Aug 25 2021

The Difference Between Intel Core i7 vs. Core i9: What’s Right for You?

Intel’s two high-end options across desktop and laptop settings might strike a similar pose to business buyers, but each offers distinct benefits depending on the use case.

The chipmaker Intel produces a broad array of processors in mobile and desktop settings, offering a diverse range of CPU options.    

For professional users, an important distinction emerges between the high-end entries in the Intel Core processor series — the i7 and the i9, which are both seen as premium entries in the x86 chip family.

But not all i7 or i9 chips are created equal, and to understand the value proposition, it’s important to take a step back and look at where these chips came from and why (depending on the context) one might be a better choice than the other when looking to upgrade employees’ technology.

History of the Intel Core i7 and Core i9

The Intel Core i7 and Core i9 are on the high-performance end of the long-running Intel Core processor series. Like other processors in the series, they are known for having multiple distinct processor cores — effectively, multiple processing units on the same die. The Core i7 and Core i9 processors generally have more cores and a higher level of power consumption.

While the Core i7 has been available since the earliest generations of the Core processor series, the Core i9 is relatively new, having launched as a desktop processor in 2017.

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What Is the Intel Core Processor Series?

The Intel Core processor series, first launched in 2008, is Intel’s main processor line, noted for its reliance on multiple processor cores. An evolution of the earlier Core Duo line of processors for desktop and mobile computers, the series represents Intel’s primary CPU focus.

It’s not the only one, however: The Core series sits between a number of low-end options intended for niche or consumer use cases (the Atom, Pentium and Celeron processor lines) and the high-end Xeon line of server and workstation processors. Most x86 computers sold today utilize some form of Core processor.

It may seem like a lot of choice, but Hernán Quijano of Intel’s Desktop and Workstation Group says that the variety serves a wide range of workloads.

“There is a reason for every product lineup we have — specifically, in our products, for the workstation segment where we serve a lot of different users across many industries,” Quijano says.

What Are the Different Types of Intel Core Processors for Desktops?

Currently, there are four primary types of Intel Core processors that business consumers may see:

  • Core i3: Generally sold with two- or four-processor cores, this low-end model excels at single-threaded tasks such as web browsing and basic office software.
  • Core i5: Earlier iterations of the midrange Core i5 came with four processor cores, but more recent models, such as the Rocket Lake-S line, now include six cores and 12 processor threads, making them capable options for graphic-intensive workloads and eSports.
  • Core i7: Modern variations of the Core i7 come with as many as eight cores and 16 threads. Core i7s are able to “turbo boost,” providing access to additional processor power as needed. Software development and video editing are two types of tasks that could benefit from a Core i7 or better.
  • Core i9: The Core i9 made a big splash in the desktop market with the release of the i9–9900K in 2018, the first i9 processor targeted at consumer platforms. Most Core i9 models have 8 cores, but the X-series line of processors offers models with as many as 18 cores.

WATCH: Explore the machines that can power a work from anywhere model.

Quijano notes that Intel’s premium desktop lines excel when maximum capabilities are the primary concern — and they can scale up beyond the Core series. Many professionals in entertainment and data sciences, he says, favor the Xeon line of processors, which in its latest iteration can have as many as 56 cores and run in multiprocessor configurations. Apple’s Mac Pro is an example of the Xeon in action.

“There is always a level of performance and expandability that can only be achieved with a powerful fixed or desktop workstation,” Quijano says. “And if you can’t take that system with you, we support technologies to access them remotely in a fast and secure way from your mobile workstation.”

Those purchasing desktop machines should determine whether integrated graphics are necessary; Core processors can be purchased with or without graphics built into the chip, which may negate the need for an additional graphics processing unit (GPU) depending on the workload. Buyers should also consider the power draw of each chip, which generally needs a larger cooling mechanism as processor line evolves.

What Are the Different Types of Intel Mobile Processors?

The mobile versions of Intel’s Core processor line also follow the i3/i5/i7/i9 conventions. But there are distinctions among them, with the primary differentiator being power draw. Intel produces three main lines of mobile processors:

  • Y Series: Also known as the Core M Series, the Y Series is designed to support ultralow power consumption (below 10 watts), starting with Core m3 and ending with the Core m7. A notable model that uses Y Series processors is the Google Pixelbook Go, a Chromebook.
  • U Series: Perhaps the most common chip used in modern laptops, U Series processors consume 15 watts of energy, on average, making them a good match for balancing power consumption and thinness. These processors are generally sold as i3, i5 and i7 models. The Microsoft Surface is a good example of a computer that uses a U Series processor.
  • H Series: These processors draw the most power among mobile chips, providing the strongest performance available in a portable setting. H Series chips are considered the top mobile processors, with i7, i9 and Xeon processors generally sold in H Series models. The Lenovo ThinkPad P1 and the HP ZBook line of laptops are two notable examples of machines that use H Series processors.

Most modern Intel mobile processors have integrated graphics, with the recent Tiger Lake line of processors providing a significant upgrade through its Xe line of integrated GPUs. (Depending on the need, some users may want something dedicated that offers an NVIDIA GPU, however.)

Beyond laptops, Intel’s mobile line of processors are a fundamental part of many small form factor computers, such as Intel’s own Next Unit of Computing (NUC) line.

What Are the Differences Between a Core i7 and a Core i9?

Apart from varying core counts and processor speeds, differences between the i7 and i9 ultimately reflect the needs of the professional user.

When it comes to processors, there is usually a close relationship between power consumption and performance; an ongoing challenge with the x86 architecture is how to maximize power in a limited power envelope. In desktop and mobile settings, the i7 tends to use less power (and on the mobile side, is available in lower-power Y and U versions), while the i9 generally represents performance without compromise.

Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy, says the i7 and i9 both have a place in the office, but the Core i9 generally makes the most sense for performance-intensive computing (for tasks such as graphics visualization, video production, 3D modeling and multitasking).

“Generally speaking, Intel Core i9 processors offer higher performance because they have more cores, higher frequencies, more cache and draw more power,” Moorhead says. “If you or your users require the highest performance with single-threaded or multithreaded workloads, the i9 is the one to choose.”

Is It Worth Upgrading an i7 to an i9?

In many cases — especially for laptop users — an i7 will deliver more than enough performance. But if you can live without some of the benefits of a less powerful processor, such as longer battery life, it may make sense to go with the i9.

“The trade-off with the i9, generally, is higher power draw, more fan noise and a higher price,” Moorhead says.

Quijano says that, despite the added cost, many businesses are willing to consider the high-end options, as i9 processors strike a good balance between the solid single-core performance of the Intel Core series and the multicore performance that Xeon processors excel at. He adds that mobile workstations, traditionally favored by workers with onsite roles, found a home with many employees during the pandemic, given the need for maximum power on the go.

“The pandemic has made mobile workstations the most flexible systems for many users,” Quijano says. “And as we make plans to go back to our offices one or two days each week, mobile workstations are a perfect solution.”

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