I5 vs I7, dual vs quad core with the GTX 970M

I5 still got it, even with a GTX 970M



Introduction

Yea, I know it has been chewed up, at least by me, but it’s a important info for those who considering laptops for gaming – mobile I5 vs I7, dual vs quad (and more, in the future). That’s true also for desktop CPU, but a desktop I5 has 4 cores and not 2, like a mobile I5. In the desktop context, it’s more of an I3 vs I5 vs I7 matter with I3 more similar to I5.

A lot of people are drawn to higher specifications quad core CPU like an I7 (4C/8T) over the dual core I5 (2C/4T), because the common intuition of people is that it will be useful for gaming. However, in most cases it was shown in benchmarks that the advantage of a mobile I7 over a mobile I5 CPU is insignificant in terms of FPS, the least. The reason is partially because the GPU is bottlenecking the system way before the CPU hits its limits, when graphics settings are high enough, which is usually the case.

Just a note – the talk about I5 vs I7 forgets the AMD CPU options. In the current state of things, where mobile AMD CPUs are almost always far slower for gaming, I would definitely go with at least 4 cores for a heavy duty gaming laptop. But ofcourse, you can barely find such things (MSI GX60 and GX70 to be specific) and even with 4 cores they are very limited, maybe also because of TDP limitations.

We’ve already seen I5 vs I7 tests with the GTX 850M DDR3 and also enough tests with I5 vs I7 with GTX 860M equipped laptops (you can see a small summary here for example), but now I wanted to test the high performance GTX 970M GPU @ 1080p resolution gaming to see how it goes with a much more powerful GPU, also in order to estimate the results for the GTX 965M and GTX 960M GPUs. Remember that for higher resolutions, the GPU – even a 970M – will be again a much more limiting factor than the CPU, so I’m testing it with 1080p resolution.

As for practical uses, for example, you can get the new AW15 with an I5 and 965M for $1125 (w/ coupon) which is much cheaper than the I7 version. So, I wanted to test whether it’s a good course to go with the I5 and get good results.

 

The test

Well, I still have the Eurocom M5 Pro (Clevo P650SE / Sager NP8651) with a GTX 970M. You can read the review, but here are the main specs:

CPU I7-4710HQ
GPU GTX 970M 3GB GDDR5
RAM 2x4GB 1866MHZ DDR3L
Display 1080p IPS

Software configuration:

1. “Performance” mode on Clevo control center

2. “High performance” Windows power mode

3. Using the Prema bios, I could disable cores via the bios. I’ve tested 2 (4 threads) and 4 cores (8 threads) settings.

Software tested:

1. Bioshock Infinite benchmark tool, highest settings (DDOF)@1080p

2. Metro LL benchmark (built-in tool), very high settings according to notebookcheck graphics settings – everything on highest settings with SSAO and Advanced physics off.

3. Thief on higheset graphics preset, Civilization BE too with AAx4, Alien: Isolation AAx2, Total War II : Rome Extreme settings@1080p forest benchmark, Battlefield 4 Campaign test.

 

Results

GTX 970M I5 vs I7  dual vs quad
It does look that the performance hit, even with a GTX 970M GPU which is considered very powerful for current 1080p gaming, in most games is insignificant or very low, which is surprising. Alien Isolation and Metro show some signs of favoring the I5 in this case. Note that in the non-built in benchmarks of Crysis 3 and BF4 it’s hard to make sure these are good enough results – I’m pretty sure Crysis 3 in some cases will be limited by the I5, according to previous benchmarks with a GTX 670MX, so take this specific result with a grain of salt. However, it does show that even in the very CPU demanding Crysis 3, advantage of the I7 is not obvious.

Now, results are changing from run to run in some benchmarks, so let’s look on this issue from another angle – CPU / core usage:

CPU and GPU usage in Metro LL 1080p

That’s more like it. We see that with 2 cores only, the CPU is maxed out while the GTX 970M GPU is not (though not far away), meaning the CPU is the limiting factor in this case. The GPU usage is far below than 100% and in many moments you’ll see GPU usage below 89% meaning the GPU can’t be fed fast enough.

In the 4 core scenario, the max CPU usage is considerably lower and the max thread usage is very high but not as in the I5 version and does not get to 100%. Also, GPU max usage is higher with average and median much higher, meaning the GPU is fed better, so to speak and less limited by the CPU.

We’ve seen that average FPSs are very close in both cases, but the CPU and GPU numbers show that in the 2 cores (4 threads) case, the CPU is really taken to its limit. I bet that in actual gaming you could experience jittering and ‘jumps’ in game.

I5 vs I7 Star Citizen Max CPU Thread usage percentagesI5 vs I7 Star Citizen GPU Load percentageI5 vs I7 Star Citizen Total CPU Usage percentageI5 vs I7 Star Citizen Average FPSs

I’ve tried to take a look in Star Citizen (currently in beta stage) and besides the bug and glitches and problems with testing, we can see that in the I5 test, the GPU load is far below 100%, hinting that something it preventing it from being fed – probably the CPU chocking on the game and indeed the max thread usage and total CPU usage are much higher in the I5 test compared to the I7 test. FPSs in the I5 test are around 75% of the FPSs in the I7 test which corresponds, more or less, to the total CPU usage difference of 60 vs 86 (~70%).

It looks from these tests that in the StarCitizen case, the I7 or a much faster I5 (or AMD CPU) is indeed necessary to match the GTX 970M hunger. HOWEVER, like in other tests in the past, this is only beta and the game won’t be in a mature state even after it goes out of beta. I would not take these results as final results and I suspect the in the future we’ll see better results with an I5. I’m saying it also because we can see strange numbers – the total CPU usage is not 100% in the I5 test, nor the thread max usage, then why there is a bottleneck?

 

More sources

From Anandtech’s FX-8230E review and low power Haswell CPUs review (chose those because they are late and include many CPUs), some examples:

Bioshock Infinite SLI, minimum FPSBattlefield 4 single GPU, average FPS

 

And please check both links. The desktop I3 is more or less like a mobile I5, only with higher clocks.  You’ll see that the Intel Haswell I3 performs well and the I5 and I7 CPU really don’t offer a lot of advantage even in the case of GTX 770M SLI GPU configuration. The desktop I7 gets you 4C/8T and desktop I3 2C/4T and the difference in actual gaming we see is a lot lower than you would expect if all cores were fully utilized.

Battlefield 4@1080p, running on GTX 770M SLI configuration, results in only 23% advantage for an I5 Haswell CPU and even lower than that for an I7 (probably due to lower core clocks)

Other games might be a little different, like in the case of Crysis 3 or Metro LL, but the picture is clear – you’ll need a very powerful GPU configuration just to notice an significant advantage. That’s true for mobile gaming too. The GTX 970M is considerably less powerful than 770M SLI configuration and will be much more limiting, as we’ve seen in our Metro LL CPU usage comparison.

 

Summarize & conclusions?

What does all that tell us?

One, that an I5 is really powerful for gaming in the current state of 3D gaming (and I don’t know what goes in VR really). Even with a GTX 970M GPU which is really powerful, you could use a mobile I5 CPU and get almost the highest FPSs anyone could get with a GTX 970M on stock, easily. In most cases there will be no difference in performance or the difference will be insignificant. Some laptops come with the I5-42XXH, which come with higher core clocks and there the difference will be even lower.

StarCitizen beta tests show that with a GTX 970M (and up), you’ll need an I7 or a very fast I5 (overclocked probably) to get the full potential of the GPU. I would not rush into saying that it shows the an I5 can’t match the I7 results to a high degree yet, as it is only a beta version and it will take many more months before we can see results we can trust more – the numbers seem a little strange, with max thread usage and total CPU usage not hitting close enough to 100% to say the I5 is the bottleneck.

Secondly, GTX 965M which has around 70-75% of the GTX 970M performance at most, will limit the system probably well before an I5 will, in most current games including Metro, BF4 and Crysis 3, in almost all scenarios. That makes an I5 + GTX 965M proposition a viable and reasonable one. Also, it’s much better to take an I5 + 970M than 965M + I7, for example.

Third, the I5 with a GPU like GTX 970M and I guess even the GTX 965M in some games and scenarios, will be a limiting factor, even if the average FPSs you’ll get are high. I wouldn’t suggest an I5 with GTX 970M GPU for 1080p gaming.

So, bottom line, an I5 is powerful enough for current gaming in almost any case, if coupled with up to a GTX 965M GPU level, for 1080p gaming. Future utilization of APIs like DX12 will be probably result in even lower CPU usage in such cases as above, making even a GTX 970M GPU again the limiting factor. That means that your money saving on an I5 now, could mean greater saving later on, in a way.

If you are considering a laptop with a GTX 965M level GPU and the CPU is replaceable, I would certainly consider the I5 path if it saves good amount, as you can always replace it later if you find it insufficient.

  • Kerstman23

    Hi junky!

    This is the first time ever I posted something on a forum so this is kind of new for me. Also my English maybe not be that good. But I am planning to buy the Alienware15 from Dell and I have some questions about some specs. I was planning to buy it with these specs:

    -Intel® Core™ i5 4210H (Dual-Core, 3 MB cache)
    -NVIDIA® GeForce® GTX 970M met 3 GB GDDR5
    -15,6-inch FHD IPS-panel (1.920 x 1.080)
    -16 GB Dual Channel DDR3L 1.600 MHz (2 x 8 GB) RAM
    -128GB m.2 SSD + 1TB 7.2k

    So can u please tell me, if the CPU is not too bad for the GPU? And if the 16GB RAM is a bit overkill or not? And if I should take more or just none SSD memory with my 1TB memory?

    I look a bit too the price of the laptop that’s why the I5 but if u say its recommended to get i7 then ill get that instead.

    I’m planning to use it for Metro LL, Bioshock, Battlefield 4, league of legends, and to maybe host a FTB(modded Mincraft) server that’s actually why I took the high amount of RAM cause that will take like 4GB they say it wont be on 24/7 only when me and my friends are having a LAN-party.

    I hope ill get a response quickly and kind regards.

  • daniel

    Hello, i am looking to get the AW15 2015 with gtx 970m 8gb dual channel, 128gb ssd boot 7200rpm 1tb hdd 1920×1080 ips screen but the thing is what cpu do i need if i want to run games on medium to ultra. i5 4210h or 17 4710hq

    • with a GPU like 970M you’d need an I7 in order not to be blocked
      But do you really need this configuration?

      • daniel

        well i have a budget and alienware is using their tricks to make people spend their money, the i7 model lowest ssd is 256gb with 1tbhdd when the i5 has the 128gb, i dont need that much ssd, just enough to put os and a game or two, so i am wondering if it is worth paying 300+ more for a laptop with slightly better processer and more ssd than i need, there is price matching on the other hand, there is a sager with 970m with i7 4720hq a model up with ssd and hdd that i want with warrenty is less than 1600, i want to see if i can get the alienware that low in price then taxes will bring it up to the price without taxes on the alienware website

        • it really depends what are your needs!
          specific games or software?

          • daniel

            i want to play farcry 4, gta5, planetside 2, payday 2, and when starwars battlefront comes out…..and games alike to that im not looking for ultra settings but i want to be able to pump the graphics up if i want to since i am paying over $1000, i also want to have photoshop on their for school, but i will not be using it all the time

            • maybe it would better to open a thread over the forums, please

  • Pirate Ryan

    Hey, first off thanks for all you’ve put into this website. Every time I come up with a question on laptops it seems you have it answered already.

    I was wondering about the i5 vs i7 thing that you covered here, but as I was reading it I thought: Would disabling cores lower battery usage as well? Also, could it reduce temperatures. Finally, would this work to the extent that it would be worth doing so when I decide to take the laptop for college uses as well? Thanks!

    • Hi Ryan the Pirate! (-:

      I thought about it too – I don’t remember what were my findings, but I think they weren’t too interesting. I mean, I didn’t see significant difference when idling nor when playing, but I also didn’t check it toroughly if I remember correctly
      More significant improvements should come from the DX12/Vulcan solutions which will reduce the load on the CPU, for a given level of performance, combined with stuff like FreeSync/GSync

  • Hello Junky!

    I have read the article carefully but I find myself in this situation. I am planning to buy an Alienware 15 laptop with the Graphics Amplifier (GA) module. Thing is, i have a GTX 970 in my desktop so i feel a gtx 965m should be enough to play without the amplifier. However, the i5 double core option seems insuficient for me to handle a desktop gtx 970 (and even future GTX XX70 graphics) but the cheapest option with the i7 already includes a 970m thus increasing the price in 300€ approx +250€ of the GA.
    Direct X 12 seems to unlock the true power of the CPU cores which makes me go for the i7 but, is it really worth the price?
    I would just buy the laptop without the GA and leave it for a future update but idk if Dell will keep selling them in the future.

    Thanks in advance and sorrry for posting this in this “old” article but i find it more relevant here.

    • Hello to you too!
      About DX12 – on the contrary. Less CPU load means that even with higher 3D loads, the CPU won’t be a limiting factor, thus eliminating the performance differences between an I5 and an I7 in many many cases
      But it will take time for applications to adopt it well..

      But do you really need that much power?

      • I am going to move with my grandmother because university is close to her house. Im planning to use the laptop from monday to friday in her house, to bring it to my vacation residence so I dont have to carry my desktop and in the case I spend one year studying outside of my country. (I live in Spain btw)
        I play a lot of games and I like to play them on the maximum quality. Games like The Witcher 3 and Gta V will be demanding, thats why I am concerned about the power of the laptop.
        Still, I wont probably buy it until June or July, what I really want is a durable laptop, that is why I want the GA.
        Thanks for the fast response.

        • Well, I think you should wait until then, then. We should have some more options to consider

          But you might also consider running games on lower settings

          • I probably expressed myself wrong, I want my games to run at the best posible way with the hardware i can achieve. If I cant, i will just lower the settings. Thing is, the 965m doesnt seem enough powerful to me with an i5. If I could buy it with a 965m+i7 I wouldnt have any problem but as I cant, i am forced to choose between i5+965m or 970m+i7 (i5+970m is not an option according to the article). Throwing games like The Witcher 3 a double core i5m + a desktop 970 seems really unbalanced to me.

            • I think you should wait a bit – I just got the new AW15 with an I5 and a GTX 965M. Let’s see how it goes, ok?

              Anyway, personally, I think a 965M would be great for all. It should run almost everything on almost the highest settings

              • Oh that is really nice, I will absolutely wait. If only they offered an i7 with the gtx 965m that would be ideal.

                • You might also want to consider the P650SE with a 970M and get rid of the desktop GTX 970

                  • I’ve got my full desktop tower built and I am not gonna sell it, I want the laptop as a complement and thats why the graphics amplifier has so much appeal to me. I could just use the same desktop GTX 970 in the laptop and the desktop which is my plan if I end up getting the i5+965m. i would just put the 970 in the desktop when I’m at home and in the laptop when I’m out for a while.

  • Boot

    Nice article, thank you. I was thinking about going for an i5 on my next laptop, to save some cash. My current laptop has the i7/GTX 660 combo, for which i feel sometimes the cpu is a bit overkill. Seing the i5 might limit the GTX 970 in some scenarios and increasingly so in the (near) future I think I will be getting an i7 to be a bit more ‘future-proof’.

    • Thanks!

      I think that with a GTX 970M I’d go with an I7. However, for example, see this article:
      http://www.anandtech.com/show/8962/the-directx-12-performance-preview-amd-nvidia-star-swarm

      While this test is obviously with flaws (numbers look strange), it might show real trend.

      And – are you discussing new laptop options?

      • Boot

        Interesting article, though we’ll have to wait untill they come out with mantle and Dx12 to see how they really perform. Previews always have a way of promise alot on a new upcoming product only to disappoint when the final product arrives.

        I’m thinking to go for a clevo barebone, specifically the P670SE (i7 4720HQ & 970m). I plan on using my current ssd/hdd and ram so with a barebone I can save some cash whilst getting a solid upgrade.

        • totally..
          do you want 17.3″ only?

          • Boot

            yes, I do some graphic design and can never go back to a smaller screen now 😉

            • 1. The 17.3 Clevo is not equipped with IPS, I think, nor the P650 nor the P750 – did you see anything else?

              2. However, some MSI and Asus 17.3″ machines come with an IPS display, if that’s really what you are looking for

              • boot

                None of their 17″ come with an IPS i think. Since I don’t have an IPS now (and it is good enough for me), I will pretend they don’t exist untill the next upgrade ;-).

                • as you wish! still, I think this is a big difference

  • Brandon Ho

    Hi junky!

    Could you please try to perform the benchmarks with i5 and i7 with the games, Dragon Age: Inquisition and Far Cry 4 if possible? Not sure if it is correct, but I saw somewhere that these games required the use of quad core processors, as many reported that the games failed to start up with dual core processors (with regards to Dragon Age: Inquisition).

    • Hard to believe really, but I can try Dragon Age (Far Cry is way too boring and annoying for me!) – can you give me some link? or simply get the basic game?

      • Brandon Ho

        To be honest, I haven’t gotten a capable machine yet to try out those games, still waiting on better deals (holding out for the 960m >.<). So couldn't test it out myself but…

        Here is one such link: http://www.techspot.com/review/921-dragon-age-inquisition-benchmarks/page6.html

        If you read around the first quarter of the page, they mention that they did not benchmark on dual cores, because it would hang/lock-up at the loading screen apparently.

        I went to google around a bit (not very briefly), seems that they have found workarounds since the release of Dragon Age Inquisition, although these are not official patches/fixes.

        With regards to the above stuff, I just thought maybe, with the whole i5 vs i7 thing, it might be something worth considering a quad core processor over the dual core processors then.

        • 1. This is an mobile I5 dual core. Meaning that the application sees 4 threads actually (or 4 cores for that matter). True, the OS knows these are 2 HT cores and 2 non-HT cores, but still

          2. You can check here : http://www.notebookcheck.net/NVIDIA-GeForce-GTX-860M.107794.0.html

          check the dragon age benchmark (search the page for it) and you’ll find 3 benchmarks – one of them with a laptop equipped with an I5-4210U CPU.

          • Brandon Ho

            Interesting, thanks for clearing that up 🙂

            Will see in the future when I consider a new laptop (probably will ask you later in the forums)

  • sf sred

    Interesting results- does prove what people have been saying that i7 or an i5 does not make a big impact on FPS. However I do have two things to mention:

    #1: When you said the i3 (desktop) is roughly equivalent to an i5 (mobile), I do kind of have to disagree there, as the i3 (desktop) mutil-core performance is noticeably better than the i5 (mobile). Of course, during games this might not be a huge difference, but still worth noting.

    #2. Any chance you could test these results with Planetside 2? It’s known to be CPU-intensive, and graphically as well (though not the hardest out there). I’d be interested to see if the extra 2 cores of the i7 makes a big difference.

    • Yea, I should have outlined when the situation is not as I’ve found, meaning a lot more CPU-intensive games. I’m trying to run BF4 on MP now. Even on a 64 players map you are hardly come by a lot of players, so really it doesn’t matter a lot

      A desktop I3 simply has much better clocks and yea, it shows, but compared to desktop I5, the difference in clocks is not for the favor of the I3 significantly or at all, so the comparison holds.

      Where do I get Planetside 2?

      • sf sred

        To be quite honest, I don’t totatlly understand what you mean by:

        “A desktop I3 simply has much better clocks and yea, it shows, but compared to desktop I5, the difference in clocks is not for the favor of the I3 significantly or at all, so the comparison holds.”

        Care to explain further?

        #2. You can get Planetside 2 from steam or go to “Planetside2.com”. It is free by the way. So yeah, huge battles where it is possible to have at least 100 people in a somewhat small location (though it does not happen all the time, but is not rare either). Even with my GTX 860m, my CPU (i7-4700HQ) becomes the bottleneck in large fights, and as mentioned before, I would like to see if there are any noticeable effects of having an i7 over an i5 in this game.

        • see this from Intel site: http://ark.intel.com/compare/78929,81012,77769

          I5-4210M vs I5-4210H vs I3-4330 (mobile, mobile, desktop)

          The I3-4300 has a frequency of 3.5GHZ – base clocks. Not turbo. The I5-4210M, for example, is a 2.6-3.2GHZ. 3.2GHZ is the max turbo frequency for one core and 3.1GHZ is for two cores. It is also limited to 37W TDP (it will automatically lower the clocks if 37W are reached), therefore, under heavy load you’d get no more than 3.1GHZ for both cores which is not that far away from the I3-4330. However, due to TDP limitations, you’ll get usually no more than 2.7-2.9GHZ in many laptops.

          The I5-4210H (used in the Lenovo Y50) is not as limited with a TDP of 47W, meaning you have a lot of more room for high frequencies.

          You’d make me spend a lot of hours on this Planetside 2 🙁

          • sf sred

            Ah ok, I see what you mean. You are right that since the laptop versions have a lower TDP, it will exhibit lower performance than its desktop variant. However, what must be kept in mind is that in a desktop with better cooling, there is less chance of throttling, which almost seems common among laptops, and secondly real world performance- these numbers don’t mean anything (well, not too much) until real world performance is tested. I see that you have graphs there, but to be honest I don’t really want to analyse all of them :/ But yeah, you do make a fair point.

            Can you still try it and benchmark your performance? And I will admit it is addicting 😀

            • downloading it. Let me have few more hours of freedom before I get into it 🙁
              I’m going to try Star Citizen too see how it goes

              About throttling – true. Throttling and TDP limitations do their stuff. With an I5, my experience is that it’s usually a TDP issue

              • sf sred

                Heheheh, enjoy the freedom while you can. Of course, that is assuming you like it. Also, out of curiosity, why do you say you are going to play it for hours if you haven’t even tried it yet and don’t know if you like it? Never tried Star Citizen- though apparently its release date is 2016, or am I looking at the wrong thing?

                Well, can’t comment on that- you’re the one with the experience from testing many systems.

                • Star Citizen – beta
                  Planetside – I’m not going to play it a lot even if I’d like it, but testing takes time. At least for me. I have to understand what scene to test and all that

                  • sf sred

                    Ah ok. And yeah, take your time, I’d rather wait for the results to be accurate.

                    Also, when you tested your Lenovo Y50, did you have a problem when after the laptop wakes up from sleep mode and you open a video or some other software that emits sound, that only the sub woofer works, but the speakers don’t?

                    As always, your work is appreciated.

                    • I don’t remember such a problem with the Y50, but maybe others had such problems

                    • sf sred

                      So how is the testing going?

                      And I might just call Lenovo if the problem persists. Kind of disappointing that within a day of use I am already having these problems.

                    • Planetside 2 – really. could make the CPU loaded enough to reach critical levels of performance hit. Frankly, it’s quite hard to get into situation with a lot of moving objects as you die quickly

                      4 cores showed around half the average load on each core indeed, compared to 2 cores, but that’s all