Computer

Intel Core i3 vs. Core i5 CPUs

Should you buy your next computer with a Core i3 or Core i5 processor? nikkytok/Shutterstock

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.

If you’d rather just look at the best CPUs out there, here are Intel and AMD’s top chips.

What’s out there?

Intel Core i7-7700K review
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

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.

Desktop

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.

Laptop

Dell XPS 13 2019
The 2019 version of the XPS 13 sports a new 10th-generation Ice Lake CPU. Riley Young/Digital Trends

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?

hp spectre folio x360 13 2 in 1 laptops amazon deal 2019 review 17 1200x9999

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.

Onboard graphics

Stock photo of Intel 9th gen core processor
Intel Newsroom/Intel Corporation

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.

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