Most people know that a good CPU is essential for getting the best possible frames in-game. You could have an RTX 3090 graphics card and still get terrible frames if your processor is bottlenecking your system.
But what qualifies as a good CPU? Intel’s Core i3 CPUs are generally considered bottom-tier for gaming, but are they adequate?
We’ll look into this question further and explain why i3s are not just “good enough” for gaming; they’re an excellent option if you’re on a budget and are looking to save money on some components.
What’s the difference between i3 and i5/i7/i9?
Before we get into why an i3 is good for gaming, it’s important to differentiate between an i3 and its more expensive counterparts. What’s the difference between an i3 and, say, an i5? What makes an i5 objectively better than its lesser counterpart?
There’s one difference that stands out above the rest: core count.
For those that don’t know, a core is the actual processor inside a CPU. In other words, what we commonly call “processors” are actually comprised of multiple internal processors.
A higher core count is associated with greater processing power. In other words, if two otherwise identical CPUs have different core counts, the one with the higher number of cores will be able to process more data in the same amount of time.
There’s a caveat to this, though. Some applications don’t utilize all of a CPU’s cores. Let’s look at a hypothetical to make more sense of this phenomenon.
Let’s say I have a 4-core CPU and I’m running a program that uses 4 cores. I also have an 8-core processor running the same program on a different computer. These two processors are identical aside from their core counts.
In this hypothetical scenario, both processors will perform identically. Since the program is designed to utilize at most 4 cores, any cores in excess of that will offer no additional performance.
With that in mind, the primary difference between an i3 or an i5 is the number of cores each processor has.
- A 10th-generation i3 has 4 cores (Intel has no 11th-gen i3).
- A 10th or 11th-generation i5 has 6 cores.
- A 10th or 11th-generation i7 has 8 cores.
- A 10th-generation i9 has 10 cores, while an 11th-generation has 8.
Aside from core count, the most important metric for comparing same-generation processors’ performance is
Is a Core i3 good enough for gaming?
How does core count come into play when running games, though?
Well, many games don’t utilize more than one or two cores. Because of this, core count frequently doesn’t come into play, and clock speed has a far greater impact on in-game performance.
That’s one large misconception about CPUs: People assume that an i3 is greatly inferior to an i9 just because of the denomination, but they don’t consider the application. In a single-core task the i3 comes a lot closer to an i9’s performance than many would expect; it’s in multi-core tasks that the i3 will lag behind.
So how does an i3’s clock speed compare to that of a same-generation i5, i7, or i9?
We’ll use the best CPU from each class to look at this. While 11th-generation i5, i7, and i9 processors currently exist, we opted to compare the i3-10100 to its fellow 10th-gen CPUs in order to compare apples to apples (10th and 11th-gen CPUs feature a different architecture).
|Core i3-10100||3.6/4.3 GHz|
|Core i5-10600K||4.1/4.8 GHz|
|Core i7-10700K||3.8/5.1 GHz|
|Core i9-10900K||3.7/5.3 GHz|
Boost clock is far more important than base clock, as the boost will almost always be engaged when running games, so we’ll look primarily at that.
Comparing the i3-10100 to the i5-11600K (the top-of-the-line i5 processor), we see that the i5’s 4.8 GHz boost clock is roughly 12% faster than the i3’s 4.3 GHz boost, meaning that the 10600K will outperform the 10100 by approximately 12% in tasks utilizing 4 cores or less.
That’s a respectable boost in performance, but keep in mind that the 10600K’s suggested MSRP is $262, over twice the recommended cost of $122 for the i3-10100. That’s a 12% performance gain for an 114% increase in cost. You can see why it could be considered bad economics to buy an i5 over an i3 in some scenarios.
Below is a chart computing these figures with all of the aforementioned 10th-gen CPUs, comparing percentage increase in clock speed as well as suggested retail price.
|CPU Model||% Increase Boost Clock over i3-10100||MSRP (% Increase over i3-10100)|
As you can see, each new tier of CPU offers diminishing returns in terms of single/dual/quad-core performance. You’re paying primarily for the additional cores, not the marginally higher clock speeds.
When should I get an i3 CPU over an i5/i7/i9?
The fact is, most games don’t use even four cores, let alone 6, 8, or 10. As time goes by more titles will rely heavily on multi-core performance, but it will likely be years before this becomes mainstream.
If you use your computer for a lot of core-heavy tasks like video editing where having more cores equals faster performance, you may want to opt for an more expensive CPU.
If you’re building on a budget and are crafting a PC exclusively for gaming or light work, an i3 is good in almost any game for upwards of 144FPS. Heck, an i3-10100 can get 240FPS in a lot of titles.
What are the best i3 CPUs?
Now that you know the functional differences between different tiers of processors, you’ll be able to make an informed decision on which one to select.
If you’re reading this article in preparation of building a PC, we recommend checking out our Beginner’s Guide to Building a PC. It’s a great resource on the topic and will guide you through the entire process, from part selection to assembly to troubleshooting and beyond. Good luck!
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