Intel made the first microprocessor, the Intel 4004, nearly 50 years ago in 1971. Over the next several decades, it would become the dominant CPU manufacturer in the PC industry.
With such a long history of making processors, Intel has a wide range of models to choose from. Let’s look at the differences between Intel processor generations and how to choose the best chip for your needs.
Types of Intel Processors
While the first Intel CPU dates back to 1971, their rise to dominance really started in 1981. That was the year IBM used the 8088 CPU in the original IBM PC.
Over the next 15 years, Intel released the 80286, 80386, and 80486 processors that built on the original PC design. Companies like AMD started making compatible chips that used similar numbering schemes so Intel decided to brand their chips with names rather than numbers.
The Pentium was the first of the “branded” CPU designs from Intel. The original Pentium ran at 60MHz and over the next several years, the Pentium line got more and more powerful with the Pentium 2, 3, and 4 series. The fastest Pentium 4 clocked in at 3.8GHz, more than 60 times faster than the first design.
The Celeron line of CPUs was a stripped-down version of the Pentium chip. Intel removed some features like cache memory to reduce the cost for entry-level PCs. Some of the early Celeron models could be overclocked to provide similar performance to the Pentium at a much lower cost.
The Pentium M and Celeron M processors were mobile versions of the standard chips. These versions didn’t offer as much performance but used less power and generated less heat. They were designed for use in laptops to maximize battery life.
The Core series of processors were the successors to the Pentium chips. These CPUs were the first to offer multi-core performance with 2 CPU cores in the Core 2 Duo series and 4 cores in the Core 2 Quad.
Core “i” Series
The Core “i” series processors include four models:
These processors have evolved through 10 generations over the last decade but they’re still the most current series of processors available from Intel.
Core i Series Generation Names
Intel has been using the “Core i Series” brand name since 2010. While the name of the processors they offer today are the same as those from several years ago, the chips themselves are significantly different.
This makes it hard to know exactly what processor you’re buying unless you understand the differences between the various generations of the chip.
The Nehalem architecture was the first generation of Core i processors. This generation was released in 2010.
It was built on a 45 nanometer (nm) process, down from 65nm in the previous CPU line. A smaller process means the CPU can run faster and use less power, a function known as Dennard Scaling.
The first generation of these Intel processors introduced Hyperthreading, a technology that lets the CPU process more instructions per second. These chips included a 64KB level 1 cache, a 256KB level 2 cache (per core), and between 4MB and 12MB level 3 cache.
2. Sandy Bridge
Intel introduced the Sandy Bridge architecture in 2011 as the second generation in its Core i processor series. This version shrunk the process to 32nm, increasing both the performance and efficiency of the chips.
The level 1 and level 2 cache memory was unchanged from the previous generation but level 3 cache ranged from 1MB to 15MB. The highest level 3 cache was available in the Extreme Edition processors designed for gaming PCs.
3. Ivy Bridge
Intel’s third generation, Ivy Bridge, was introduced in 2012. The process shrunk again, this time to 22nm.
The smaller die size let the Ivy Bridge processors run anywhere from 25 percent to 68 percent faster than the previous generation while using 50 percent less energy.
The trade-off for the faster performance with lower power draw is that these CPUs generated more heat.
The Haswell series came along the following year, in 2013. This generation used the same 22nm process as the previous one, resulting in a smaller performance jump.
Haswell chips ran less than 10 percent faster than Ivy Bridge but supported new technologies like DDR4 RAM and a completely redesigned cache system.
The biggest advantage of the Haswell series was its low power draw. This made it much better for portable devices that needed to run on battery power.
The Broadwell design was released in 2015. It shrunk the die to 14nm, making it 37 percent smaller than the previous generation.
Intel stated battery life improved by as much as 1.5 hours compared to the Haswell processors on a similar device. These CPU chips also offered faster wake-from-sleep times and better graphics performance.
Skylake was the sixth generation of Core i chips from intel, released later in 2015. It was really just a redesigned version of the Broadwell chip, using the same 14nm process.
While it offered better performance and slightly better power efficiency, the differences weren’t that significant.
7. Kaby Lake
The Kaby Lake generation of chips was launched in 2016. This is essentially another redesign of the previous generation of Skylake processors, using the same 14nm process once again.
Kaby Lake was the first generation of processors that wasn’t officially supported on older versions of Windows. The only officially-supported driver was for Windows 10.
This series of CPUs had some significant graphics improvements, offering faster 3D performance and 4K video playback.
8. Kaby Lake R
Kaby Lake R was a refresh of the previous generation, released in 2017. There weren’t any significant differences from the previous models aside from support for DDR4-2666 RAM.
9. Coffee Lake
Intel introduced the Coffee Lake generation in late 2017. This was the first generation of chips to feature the high-end Core i9 model.
Coffee Lake was the first generation of chips to go beyond 4 cores. These processors supported up to 8 cores per CPU, resulting in higher performance and better chip efficiency.
Similar to the Ivy Bridge generation, the significant jump in performance for Coffee Lake brought much more heat production. To help manage that heat, Intel changed the way the integrated heat spreader attached to the chip.
10. Cannon Lake and Ice Lake
Cannon Lake was unveiled in late 2017 but didn’t ship in production machines until 2018. This generation saw another process reduction, this time to 10nm.
This generation supports faster RAM as well as providing integrated support for WiFi 6 and Thunderbolt 3 technologies.
Ice Lake is the second generation of 10nm processors.
11. Tiger Lake
Tiger Lake is the latest generation of processors from Intel. The first chips launched in September 2020 with dual- and quad-core versions. The eight-core versions haven’t been released yet.
Tiger Lake is the third generation of 10nm processors. It includes a level 4 cache to help speed up the chips’ performance.
There aren’t a lot of laptops available with Tiger Lake chips yet but all major brands like Lenovo.com will have them soon enough.
How to Choose the Best Intel Processor Generations
If you’re in the market for a new computer, it can be a bit confusing whether you should choose the Core i3, i5, i7, or i9 processor. On paper, many of the specifications are pretty similar.
There are some significant differences though.
The Core i3 is a quad-core CPU. Each CPU core can process information separately so four cores means the processor can deal with four separate threads at the same time.
The i3 doesn’t support turbo boost or hyperthreading so the performance won’t be as good as the higher models. If you’re using your computer for basic applications like email, web surfing, and word processing, the Core i3 is perfectly suitable.
The i5 comes in quad-core and six-core versions. They support turbo boost as well so the performance is noticeably better than the i3. There’s still no hyperthreading support, however.
If you’re a casual gamer or do basic video or image editing, the i5 is a good fit.
The Core i7 processors have six cores but also support hyperthreading so they can handle 12 threads simultaneously. They also have a larger onboard cache, helping improve their performance even more.
Core i7 processors are suited for gaming, video editing, and other processor-intensive applications.
The Core i9 is a relatively new processor in Intel’s line. It comes in versions from 10 to 18 cores, which lets it run 20 to 36 threads simultaneously thanks to its hyperthreading support.
If you need the best possible performance or want a processor that’s got plenty of room to grow, the i9 is the right choice.
Will Intel Continue to Be the Market Leader?
There’s no doubt we’ll continue seeing Intel processor generations for years to come. The question is, will they continue to dominate the market or will another chip, such as Apple’s new M-series, chip away at their lead?
Only time will tell but in the meantime, you can’t go wrong with any of Intel’s current generation.
Check out the Technology category on our blog for more helpful articles about the latest technologies.
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