Best Intel processor: Core i3, i5, i7 and i9 explained
What’s the best Intel processor?
If you’ve already sided with Team Blue in the Intel vs AMD debate, then we’ve provided a rundown of all the best Intel processor options here, as well as multiple explanations if you’re not well rehearsed in CPU lingo.
The first thing you need to know is that Intel is now in its 11th Generation for both laptops and desktop chips. 11th Gen laptop CPUs (aka Tiger Lake) have been around for some time now, and are great for someone who wants a slim and light laptop that can do some light gaming.
11th Gen desktop processors (aka Rocket Lake) are much newer, and a mixed bag. The higher-end chipsets disappoint, struggling to compete with AMD Ryzen rivals, and even Intel’s last generation 10th Gen CPUs.
But what are the best Intel processor options you should buy. Let’s start with a few recommendations for different scenarios.
A snapshot of recommendations
Best Intel processor for budget gaming desktops: Intel Core i5-11400F
Consider the Intel Core i5-11400F if you want a processor for a gaming PC and have a tight budget. It doesn’t have its own GPU, so needs to be paired with a graphics card. But this saves you a little cash over the standard i5-11400.
We haven’t reviewed this processor, but the specs suggest that it probably offers the biggest proportional generation jump in performance of the 11th Gen desktop series, and is not a bad pairing even for very high-end cards like the Nvidia RTX 3080 with most games. That’s right, a £150 CPU can be paired with a GPU that costs £649-£2000, depending on timing and luck when you try to buy a graphics card.
Hardcore PC gamers would disagree, not least because the Intel Core i4-11400F is not an unlocked processor, meaning it cannot be overclocked properly. But it’s a good buy for many.
Best all-rounder performance CPU:
Intel Core i5-10600K
The Intel Core i5-10600K is the Intel CPU I am most likely to recommend to enthusiast system builders who do not have a limitless budget. It’s powerful enough to act as, at most, a mild bottleneck when paired with the most powerful graphics cards.
Performance per pound is sound, and this is a “K” series card, giving you the option to overclock substantially if you have the cooling to match. And it has baked in UHD 630 graphics. You can use it without a graphics card, handy if you’re waiting for prices to cool down a bit before buying.
Intel’s most powerful mainstream desktop CPU:
Intel Core i9-11900K
Our Computing Editor, Ryan Jones, is not a huge fan of the Intel Core i9-11900K, with good reason. It’s expensive and doesn’t match its AMD rivals for multi-threaded performance.
However, its single-core performance is excellent and you need one of these 11th Gen Intel or Ryzen 5000 chips to get PCIe 4.0 support. This is required to max-out the speed of the latest SSDs.
Some of the performance fiends out there should still consider the older Intel Core i9-10900K, though. It’s significantly cheaper and actually outperforms the newer processor in quite a few situations because it has 10 cores, to the Intel Core i9-11900K’s eight.
Best laptop CPU to look out for:
Intel Core i5-1135G7
I’ve picked the laptop Core i5 as the laptop CPU of choice, but your options are likely to determined in part by the model you choose. Not all laptops come in all varieties of processor.
However, the i5-1135G7, i7-1165g7, i5-1185g7 and i7-1185g7 mobile processors are the 11th Gen laptop highlights as they have Intel Xe graphics.
These chipsets are better than the integrated GPUs of their respective desktop cousins, and let you play games once thought of as ultra-demanding on a thin and light laptop. I’m talking about titles like Kingdom Come: Deliverance and The Witcher 3, not genuine oldies like Skyrim.
Choosing between an Intel Core i3, i5, i7 and i9
An Intel Core i5 is a sensible place to start whether you plan to buy a laptop or desktop. You can’t really go wrong with an i5, particularly with the 11th generation chipsets. They have enough power for high-end gaming, intensive image editing work and video editing. And they use less power than a Core i7 or i9, which is nice.
The Core i7 is more powerful than the Core i5 series. And the Core i9 chipsets are, you guessed it, more powerful than the i7s.
Intel’s Core i3 CPUs are usually the least-discussed these days, but they still exist and are a great choice for low-cost family PCs and ultra-budget gaming desktops. However, at the time of writing you’d have to buy a 10th Gen i3-10100 as an 11th Gen Core i3 is not available (yet).
So how do you quantify the differences between an Intel Core i3 and an i9? I’m going to stay away from benchmark results and too much deep tech talk, and stick to two factors: cores and clock speed.
I can use a human analogy here. If you have more cores, you have more workers to do a job. And a higher clock speed means each of these workers can get stuff done at a quicker pace.
Some tasks, like gaming, benefit more from a few fast cores than an increased number of them. But others like video editing love a processor with lots of cores, because the applications are designed to exploit all the available CPU power. Games are, for the most part, miners of graphics card power.
Here’s a run down of the core counts, base clock speeds and turbo clock speeds of the desktop 11th Gen CPUs, for reference.
|Intel Core i5-11400||6 cores||2.6GHz||4.4GHz Turbo|
|Intel Core i5-11600K||6 cores||3.9GHz||4.8GHz Turbo|
|Intel Core i7-11700||8 cores||2.5GHz||4.9GHz Turbo|
|Intel Core i7-11700K||8 cores||3.6GHz||5GHz Turbo|
|Intel Core i9-11900K||8 cores||3.9GHz||5.3GHz Turbo|
|Intel Core i3-10100 (10th Gen)||4 cores||3.6GHz||4.3GHz Turbo|
In previous years we would have had to explain another term to get to the root of performance differences, hyperthreading. But all the main 11th Gen have hyperthreading.
This is where you (to torture the metaphor a little more) get to give each of the workers two jobs at at time instead of one. Those folks should unionise.
Looking a little deeper into the upgrades
Higher-end Intel processors also have more cache memory than mid-range and low-end ones. This is very fast storage used to hold the data the CPU cores are about to need. The Intel Core i3-10100 has 6MB, the Intel Core i5-11600K 12MB.
Top-spec CPUs like the Intel Core i9-11900K and Intel Core i7-11700K have 16MB. However, the last gen i9-10900K has 20MB. Intel can justify this as the newer version has fewer cores, but it’s another reason why some techies look down on the 11th Gen Core i9.
How to choose an Intel CPU: What the names mean
Choosing whether to buy a Core i5, i7 or i9 can seem pretty simple. It’s one of those “good, better, best” scenarios. But you also need to pay attention to the letters at the end of a CPU name before you head to the checkout.
Here’s what they mean.
K – This means the CPU is unlocked, which is essential if you plan on overclocking. This is where you manually increase the speed of a processors cored beyond their defaults, for better performance at the cost of more heat. Gamers who pay attention to the cooling in their desktops will always want an unlocked CPU.
F – Processors with an ‘F’ at the end do not have an integrated graphics section. This means they absolutely need some form of standalone graphics card, or they won’t even be able to display Windows. Those building a gaming PC should consider one of these, as it saves you a small amount of cash, which can be spent elsewhere.
T – Most of you probably don’t want a ‘T’ CPU. These use lower clock speeds in order to consume less power. Why would you want one? They also create less heat, so are a good fit for cramped mini PCs.
G – This means the CPU has its own half-decent graphics section built into the CPU. However, Intel now puts ‘G’ in stacks its Core i series laptop, making it next to meaningless without also looking at the number that follows. “G4” means a laptop has an Intel UHD graphics chip, which is pretty poor. “G7” means it has Intel Xe graphics, which are kinda great. They let you play some surprisingly demanding games
H – ‘H’ stands for high performance. These processors get you closer to desktop PC power, but also use a lot more of battery and create more heat under strain. They are used in thicker, heavier laptops that can accommodate better cooling systems. But you probably wouldn’t want to carry most of them around every day.
U – You don’t see the ‘U’ in Intel’s 11th Gen laptop CPU names. But it’s an important one to know because it was everywhere beforehand, and older processors will float around for a while. It stands for Ultra Low Voltage — battery-saving, in other words. Intel’s “G” laptop CPUs are in the same mould, made largely for thin and light laptops.
Should you go below the Core i series?
There are two rungs below the Intel Core i3 series: Pentium and Celeron.
Intel Pentium CPUs come in Gold and Silver versions. Pentium Golds are desktop CPUs, and are not a bad fit for a computer that will just be used for Office apps, video streaming and browsing. Or as part of a budget gaming PC with a low-end or lower-mid-range graphics card.
However, they only have two cores and are not close to the recommended Core i5-11600 and Core i5-11400 in performance. The G6605 is the latest Pentium Gold processor. Pentium Silver chipsets, like the N6000, are laptop processors and are only well suited to the basics. If the jump to an 11th Gen Intel Core i3 does not cost too much, make that jump.
Celerons are the weakest Intel processors, and are not recommended in general. Laptops with these processors are usually noticeably slow. You are better off spending a little more on at least a Pentium Gold in a desktop build.
Should you wait for the 12th Gen Intel series?
Intel’s next generation of CPUs will offer more dramatic changes than the 11th Gen. The 12th generation of desktop CPUs is known as Alder Lake, and will use sets of ‘power’ cores and efficiency cores. This arrangement is similar the Apple M1 CPU used in the latest MacBook Air. It’s quite a dramatic change.
Where today’s Core i9 CPU has eight cores, the next will likely have 16: eight ‘big’ cores and eight ‘little’ cores. The hope is for a high-end processor that can beat the standard-setting AMD Ryzen 9 5900x/5950X, and make up some of the ground Intel has lost to Apple in the laptop space.
Intel’s next generation of CPUs will be far more interesting than the 11th. But you’ll also need a new motherboard as they will connect using a different socket. Stick to Trusted Reviews for all of the latest news on Intel’s upcoming processors.