CPU processors: the backbone to something that’s already been called the backbone of something. It’s trippy stuff, confusing to many, but today, we’re about to break it down for novice and expert alike.
Choosing between the lower-case i’s is a question of two factors and how much weight each might hold: your intended usage and your budget.
These can also be taken as the two steps in which you can decide – figure out the limits of your processes and then how much money you’d be able or willing to spend.
What does the ‘i’ stand for?
The ‘i’ has come about because of Intel’s specific technology and architecture at the backbone of these processors (if we say ‘backbone’ a fourth time, some evil spirit will definitely awaken).
You’ll often read that the ‘i’ used for differentiation to stands for either Itanium, the 64-bit architecture that these processors utilize from the ones that other series or manufacturers use, or Ivy Bridge Microarchitecture (coming from the 22-nanometer manufacturing process), but the ‘i’ is being used since way before events such as the development of Itanium.
The actual reason, in fact, is much less technically appealing, and not really officially definitive.
Intel found out as a result of a 1991 court case that numbers can’t be trademarked: “Intel said that it would begin referring to its chip as the i386 or the Intel386, terms that it will trademark. (As opposed to the generic term ‘386’, which was also being used by AMD). These names will “more clearly distinguish Intel products from imitations,” the company said in a statement.” Hence, the ‘i’ is written in the same typeface as their logo in all their marketing.
This is important enough to put in the name as the specific way a company manufactures its processors practically defines the thing and the specific tasks it’s optimized for.
This is why, say, the best CPU for gaming will be a totally different affair both under the hood and at your hands than the type of CPU being used in an accounting firm.
What are the criteria for differentiating between these processors?
The essential difference between all the different microprocessors is what we can call “computing power”. If you’ve read articles on overclocking, you’ll be aware of some of this already: clock speed grades, power consumption levels, and – actually, this is a good excuse to squeeze in a bulleted list.
- Hyperthreading support
- Base/turbo/clock speeds
- Power consumption levels
- Cache memory amount
- Virtualization support
At the same power consumption level grade, you have the i3, i5, i7, and i9.
The differences between the i3-i9 are a combination of all of these (but the newer additions do usually have something the others don’t which is apparent heat dissipation issues).
The i3, i5, i7, i9: compared
In a word, the higher the generation, the better the performance.
The “core” i3-i9 nomenclature differentiates the performance between each generation of the family, and every generation of CPU processor has its own corresponding codename, chipset, and socket. Stated, it’s understood to be Nehalem, Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, Haswell, Broadwell, Skylake, Kaby Lake, Coffee Lake for generations one to nine (Coffee Lake is used for both the eighth and ninth generations).
The core counts with the i3 processors are the lowest, and, currently, the i9 has the highest or greatest core count, and then clock speed and instructions per each clock cycle (IPC) determine the efficiency between them, such as the transistors shrinking from 45 nanometers to 14nm over the course of their existence.
Understanding this difference between efficiency and performance is key.
Performance shot up on the improvement scale when Intel’s competitor AMD introduced their Ryzen core, and the pressure was on for Intel. They responded with their Coffee Lake line, the 8th generation, which suddenly boasted incomparable performance and core count as opposed to the dual-core i3 and quad-core i5 and i7.
To put that last part into a detailed explanation, the i3s had 2 cores and 4 threads, and the i5s both had 4 cores and 4 threads and 8 threads, respectively.
This means that the i5s have no hyperthreading (as they have two threads per core) and the i3s don’t have Turbo Boost.
Categorically speaking, the i9 is the best. However, not everyone needs to be running a Core i9 processor just to browse the Internet better or watch videos in higher definition than they’re already watching; it’s usually reserved for the high-intensity rendering of media just as visuals, motion graphics, and animation.
Most workstations or gaming stations and portable computers will have an i7, and most laptops work perfectly with an i5 (even for casual gamers). It should be noted that people might not wish to go for the Intel processors at all, preferring Ryzen, especially for animators and the likes.
The different series of i3, i5, i7, and i9
Finally, we can group these four into different series of seven or eight.
For example, you could have a Y-series i7 or a K-series i5. The series are suffixed with Y, U, H, G, T, K, F, or no suffix at all (for desktop processors).
These series differentiate power level consumption, with the Y-series having low power optimized for tablets, U-series with low power for laptops in regular use, the H-series have a medium amount of power for performance laptops, the G-series allowing for a multi-chip package and high-end discrete graphics, T-series for all-in-one computers, and the K-series being processors capable of maximum performance.
Conclusion: recommendations for usage
Let’s synthesize this diversified knowledge into some concrete suggestions for you and bring back the bulleted list to go out in a blaze of blogging-glory.
- For truly, stunningly, and perfectly mediocre performance: Y-series Core i5/i7 (e.g. Core i5-7Y54).
- For the average productive day: U-series Core i5 (e.g. Core i5-8250U).
- For the supremely productive day: G-Series or U-series i7 (e.g. Core i7-8750G).
- For workstations and gaming: H-series i9 or i7 (e.g. Core i9-8950HK).
A primer on the basics and a comparison between them has been presented here. Before settling and buying one, however, always take a look at the specs and see if you might be paying for features you wouldn’t need.
Thought comes to mind that the i-series has for years been a moving window in the world of processors and computing power. To me it makes senses to buy in the upper end, because it won’t be that for long. Software requirements increase consistently and as new versions are released, they will no longer run on older processors. On the other hand, I find that I have to keep an older system available to run applications that don’t meet newer standards. I just finished building up my first i9 laptop, not cheap, but it should be good for maybe five years. But I still use some software that is stuck on Windows XP because I like it, it meets my needs, and newer versions have become loaded with ‘crap’ I don’t want.
For some perspective, this i9 laptop has many hundreds of times the capacity of literal room-filling systems I first worked on early in my IT career.