz||3.6GHz||Iris Plus 655 @ 1.05GHz||28W|
* These two CPUs are part of the Comet Lake generation, which is still classified as 10th-generation, though it uses a 14nm process, giving it higher clock speeds than the other 10th-generation (Ice Lake) CPUs. Its graphics are far weaker, however, and the CPUs aren’t as impressive clock for clock.
Intel’s laptop lineup is far more expansive than its desktop generation at this time, as it contains four (somewhat) distinct generations of CPUs. The eighth-generation is the most populous and is slowly being replaced by the two new 10th-generation architectures. The ninth-generation didn’t make much of a dent in Intel’s mobile business, but it’s still available in a limited form.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but a number of general rules apply, which we’ll address individually below.
How many cores and threads do you need?
Whether you’re looking at desktop or mobile CPUs, one of the most important considerations is how many cores and threads you need. They can be one of the most obvious differences between higher-end Core i5 and lower-end Core i3 CPUs, and can contribute significantly to cost, power demands, and thermal output.
Modern PCs, whether desktop or laptop, are great at performing multiple tasks at once, and having separate cores and (to a lesser extent) separate threads to handle those tasks makes for a much faster PC experience. So, if you’re a heavy multitasker who likes to browse the web with lots of tabs open at once, or wants to stream games while playing them, or watch Netflix while working, more cores and threads can help.
There’s no hard and fast rule, as everyone’s needs and uses are differen, but her are some general tips:
- Pure gamers should have, at a minimum, a quad-core CPU, but there is some benefit to having six and even more cores. Higher thread counts are less important, but there is a slight benefit to them. If you’re looking to game at 1080p, the best CPU you can get will get you higher framerates. That is not the case at higher resolutions, but even then a powerful CPU will make for a better gaming experience. A Core i5 will be of real benefit.
- For work and productivity tasks like video editing, transcoding, photo editing, or heavy web browsing, higher thread counts are a real benefit. Six cores is great, but you’d also do well with four cores and eight threads if you opt for a CPU with hyperthreading.
- For general web browsing and media viewing, you can get away with a dual core CPU with four threads. A full quad core (even with just four threads) will give you more multitasking performance, but either way, a Core i3 will be more than enough.
Having more cores than you need does provide some measure of future-proofing, but in the here and now, buying what you need is a good idea.
What about clock speed?
The next major consideration when it comes to system performance is clock speed. That’s the Gigahertz (GHz) rating. For comparable CPUs in the same generation with the same core counts, clock speed has the biggest impact on their capabilities.
If you are looking to perform tasks that need quick bursts of high power, like photo editing, then a higher boost clock (a temporary higher frequency during heavy system load) is going to be of some benefit. If you want more sustained performance, like for gaming, a higher base clock (the lowest clock the chip will run at) is worth aiming for.
Core i5 CPUs tend to have higher clock speeds overall, and will deliver greater performance, but there are some core i3 chips which clock pretty high too — especially on desktop.
Clock speed is more of a linear improvement than core and thread counts. Just about everything is faster with higher clocks, but more cores will deliver greater multithreaded performance than a higher clock speed in most cases.
10th vs. 9th vs. 8th generation
It’s a confusing time to buy an Intel CPU, because there are really four different generations of CPUs to pick from. Two 10th generations, a 9th-generation, and an 8th-generation. There are some unique aspects to each of them, and there is plenty of crossover for even more confusion. But as with other aspects of these CPUs, there are some general rules to consider.
The 8th-generation is the oldest and, in general, has the worst performance and efficiency, but that’s not always the case. CPUs from the 9th and 10th generations with comparable specifications will be faster, but a Core i5 8th-generation chip may still beat a Core i3 from the newer generations in most uses.
On desktop, 9th-gen is king. There is little point in going backwards to the eighth-generation, unless you find a particularly good deal. The 10th generation has yet to make its appearance on mainstream desktops, so hold out for 2020, but even then it will be quite different than what’s offered on mobile.
As for those 10th-generation chips on mobile, the Core i5s are far more capable, with much greater clock speeds, making them excellent for gaming and heavy editing tasks. For general web browsing and entry-level gaming, Core i3s are perfectly acceptable. In terms of Ice Lake versus Comet Lake, the latter tends to be faster thanks to higher clock speeds, but the onboard graphics aren’t as good.
If you don’t plan to have a graphics card in your PC, then you need to make sure that your CPU has onboard graphics or you won’t be able to display anything on your monitor(s). Make sure to avoid the CPUs with “F” in their name, as their graphics chip is disabled.
In terms of the Core i5 versus Core i3 debate, desktop chips are pretty much all the same. There’s a few megahertz (MHz) in it, but all the UHD 630 solutions are roughly as fast as each other. They’re fine for entry-level gaming, but don’t expect great detail or high frames per second.
In terms of mobile, there’s some more intriguing options available. Iris Plus graphics are almost always better than UHD, whether they’re part of a Core i3 or Core i5 CPU. Tenth-generation Ice Lake CPUs, however, with their 11th-generation Iris Plus graphics, have the best onboard GPUs of all and are much more capable at budget gaming.
If you’re just looking to browse the web and watch Netflix and YouTube, though, any Core i3 will do.
Power and thermals
If you want a desktop PC that doesn’t push its cooler(s) too much, then lower-wattage Core i3 CPUs are the way to go. Core i5s will still work with the stock cooler, but with more cores and higher clock speeds (the K-series especially) comes a higher TDP, which means greater demand on your power supply, and your cooler. That may make for a noisier PC and could warrant an aftermarket cooler to keep temperatures and noise levels low.
TDP is arguably more important on mobile, because it effects weight, size, noise levels, and battery life. Lower TDPs typically mean better battery life and a lighter, more portable build, though not always. That would suggest a Core i3 would be better, but it’s important to take note of the new-generation i5s. Many of those have a broader range of TDP depending on what you’re doing, meaning that they are more efficient and can help extend battery life and keep thermals low through clever power management.
Core i3s will do for most, but don’t discount a Core i5
With so many CPUs to pick from in Intel’s lineup, finding the perfect CPU isn’t easy, but if you focus on what you need to do with your CPU, your choice shouldn’t be too tough. Core i3 CPUs from any generation are decent general-use chips that will handle entry-level gaming, web browsing, media viewing, and even light workloads without difficulty. The 10th-generation options come with new onboard graphics that can really outstrip their older counterparts.
However, while the Core i5s are more expensive, if you need some extra oomph, they have it in spades. More cores, threads, and higher clock speeds mean better performance in just about everything. But that usually comes with higher power and thermal requirements, so make sure to only buy what you need and will need in the near future. Anything more than that will future-proof your system, but you’ll also end up with wasted resources and more power and thermal demands than you might have wanted.