Hardware

What do the numbers mean in Intel processors?

The Intel Core family
You didn't think it was going to be this simple, surely?

Attempting to understand the names of Intel processors is like trying to read War & Peace with a hangover. Wearing a blindfold. With AC-DC in the background.

Luckily, it’s a whole lot easier to get to grips with Intel’s plot once you understand the basics: there’s a logic that runs through the naming structure. Well, mostly.

Meet the Core family of Intel processors

Intel’s Core range is the one you’re most likely to see (we provide a summary of all the different Intel processors at the bottom of this article). It’s also relatively well structured.

Core i3 is fast; Core i5 is faster; Core i7 is fastest. Well, it was until Intel announced the Core i9 in June, but I’ll deal with that later.

Each processor then has a precise name, such as the Core i7-7500U.

Intel processor name breakdown
Looking at this graphic makes it seem like Intel had a plan. How foolish

The second “7” means that it’s part of Intel’s seventh generation of Core processors. This was codenamed Kaby Lake, as we discuss in a separate article on what the Intel codenames mean.

The “500” denotes how fast it is within the Core family. You’ll never see a Core i3-7800 because 800 would be too fast for a Core i3. Instead you’ll see Core i3-7100, 7200 and 7300.

Not all the processors end in two zeroes, though, with Intel giving some processors specific names. For example, earlier this year Intel released both the Core i3-7300 and the Core i3-7320. The difference? The “20” was fractionally faster.

If you need to pick between two similar-sounding processors, Intel has a handy comparison service on its site.

What do the suffixes mean in Intel processors?

So that’s the numbers sorted. What about the suffixes you often find at the end of a processor name, such as the Core i5-7500U above?

For desktop processors, you’re only going to find two suffixes with any recent Core chip: K means it’s unlocked, so you can overclock it, while T means it’s “power optimised”. That means to stop overheating or using too much energy, it will slow itself down – useful for all-in-one PCs.

The most common suffix for mobile processors is U, which stands for “ultra-low power”. Sleek machines that don’t have room for a fan will often have such a chip inside, again to stop overheating (and improve battery life).

You might also see H (high-performance graphics) and HQ (high-performance graphics, quad core). An HQ suffix is pretty much a guarantee of excellent performance, but at the expense of battery life.

Occasionally you’ll stumble across an R suffix. This indicates it’s a desktop processor, complete with graphics, but in a mobile package – so it might be used in a tiny PC or an all-in-one. We haven’t seen an R chip for a while, though.

Hello? What about the Core M Intel processors?

Understanding Core M Intel processors
In 2014 Intel introduced the Core M. With a Y in the middle

There’s always one smart arse. Yes, Intel muddied its already rather brown naming waters back in 2014 when it decided to introduce the Core M family. Think of the M as “mobile” because these ultra-low voltage chips designed for stupidly thin laptops and tablets. Indeed, all Core M chips are fanless.

The names are of the form Core m3-7Y30 and Core m7-6Y75 – and you get a gold star if you noticed that I had to find a Core m7 chip with a 6 at the beginning. That’s because Intel is now only producing Core m3 chips. Think of these as similar to Core i3, but slower.

This doesn’t actually mean they can’t run Windows happily – they can – but it does mean they’ll really struggle with heavy-duty tasks such as video editing. They won’t like that at all.

The Y factor

I’d like to find the guy – it’s bound to be a man – who decided to make Intel’s processors EVEN MORE confusing by adding a Y in the middle. I mean, what’s wrong with you Intel?

Anyway, yes, sometimes you’ll see a processor with a “Y” in the middle. For example, the Core i7-7Y75 – and all the Core M chips. The Y indicates the chip has extremely low power, so is suitable for fanless designs.

I’ve also seen Core-X on Intel’s website…

Meet the Core i9 Intel processor
Intel recently confused things YET AGAIN by announcing a Core i9 chip

Yes. Again, we’d like to say thanks to the marketing folk at Intel who think it’s okay to mess with our minds. Because the “Core X-series” isn’t really a series of processors at all. It’s just that Intel has added the X to its most “extreme” (in both performance and price) chips, and now decided to make this a family.

There are currently 12 “X-series” chips on Intel’s website, including the one and only Core i9 processor announced so far: The Core i9-7900X. This has ten cores and will set you back a cool grand.

What about vPro?

You’ll sometimes see “vPro processors” bandied about. These are variants on existing Intel processors that support some handy management features designed for big companies. For the sake of everyone’s sanity, we’re not going to worry about them here.

From Atom to Xeon: A brief guide to the main families of Intel processors

A comprehensive guide to Intel’s processor lines would be an article of itself – arguably a series – but here’s what we hope is a handy guide.

Name How fast? How power-efficient? Types of product it’s inside If it was an animal…
Atom 2/10 9/10 Cheap tablets Sloth
Celeron 3/10 7/10 Cheap laptops Fast sloth
Pentium 4/10 7/10 Mid-range laptops & PCs  Your mate Dave
Core i3 5/10 6/10 Mid-range laptops & PCs Donkey
Core i5 6/10 5/10 Decent laptops & PCs Workhorse
Core i7 7/10 4/10 High-end laptops and PCs (often gaming systems) Thoroughbred
Core i9 8/10 2/10 High-end PCs Usain Bolt
Xeon 8/10 to 10/10 2/10 Workstations and servers Elephant

About the author

Tim Danton

Tim Danton is editor-in-chief of PC Pro magazine and has written about technology since 1999. He enjoys playing with gadgets, playing with words and playing tennis.

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