One of the most common questions when buying a CPU is whether or not stepping up one level in the stack will give appreciable returns. Especially for Intel, where the emphasis is on single-core speed rather than high core/thread counts, buyers are often unsure if upgrading from an i5 to an i7 for the extra cores will be worth it. This guide will help you decide if an i7 is worth it over an i5 for your gaming needs.
To be clear, this is only targeting gamers. Productivity workloads often benefit quite a bit from additional cores, so moving from an i5 to an i7 may have a significant impact, depending on the exact work you do and applications you use. Similarly, while i5 and i7 has been around as naming schemes for years, we are really thinking of the most recent mainstream CPU’s (i5-9600(KF) and i7-9700(KF)/i7-9900(KF). The principles may apply to early generations or later generations, but as core counts and clock speeds have evolved each generation, make sure to look at the specifics before making a decision!
Having said all of that, let’s dive into the case for each of our contenders:
Core i5 vs i7 for Gaming: Why pick the i5?
As indicated above, when we say i5, we are really referring to the 9600(KF) for now. With six cores and six threads, the 9600(KF) falls right within the high-middle range of mainstream CPUs from Intel. Six cores has become the modern favorite for gaming, with Ryzen 5 processors adding in hyperthreading on top of their six core designs, but with lower single-core speeds. And generally, for gaming, this is more than enough. Current games rarely take advantage or scale well with additional cores/threads beyond six, and the stock boost speed of the 9600K (for example) at 4.6GHz is still more than enough when coupled with the hexa-core design.
Essentially, any additional spending beyond this point on the CPU is going to return very little for gaming. Unless you are playing specific games that are optimized for parallel computing, you’re far better off buying the 9600KF at $210 and investing the difference between the 9700KF at $350 into a higher-end graphics card. The 9600KF + a 2070 Super will almost always outperform at 9700KF + 2060 Super (for example), while costing you near the same amount or less depending on your choice of AIB board.
Essentially, the case for the i5 in gaming comes down to the much better price-performance value in almost all games. Taking the difference between the i5 and i7 processor and either saving it or reinvesting it elsewhere within the PC (like the GPU) will almost always result in more FPS at the end of the day.
Core i5 vs i7 for Gaming: Why pick the i7?
So for the i7, if we use the 9700(KF) as our reference example, we see an increase to the eight core/eight thread design for an additional ~$140. The 9700(KF) is without a doubt one of the best gaming CPU’s on the market, and that’s due to its increased stock boost speed of 4.9GHz as much as the two additional cores. This does lead to some small increases in FPS, notably in terms of 1% lows for titles that can use the parallel computing, but it is not too appreciable in most games. Streamers also have an interest in the additional cores as they can help ensure smooth video uploading for streaming.
Instead, the major reason for most users for going for an i7 (whether the 9700(KF) for eight cores, 8700(KF) for hyperthreading, or 9900(KF) for both), is for ‘future-proofing’. The additional costs do not give comparable returns today, but as many tech observers predict games to get better and better at using additional cores/threads (especially as consoles move to a likely 8c/16t configuration), the investment now could lead to longer years of use later. Now, this isn’t guaranteed and the considerable price increase should be remembered, but the peace of mind may be worth it to many.
Summary – the case for the i7 is one of preparing for the future, and getting every possible frame (with a comparable GPU) possible today, especially if you plan on streaming and want some additional cores to handle the load.
So when it comes to choosing the i5 or i7, while your individual situation will matter, if you are going for pure gaming, we would tend to recommend the i5 and putting the difference into the GPU. But if you are trying to future-proof, or are playing especially CPU-heavy games or games optimized for additional cores, the i7 is a powerful CPU. Similarly, if you are a mixed productivity/gaming workload user or plan on streaming regularly, then the i7 additional cores may be more meaningful and worth the increase in budget.