Intel Core i7 vs. Core i9: What’s the Difference?


Whether you’re upgrading an aging desktop PC or just want to stay on the cutting edge of what’s out there in laptops, Intel’s lineup of Core i7 and Core i9 processors is loaded with powerful workhorse options. Most can handle almost any task you throw their way in a snap. But Intel offers lots of them, and they mostly sound the same.

When you are buying or building a PC, you need to know the truly important differences between these two chip stacks—the layer of nuance that goes beyond Intel’s simple i7-versus-i9 marketing-speak. Which class of CPU is the right pick for your next machine? Let’s dig into the details of each to find out. (Also, check out our Core i5-versus-i7 comparison for more on how those one-step-down families of chip stack up.)


Intel Core i7 and Core i9: A Short History

The original Intel Core i7 stack of high-end desktop CPUs dates almost all the way back to the introduction of the Core line itself, hitting the stage during the company’s launch of second-generation desktop chips back in 2008.

Since its inception, the Core i7 line has represented anything from Intel’s best midrange value picks to, for a time, its highest-end consumer chips. In mainstream CPUs, the Core i7 offerings of late have straddled the line between low-end content creation and high-end gaming performance, though that latter crown would eventually be taken by a new contender at the tip-top of the top end: the various Core i9 lines.

Core i7 9700K

Though chips like the 10-core Intel Core i9-10900K are now regarded as the darlings of PC gamers, back when the “Core i9” brand originally debuted, it was released as a high-end chip made to fit into the 7th Generation of Intel’s Core X-Series, its line of workstation-styled desktop CPUs.

In the years that followed, after those first X-Series processors launched in the summer of 2017, the Core i9 came to the mainstream Core line (on Intel’s mainstream sockets, now the LGA 1200), and successive generations of the Core i9 have become top-notch options for extreme Intel gaming enthusiasts and overclocking trophy-chasers around the globe. The chips are quite good at content creation, too, and ultra-tuned options like the Core i9-10900K hold multiple records as the top CPUs for maximizing gaming frame rates.

Core i9 10th Gen Box

In 2020, the newest models of 10th Generation Core i9 line span from mega-core monsters in the Core X-Series, headed by the Core i9-10980XE Extreme Edition (18 cores!), all the way down to the more mainstream 10-core Core i9-10900K.

As for Core i7, its reputation for all-out power did waver a bit with the launch of the company’s 9th Generation Core i7 chips. With those CPUs, Intel shed support for Hyper-Threading, its multithreading technology that enables your computer to run two independent processing assignments on the same core simultaneously. But with the community pushing back hard against that move, Intel has not just reinstated multithreading on the 10th Generation Core i7 stack, but has extended the thread-boosting tech all the way down to its desktop Core i5 chips. For anyone who does a lot of content creation, this is a must-have feature.

Core i9 Box Shot

The specification differences between the Core i7 and Core i9 stacks are varied, a bit complicated, and only a few decimal points apart in most cases. But those subtleties can sometimes make or break a product’s fit for you. So let’s check in with where things are at today, as well as take a quick peek into the past to see how much they’ve grown.


Intel Core i7 vs. Core i9 CPUs: Breaking Out the Specs

To start the CPU-comparison process, it’s always a good plan to get an idea of what you’re working with on bare specs first. We’ve compiled lists of specifications for the three major categories of late-model processors that Intel has released under the Core i9 and i7 badges, covering the past three generations of chips in three classes: mainstream desktop, high-end desktop (more commonly referred to as “HEDT”), and laptop/mobile. First, the Core i9 CPUs…

As you can see above and below, almost every chip slotted in either the Core i7 or Core i9 tiers is made for heavy-duty performance, well beyond the core counts and capabilities of CPUs that occupy the company’s 10th Generation Core i5 or Core i3 lines. These are powerhouse chips, designed from inception for content creators and hardcore gamers to get the absolute most out of what Intel has to offer in the mainstream desktop, laptop, and HEDT marketplaces.

If you’re wondering what all those letters at the end of each processor mean, here’s a quick breakdown. To start, the Core i7 and Core i9 lines (in the mainstream desktop and mobile families) come with integrated graphics processors (IGPs), though Intel also offers isolated models without IGPs. Those without IGPs are denoted with an “F” suffix. (The whole Core X-Series has never offered IGPs on the chips and are the “F” exception; they all end in “X” or “XE.” You need to use these chips with a video card, full stop.)

Non-F chips will carry Intel UHD Graphics 630 IGPs inside the 10th Generation chips—though anyone serious about gaming will pair the CPU with a discrete graphics card to get the most out of their chip purchase. That applies to both desktop and laptop gamers.

Next are mainstream desktop chips that carry a “T” on the end of the model number. These represent what Intel calls its “power-optimized” line of CPUs that run at lower wattages for smaller or thermally constrained PCs. Then there’s “K”: That letter in any of the chip models means that its cores are unlocked for overclocking. “K,” “KF,” “KS” desktop chips, or “HK” mobile ones, can be overclocked as you see fit.

“S” indicates a rare special or limited edition CPU, while “H” and “HK” both denote high-powered variants of Intel’s laptop CPUs. Intel’s Core i9s for laptops only come in H variants; you can see much lower powered Core i7 CPUs in the U-Series, meant for thin and light laptops. (More on that later.)

Together, the Core i7 and the Core i9 represent the top of Intel’s consumer-grade CPU stack, and at least for pure frame-rate-oriented gaming and single-threaded applications, both still prevail over AMD’s equivalent cost-comparative offerings. AMD’s offerings tend to win when all cores come into play, because AMD’s Ryzen CPUs of the same price tend to offer more accessible cores and threads for the money.

Intel 10th Gen Launch

Overall, you’ll find a greater variety of Core i7 processors occupying the laptop and mobile market, while the Core i9 stack is more skewed toward desktop and HEDT offerings.


Core i7 vs. Core i9: Desktop Performance

The Core i7 and the Core i9 lines of chips are only able to really stretch their legs on desktop systems, because of their high power draw and thermal output (compared to options in the Core i3 and i5 lines). Their serious power is better managed in desktop PC builds that can utilize custom cooling and larger power supplies.

Here’s a comparative look at the Core i7 and Core i9 desktop CPUs that we have tested in the last few years, on four key tests that outline pure CPU power with all cores and threads in play…

As expected, every CPU within Intel’s top-end consumer and HEDT processors perform directly in spec for their respective price tiers. It’s rare that you’ll see any of the company’s CPUs (whether golden silicon samples or otherwise) post speedier results than the more expensive option above it.

These four tests scale well with more cores and threads, and you can see how the Core X-Series Core i9 chips (on the LGA 2066 socket) far outrun the mainstream Core i9 chips on LGA 1151 and now LGA 1200. In a sense, the lesson to take from here–beyond how Core i7s shape up against Core i9s–is how a Core i9 on one desktop (HEDT) platform can outrun, by far, the Core i9 chips on Intel’s more mainstream desktop platforms.

Speaking of golden silicon, one of the only outliers to this rule that we’ve seen in recent years is the Core i9-9900KS, which was a limited-run Core i9-9900K that was tested to run at high clocks on more cores than the regular chip could. It did not get wide circulation, though; it was essentially Intel selecting out its best-performing samples of the 9900K and selling them for a slight premium.

In general, there’s not a ton of daylight between the different chip models in each section of the Core i7 or i9 stack on the same platform, as you can see from our charts above. The big jumps are from mainstream CPUs to Core X-Series HEDT CPUs. And the real-world performance gains you see may vary depending on the kind of workload you engage in most often. That’s where reviews like ours, and bench tests like the ones PC Labs runs, come in.


Core i7 and Core i9 in Laptops: It’s All About the H-Series

Right now, the laptop market has far fewer options than the desktop space when it comes to Core i9 processors. As mentioned earlier, Intel’s mobile processors for powerful laptops are dubbed the H-Series, with names that end in “H” or “HK.” Core i9 chips show up only in this series, as do some Core i7s. You’ll also see plenty of Core i7s in Intel’s U-Series, but these are meant for thin laptops, not power machines. They’re not relevant to a Core i7-versus-i9 comparison.

In its current 10th Generation line of H-Series chips, dubbed “Comet Lake-H,” Intel offers only a Core i9-10880H and i9-10980HK (for big, powerful laptops that can accommodate them), while Core i7-based machines are more ubiquitous. You’ll see Core i7 models flow out in the course of Intel’s 11th Generation “Tiger Lake” laptop-CPU launch, but for now, they are all lower-power chips. The company has made no official announcements yet on any laptop-minded H-Series 11th Gen CPUs…Core i7 or Core i9. Intel has spoken about its plans to release an eight-core Tiger Lake chip in the future, but right now the most powerful confirmed mobile Intel processor you can find is the Core i7-1185G7, which we tested in a factory sample.

Core i9 Laptop

Overall, while both Core i7 and i9 CPUs are useful in heavy-duty production laptops or in gaming laptops, their higher power draw and hotter thermal outputs often mean heavier designs that don’t lend themselves as much to portability as i3 or i5 chips might. We’ll leave it up to you to decide which is right for you, but generally speaking, for gaming laptops and mobile workstations it’s almost exclusively a Core i7 H-Series CPU world.

Note: AMD’s latest offerings in its Ryzen 4000 H-Series of laptop CPUs (AMD uses the same “H” and “U” nomenclature) have often been beating anything Intel had to offer in its 10th Gen stack (like in laptops such as the MSI Bravo 15). That story could be quick to change if and when 11th Generation Tiger Lake H-Series laptops indeed emerge.


Gaming: Do You Need a Core i7 or a Core i9 for Desktop Fragging?

For most gamers, both the i7 and i9 line of chips are a bit overkill to justify their higher price points compared to chips in the i3 and i5 brackets. This is because while having eight or 10 cores is great for productivity tasks and content creation, few games out there know how to take advantage of more than four cores at a time.

The results speak for themselves in our gaming tests…

In both synthetic graphics-test runs like 3DMark and AAA game benchmarks like Far Cry 5, the $262 Intel Core i5-10600K is only a modest amount slower than the $488 Core i9-10900K in 1080p results, and at 4K resolution, it’s a wash.

Games like GTA V do have the ability to use up to six cores at a time during complex situations, and games in the Civilization series will take advantage of as many cores you can throw their way. But, in general, games like these prove to be the exception to the four-core rule.

This may change as the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox One Series X upgrade console gamers globally to new eight-core AMD-based processors. However, both the PS4 and Xbox One originally came with eight-core processors, and it’s been seven years since their release without any sign that developers are creating their games to push CPUs past a comfortable four-core max utilization.

Intel Core i9-9900KS

Also, while the Core i7 is the better choice for gamers looking to maximize the performance of their next build on a budget, they also might want to consider options like the Core i5-10600K. With six cores and 12 threads, the Core i5-10600K is more than well-equipped enough to handle almost every PC game on shelves, and it costs a good deal less than current-model desktop chips in either the Core i7 or i9 lines.

That said, the Core i9-10900K is still the cream of the crop when it comes to outright gaming wins, posting record results in almost every benchmark we ran it through. The difference will be in esports titles and with high-refresh-rate monitors that let you show 100fps, 200fps, or more onscreen. If budget isn’t a concern and all you want is the absolute fastest gaming CPU on shelves in the second half of 2020, the Core i9-10900K is the current king to beat.


Intel Core i7 vs. Core i9: Which Processor Tier Reigns Supreme?

When it comes to Core i7 vs. Core i9, the differences between the two don’t make one explicitly “better” than the other across the board. Rather, it’s all down to which platform makes the most sense for your power needs, your budget, and the kind of work you plan on doing most often. And by “platform” we don’t mean the Core i7 as a whole against the Core i9 as a whole; we mean i7 chips and i9 chips on the Intel Core X-Series, versus i7 and i9 chips on the chip maker’s mainstream platforms.

The i9 line is the top of Intel’s consumer stack, representing the peak of what Intel can do on either desktop or laptops, while the i7 fulfills the niche of being a more modestly priced engine for prosumer content creation and a solid driver for gaming throughout. Almost the same as the i9…but just a little less, in specs, in price, and predictably, in performance. But sometimes the step down is the right choice if you don’t need the power that a Core i9 delivers. The money you save can let you spend more on another PC part, like an SSD, that makes a more perceptible difference.

That said, in the second half of 2020, the war is really a different war, not of Core i7 versus Core i9 but Core i7 versus Ryzen 7, or Core i9 versus Ryzen 9. Outside of the rarified world of esports-game frame rates, neither the Intel Core i7-10700K nor the Core i9-10900K is overly competitive with AMD’s current cost-comparative options, namely the Ryzen 7 3700X and the Ryzen 9 3900X.

Ryzen 9 3900X

In our review of the Core i9-10900K, we found that the 12-core, 24-thread Ryzen 9 3900X so regularly beat it out in content creation that, for the whole enchilada in 2020, Ryzen is usually the most reasonable way to go. For gamers, the outright frame-rate victories of the Core i9-10900K might look tempting at first, but to our eyes, the results aren’t far enough ahead of the 3900X to make any Core i9 processors an explicit recommendation over what AMD would offer at the same price.

Asus ROG Swift PG259QN

Even gamers need to weigh things carefully, depending on the games they play. With some popular titles, both processors paired with a good enough video card could regularly exceed the refresh rates of even the fastest gaming monitors out there, making either one overkill for almost every player…esports hopeful or otherwise. And again, it bears repeating: As of late 2020, if you’re pushing past the six-core limit and looking for CPUs that can do content creation better than anything else, AMD as a rule tops comparatively kitted Intel chips.

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