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William George (Product Development)

Core i3/i5/i7 Processors: Intel's New CPU Line

Written on January 15, 2010 by William George

When Intel first debuted the Core i7 processor line, code-named Nehalem, in late 2008 it made perfect sense.  This line of quad-cores brought several new technologies: Turbo Mode, integrated memory controllers, triple-channel RAM, and Hyperthreading (making a comeback from the Pentium 4 era).  There were three processors at launch, a 920, 940 and 965 - each slightly faster than the one before it, with the '5' at the end of the last denoting that it was an Extreme Edition chip with some unlocked settings to help with overclocking.  Over time the 940 was replaced with a 950, and then 960; the 965 also got an upgrade in the form of a 975. The naming scheme now isn't so simple -- let's take a look.

About a year after the i7 was first introduced, Intel created a second processor line based off similar technology, but using a smaller socket (1156 vs the older 1366) and only dual-channel RAM instead of triple.  Instead of using a different name, though, Intel still branded these as Core i7 processors: the 860 and 870, with a third processor named the i5 750.  The 750 ran at a slightly lower clock speed, but was also missing Hyperthreading (hence the name change to i5).

Having two products with the same name but different sockets and specifications seemed confusing, but now Intel has made it much worse: they introduced several new i5 processors at CES, along with some more under the new name of Core i3.  These new chips are all dual-cores, not quads, and the new i5's have Hyperthreading (unlike the existing i5's).  They no longer have on-die memory controllers, meaning slower RAM performance, but the controller is present as part of a second chip withing the processor; that second chip also has graphics.  One 'special' i5 also has faster graphics than all the others, but it isn't the fastest i5 in terms of clock speed - so you have to pick which is more important to you.  The i3s are also dual-cores with Hyperthreading, but they drop Turbo Mode and have slower integrated graphics.  Oh, and to top it off there is a dual-core version without Hyperthreading... but called a Pentium...

So, as it stands, there are now multiple i7 and i5 processor revisions with very different capabilities and requirements.  To confuse things even more, a six-core chip is rumored to be coming for socket 1366 later this year: early speculation called it a Core i9, which seemed a fitting name, but now rumors say it will simply be another i7.  When the experienced staff here at Puget Systems have to draw diagrams with circles and arrows to keep a naming scheme straight, what chance does a typical user have of understanding it without frustration?  Intel, please keep consumer sanity in mind when naming future products!

For those who are still in the dark, here is a basic chart of the Intel Core iX processors (as of January 2010):

Name Socket Cores Hyperthreading Clock Speed Turbo Mode Includes GPU
Core i7 975 1366 Quad Yes 3.33GHz Yes  
Core i7 960 1366 Quad Yes 3.2GHz Yes  
Core i7 920 1366 Quad Yes 2.66GHz Yes  

Core i7 870 1156 Quad Yes 2.93GHz Yes  
Core i7 860 1156 Quad Yes 2.80GHz Yes  

Core i5 750 1156 Quad   2.66GHz Yes  

Core i5 670 1156 Dual Yes 3.46GHz Yes Yes
Core i5 661 1156 Dual Yes 3.33GHz Yes Yes (faster)
Core i5 660 1156 Dual Yes 3.33GHz Yes Yes
Core i5 650 1156 Dual Yes 3.20GHz Yes Yes

Core i3 540 1156 Dual Yes 3.06GHz   Yes
Core i3 530 1156 Dual Yes 2.93GHz   Yes

Pentium G9650 1156 Dual   2.80GHz   Yes


Tags: Intel, Core i7, Core i5, Core i3, CPU, Marketing