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6 Oct 2023
What Generation Intel CPU is Best for Me?
What Generation Intel CPU is Best for Me?

There are lots of different Intel processors to choose from - but which is best for you? Learn about the different generations and how to pick the right one.

What generation Intel CPU is best for me?

When you’re buying a new desktop or laptop it can be tricky to figure out which central processing unit (CPU, also known as a processor) is best for you. In this article we’re going to explain the differences between different generations of Intel Core processors, how to tell what generation CPU a computer has and whether you need to worry about it. 

Newer Intel CPU generations are faster and more efficient than older ones and introduce clever new tech and features. So if you’re a heavy user - maybe playing modern games or editing video - you’ll want a newer CPU. But if all you want to do is browse the web and send some emails an older, cheaper CPU might be perfect. 

One thing that’s worth bearing in mind is that you can’t run Windows 11 (the current version of Windows) on anything older than an 8th-generation Intel CPU. But Windows 10 is still a great operating system (OS) and will run happily and securely on much older CPUs.

We’re also focusing on Intel’s Core processor line as these are by far the most common. You’ll also find some devices with lower-spec Celeron and Pentium CPUs, especially in netbooks and Chromebooks, but these are less common. 

Recognising different processors

It’s important to know how to tell what generation of CPU you’re looking at. There are a lot of letters and numbers to understand but actually, when you know what you’re looking for it’s pretty simple. 

The first thing to remember is that the ‘i’ number (i3, i5, i7, i9) has nothing to do with the CPU’s generation. It refers to that particular model’s position in the Intel processor hierarchy. You can find out more about Intel CPU types in this article but basically, the i3 is entry-level and the i9 is a pro-level CPU monster. 

Every Intel Core CPU follows the same naming convention and will look something like this:

Core i7-3770k

Core i5-12400f

The bit that tells you what generation you’re looking at is the first one or two digits of the number. So in our examples, the i7 is a third-generation CPU and the i5 is 12th generation. The rest of the digits tell you a bit more about where the CPU sits in the model range, with a higher number usually meaning a more powerful processor. The letter denotes more about the specific model. 

You’ll also sometimes see Intel CPUs referred to by names like Skylake and Haswell. These do refer to specific generations, but it’s much easier to identify CPUs by generation number. 

What do the different CPU generations mean?

We know that newer generations of processors are faster and more efficient than older ones. But what changed from generation to generation, and what age should you be looking for? Let’s have a look at each generation of Core processor, and see what Intel changed. 

We’ll consider things like socket type, memory compatibility and die size. We’ll also talk about general performance levels and anything else you need to consider from generation to generation. These will sometimes be a range, as different model CPUs in the same generation will have different specifications and requirements. 

The socket type will dictate what motherboard you can use with your CPU. If you’re buying a whole computer then this doesn’t really matter, but it may affect your upgrade options.

 Memory compatibility is important if you want to expand the RAM in your computer. 

Die size refers to the manufacturing process. A smaller die means a faster, more efficient CPU. It’s measured in nanometers (nm) and is tiny - to give you an idea, a human hair is around 60,000 - 100,000 nm wide. 

We’ll also look at some performance benchmarks. These can be a really useful way of comparing different models from different generations (as a newer i3 can be faster than an older i7 for example). It’s important to remember that benchmarks won’t always reflect real-world performance, and if your usage is simple (like web browsing or word processing) then you might not see the benefit of a faster CPU anyway.  

We’ve used CPU Benchmark for this. Where there are several models we’ve chosen the highest-performing desktop variant though we’ve excluded the most expensive and rare high-end models as they weren’t available in every generation. If you’re really interested in getting the best CPU performance then we’d definitely recommend doing your own research. 

Intel used a ‘tick-tock’ update system until 2016. In this process, every new architecture design (tock) was followed by a die shrink of the same technology the next year (tick). Often ‘tick’ generations did not fully replace the previous year’s models, which is worth bearing in mind when comparing benchmarks. 

Core Generation 1 (Nehalem)

Launch year: 2008

Socket type: LGA 1156

Memory compatibility: DDR3

Die size: 32 nm - 45 nm

I3 benchmark: 1,492

I5 benchmark: 2,523

I7 benchmark: 7,090

Nehalem was the first generation of Intel CPUs to use the current (i3, i5, i7) naming system, so we’ll start there. The generation number was missed from the name (for example i5-750 rather than i5-1750). 

Key upgrades from the previous generation included a turbo mode for short bursts of super-high speed processing, the option of a built-in GPU (on the i3-530 only) and the addition of a memory controller directly on the CPU for faster memory access. The i7-970, 980 and 990 models also introduced 6 processing cores with 12 threads for the first time.

Launch year: 2011

Socket type: LGA 1155

Memory compatibility: DDR3

Die size: 32 nm

I3 benchmark: 1,532

I5 benchmark: 4,099

I7 benchmark: 8,193

Sandy Bridge continued with the naming convention that would last until 2023 when Intel announced that they were dropping the ‘i’ designation from Core processors. Sandy Bridge also introduced the Extreme i7 range, which received an X suffix and started with a 3 instead of a 2 (i7 Extreme 3970X vs i5-2500k). The extreme range had much in common with the Xeon server range of processors and required a higher specification motherboard. 

Performance increase at the high end was not huge, though mid-range models showed a substantial increase on their predecessors. The average performance increase overall was around 11%. The move to a smaller die for all CPU models meant increased efficiency and there was an increase in variants. Nehalem only offered a single i5 variant; Sandy Bridge offered 13 across various configurations of clock speed and onboard graphics.

Launch year: 2012

Socket type: LGA 1155

Memory compatibility: DDR3

Die size: 22 nm

I3 benchmark: 2,424

I5 benchmark: 4,961

I7 benchmark: 9,414

Intel’s primary focus with the generation 3 Ivy Bridge CPU series was efficiency, with a move to 22 nm manufacturing. Chips were essentially more efficient versions of generation 2 CPUs. Onboard graphics performance was improved by around 60%, and native support for technologies like PCIe 3.0, 6 Gbps SATA and USB 3.0 was added.

Launch year: 2013

Socket type: LGA 1150

Memory compatibility: DDR3/DDR4

Die size: 22 nm

I3 benchmark: 3,842

I5 benchmark: 5,677

I7 benchmark: 8,064

Haswell CPUs offered a boost in performance across the board at the cost of higher power draw under load, especially in higher-end variants.Haswell also added the new GT3e onboard GPU which improved graphics performance and later high-end i7 models added support for faster DDR4 memory. The i7 Extreme-5960X was the first Core CPU to offer 8 cores and 16 threads. 

Generation 4 was the last generation of Intel CPUs to support older Windows operating systems including Windows XP.

Core Generation 5 (Broadwell, tick)

Launch year: 2014

Socket type: LGA 1150

Memory compatibility: DDR3/DDR4

Die size: 14 nm

I3 benchmark: n/a

I5 benchmark: 5,546

I7 benchmark: 7,757

Broadwell was a partial die-shrink refresh of the previous Haswell generation, with no low-end desktop CPUs offered and only limited mid to high-end variants (and no performance variants). Much of the improvement was focused on mobile CPUs, with the new 14 nm die process and other increases in efficiency offering substantial battery life improvements. 

Broadwell was also the last Intel CPU generation to support Windows 7.

Launch year: 2015

Socket type: LGA 1151

Memory compatibility: DDR3/DDR4

Die size: 14 nm

I3 benchmark: 4,398

I5 benchmark: 6,328

I7 benchmark: 8,948

Skylake is a redesign using the same 14 nm manufacturing as the previous Broadwell architecture. It provided users with a boost in performance as well as increased efficiency. It also featured the first redesign of the onboard GPU since the third-generation Ivy Bridge range for improved graphics performance. 

Skylake is the last Intel CPU platform to support versions of Windows lower than Windows 10.

Launch year: 2016

Socket type: LGA 1151

Memory compatibility: DDR3/DDR4

Die size: 14 nm

I3 benchmark: 4,943

I5 benchmark: 6,791

I7 benchmark: 9,660

I9 benchmark: n/a

Kaby Lake marked the end of Intel’s tick-tock model and the introduction of the enthusiast-focused, high-powered i9. Most of the range was optimised Skylake chips offering modest performance gains. It was the first generation to feature native USB 3.1 gen 2 and Thunderbolt 3 support. The on-board graphics architecture was optimised for modern video standards including VP9 and HEVC 4k video as well as improved 3D performance. 

Kaby Lake only officially supports Windows 10. Older chipsets are required for Windows 8.1 or earlier, and newer generations are needed for Windows 11 support. 

Launch year: 2017

Socket type: LGA 1151

Memory compatibility: DDR4

Die size: 14 nm

I3 benchmark: 6,928

I5 benchmark: 10,233

I7 benchmark: 14,371

I9 benchmark: n/a

The big news with Coffee Lake was the introduction of CPUs with more than four physical cores in the mainstream desktop range (previously only expensive high-end CPUs had more). Both the i5 and i7 ranges were available with six physical cores and the i3 with four. The i7 also featured hyperthreading. This meant improved productivity performance based on the Skylake architecture.

Launch year: 2018

Socket type: LGA 1151

Memory compatibility: DDR4

Die size: 14 nm

I3 benchmark: 7,700

I5 benchmark: 10,751

I7 benchmark: 14,526

I9 benchmark: 19,544

The Coffee Lake refresh generation upped the core count in mainstream i7 CPUs to 8 for the first time. Clock speeds were increased across the board and the i3 range gained Turbo Boost tech. Hardware mitigations against specific Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities were added.

Launch year: 2019

Socket type: LGA 1200

Memory compatibility: DDR4

Die size: 14 nm

I3 benchmark: 10,063

I5 benchmark: 14,381

I7 benchmark: 18,978

I9 benchmark: 23,164

Comet Lake was another iterative improvement on the generation 6 Skylake architecture. All models apart from Celeron featured Hyperthreading, and non-extreme i9s got up to 10 physical cores. This generation included native support for WiFi 6.

Launch year: 2020

Socket type: LGA 1200

Memory compatibility: DDR4

Die size: 14 nm

I3 benchmark: n/a

I5 benchmark: 19,718

I7 benchmark: 24,669

I9 benchmark: 25,440

Rocket Lake was the first completely new architecture since Skylake in 2015 (previous generations had been improvements to Skylake). CPUs feature a maximum of 8 cores (fewer than the 10 of Comet Lake) but saw a substantial performance increase. Rocket Lake was also the first generation of CPUs to feature the new Xe integrated graphics and PCIe 4.0 connectivity. 

Launch year: 2021

Socket type: LGA 1700

Memory compatibility: DDR4/DDR5

Die size: 10 nm

I3 benchmark: 14,706

I5 benchmark: 27,801

I7 benchmark: 34,763

I9 benchmark: 44,301

Alder Lake was the first generation of Intel desktop CPUs to move to a 10 nm manufacturing process. It also introduced a new hybrid architecture, where CPUs had a combination of performance and efficiency cores. These two innovations saw improvements in both performance and efficiency across the board. Support for PCIe 5.0 was added and Extreme models had up to 16 cores. 

Core Generation 13 (Raptor Lake)

Launch year: 2022

Socket type: LGA 1700

Memory compatibility: DDR4/DDR5

Die size: 10 nm

I3 benchmark: 14,948

I5 benchmark: 38,393

I7 benchmark: 46,896

I9 benchmark: 62,053

Raptor Lake is an iteration of the previous Alder Lake generation, with substantially increased clock speeds and performance across all models. Many variants saw a doubling of the number of efficiency cores.

So what does that mean for me?

If you’re doing things like high-end gaming or content creation then you probably already know that you need the fastest, most up-to-date processor that you can possibly afford - and the rest of your PC build to match. 

But what about the rest of us? 

Well, it’s probably worth getting the most modern CPU you can afford - it’ll last longer, and make your computing experience that bit nicer. But actually, if you’re on a tight budget, you can probably get away with something much older and cheaper than you might think. 

Here are a few questions you could ask yourself to help narrow down your choices. 

Do you want Windows 11?

If you want to run Windows 11, you’ll need an eighth-generation Coffee Lake processor or newer. Older CPUs lack the specific security features needed to run the OS. 

That said, Windows 10 will run on any Core CPU and is still a great operating system today. It will be supported with security updates by Microsoft until October 2025. 

There’s also the option to run a free Linux-based OS if you prefer. This can often be a great way to keep older PCs running in a secure, modern environment. 

Do you want to play games?

If you want to play the latest, greatest games at a decent quality then you’ll need a fast, modern processor - and a graphics card to match. But if you want to play older games which are available for much cheaper prices (or even sometimes for free)then you have more flexibility. 

Even a mid-range, i5 Sandy Bridge CPU can just about handle some AAA games from a few years ago if you don’t mind running at lower settings and you have a GPU launched in the last five to ten years. 

Less demanding titles will run fine on a lower-spec processor. 

You can get an idea about what kind of CPU you’ll need to play the games you want by having a look at the minimum requirements on platforms like Steam.

Is a lot of what you do web-based?

A lot of modern software is accessed online. Things like checking your email, watching videos on YouTube or using Google Docs don’t need much processing power because all of the hard work is done in the cloud. If this sounds like the majority of your use, then you probably don’t need a super modern CPU.

What are your plans for your PC?

This might seem like an odd question, but bear with us. 

If you’re planning on keeping your computer for a couple of years and then buying something better then there’s no need to future-proof. You can just buy something that will do the job now. 

But if you want a PC that will grow with you, you need to think a bit more about your needs. 

A five-year-old processor might just about do the job now, but will it be up to much in another five years? Probably not. And by that point, the rest of the computer - the motherboard, RAM, GPU and storage - will be so obsolete that you’ll probably end up being better off just replacing the whole lot. 

But if you spend a little bit more now to get something a bit newer - maybe just a couple of generations old - then your computer will be performing much better in five years' time. 

And if you buy wisely - maybe picking up something like a tenth-generation i3 - then you leave yourself a viable upgrade path. Your motherboard will accept an i7 or i9 processor from the next generation, giving you the ability to substantially increase your processing power. Add some more RAM as well and you’ll feel like you have a whole new PC!

A lot to process

There’s a lot to think about when you’re choosing what generation Intel CPU is right for you. 

For most users, most CPUs will work fine. You’ll be surprised what kind of tasks even an old processor can take in its stride. 

If you want to play games or perform high-end tasks then you’ll need to do your own research as to exactly what level CPU you’ll need. But even then, you might be surprised how capable some older processors can be. 

The only thing that’s set in stone is that if you want to run Windows 11 then you’ll need an eighth-generation Coffee Lake processor or newer. 

And remember that the CPU is only one part of the PC puzzle. Having a super-fast processor paired with not enough RAM, or too small of a storage device, can make your device all but unusable. 

If you want some advice on what PC might be right for you, why not get in touch? We’re always happy to have a chat about your options and help you make the right decision for you.