Intel Core Chip Series

What’s the difference between an Intel Core i3, i5 and i7?

Intel Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 CPUs have been around for a few years now, but some buyers still get stumped whenever they attempt to build their own systems and are forced to choose among the three. With the more recent Haswell (fourth generation ) architecture now on store shelves, we expect the latest wave of buyers to ask the same kind of questions.

If you want a plain and simple answer, then generally speaking, Core i7s are better than Core i5s, which are in turn better than Core i3s. Nope, Core i7 does not have seven cores nor does Core i3 have three cores. The numbers are simply indicative of their relative processing powers.

Their relative levels of processing power are based on a collection of criteria involving their number of cores, clock speed (in GHz), size of cache, as well as Intel technologies like Turbo Boost and Hyper-Threading.

Note: Core processors can be grouped in terms of their target devices, i.e., those for laptops and those for desktops. Each has its own specific characteristics/specs. To avoid confusion, we’ll focus on the desktop variants. Note also that we’ll be focusing on the 4th Generation (codenamed Haswell) Core CPUs.

Number of cores
The more cores there are, the more tasks (known as threads) can be served at the same time. The lowest number of cores can be found in Core i3 CPUs, i.e., which have only two cores. Currently, all Core i3s are dual-core processors.

Currently all Core i5 processors, except for the i5-4570T, are quad cores in Australia. The Core i5-4570T is only a dual-core processor with a standard clock speed of 2.9GHz. Remember that all Core i3s are also dual cores. Furthermore, the i3-4130T is also 2.9GHz, yet a lot cheaper. Sounds like it might be a better buy than the i5. What gives?

At this point, I’d like to grab the opportunity to illustrate how a number of factors affect the overall processing power of a CPU and determine whether it should be considered an i3, an i5, or an i7.

Even if the i5-4570T normally runs at the same clock speed as Core i3-4130T, and even if they all have the same number of cores, the i5-4570T benefits from a technology known as Turbo Boost.

Intel Turbo Boost
The Intel Turbo Boost Technology allows a processor to dynamically increase its clock speed whenever the need arises. The maximum amount that Turbo Boost can raise clock speed at any given time is dependent on the number of active cores, the estimated current consumption, the estimated power consumption, and the processor temperature.

For the Core i5-4570T, its maximum allowable processor frequency is 3.6GHz. Because none of the Core i3 CPUs have Turbo Boost, the i5-4570T can outrun them whenever it needs to. Because all Core i5 processors are equipped with the latest version of this technology — Turbo Boost 2.0 — all of them can outrun any Core i3.

Cache Size
Whenever the CPU finds that it keeps on using the same data over and over, it stores that data in its cache. Cache is just like RAM, only faster — because it’s built into the CPU itself. Both RAM and cache serve as holding areas for frequently used data. Without them, the CPU would have to keep on reading from the hard disk drive, which would take a lot more time.

Basically, RAM minimises interaction with the hard disk, while cache minimises interaction with the RAM. Obviously, with a larger cache, more data can be accessed quickly. The Haswell (fourth generation) Core i3 processors have either 3MB or 4MB of cache. The Haswell Core i5s have either 4MB or 6MB of cache. Finally, all Core i7 CPUs have 8MB of cache, except for i7-4770R, which has 6MB. This is clearly one reason why an i7 outperforms an i5 — and why an i5 outperforms an i3.

Hyper-Threading
Strictly speaking, only one thread can be served by one core at a time. So if a CPU is a dual core, then supposedly only two threads can be served simultaneously. However, Intel has a technology called Hyper-Threading. This enables a single core to serve multiple threads.

For instance, a Core i3, which is only a dual core, can actually serve two threads per core. In other words, a total of four threads can run simultaneously. Thus, even if Core i5 processors are quad cores, since they don’t support Hyper-Threading (again, except the i5-4570T) the number of threads they can serve at the same time is just about equal to those of their Core i3 counterparts.

This is one of the many reasons why Core i7 processors are the creme de la creme. Not only are they quad cores, they also support Hyper-Threading. Thus, a total of eight threads can run on them at the same time. Combine that with 8MB of cache and Intel Turbo Boost Technology, which all of them have, and you’ll see what sets the Core i7 apart from its siblings.

The upshot is that if you do a lot of things at the same time on your PC, then it might be worth forking out a bit more for an i5 or i7. However, if you use your PC to check emails, do some banking, read the news, and download a bit of music, you might be equally served by the cheaper i3.

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