When it comes to processors, it can be often hard to decipher the string of numbers that distinguish them. Generally, though, the higher the number, the more powerful it is. Core i9 is more powerful than the Core i7, which is more powerful than Core i5. Simple enough.
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?
For most people, a Core i7 processor should be powerful enough. With Intel’s 9th-generation CPUs, the Core i7-9700K has the same eight cores as the 9900K, a frequency that almost matches it (and often can with a little overclocking) and has comparable performance in games and more limited-thread tasks. It’s the lack of hyperthreading which most separates them, giving the 9900K support for up to 16 threads at a time and noticeably improved multithreaded performance.
Other Core i9 CPUs like the older i9-7900X, all the way up to the super-powered i9-9980XE, expand on core counts, and supported threads and typically deliver greater multi-threaded performance. There are some games which can take advantage of the additional threads and certain benchmarks will also benefit from the added grunt of those super-expensive chips, but in most cases, the benefit is minimal.
If you’re looking to outfit a workstation for rendering, video editing, or other intensive tasks that can take advantage of large numbers of cores, then a Core i9 is worth considering. For almost anyone else, the Core i7 is the better choice.
Core i7 vs. Core i9 on desktops
The most modest of Intel’s current Core i7 CPUs is the 8th-generation Core i7-8700, which comes with six cores, supports 12 threads, and a maximum turbo frequency of 4.6GHz. There’s also a “K” version of that same chip, which has a higher base frequency and can turbo up to 4.7GHz. However, the main differentiating factor is that it has an unlocked multiplier, so it can be overclocked more easily. If that’s not something you’re interested in, the 8700 will perform much the same out of the box.
Considering there’s about a $50 difference between them as, it’s worth considering whether you’re likely to take advantage of the overclocking potential since it does come at a premium.
For around the same price as the 8700K you can get they Intel Core i7-9700K, which lacks hyperthreading support, so can only handle six threads at a time with its six cores. It does, however, turbo clock up to 4.9GHz, so it’s out of the box performance in certain tasks is greater.
The Core i9 CPUs are more powerful in some ways, but they do cost a lot more for it. The 9900K is the only other relatively mainstream CPU Intel offers in this performance bracket and at around $485 it adds two cores, hyperthreading support (up to 16 threads at a time) and a turbo frequency that can hit 5GHz, but it’s not significantly more powerful.
From there, Intel’s Core i9 CPUs go from expensive to wallet destroying. The 10-core i9-9820X costs $770, and the prices go all the way up to the $2,000 9980XE. It offers 18 cores and 36 threads, but its stock frequency maxes out at 4.5GHz. These CPUs are expected to be replaced in 2019, however, with new Cascade Lake CPUs, though details on them remain thin at this time.
Core i7 vs. Core i9 on laptops
Intel most recent CPU releases have all been mobile offerings, from the impressively-capable 9th-generation Core i7 and Core i9 chips, to the latest 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 and 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 so far, they’re incredibly powerful in multi-threaded performance.
It’s currently 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 it has some new, stiff competition from the new Ice Lake processors. 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 45w. One Core i7 Ice Lake CPU, the 1060G7, can operate with as low a TDP as 9w. They also enjoy much more capable, 11th generation, Intel Iris Plus graphics.
We don’t know yet if we’ll see Core i9 CPUs from Ice Lake which can challenge the ninth-generation for top-tier performance, but Intel plans to stick to these lower-powered U-series and Y-series processors to start off which are limited to Core i7.
The first mobile Core i9 chip, the 8950HK, didn’t make as big of a difference in performance because it used six cores just like the Core i7-8750H. But when it comes down to a purchasing decision, you really only need a laptop with a Core i9 processor if you’re doing something like editing video or doing 3D modeling.
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.
At the $200-$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 make for great multi-threaded workhorses and with the recent 3000-series improvements to single threaded performance, they’re as good if not even better at gaming than Intel.
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