Processors: Is Intel’s Core i9 chip worth the price?

By J. Carlton Collins, CPA

Q. I'm in the market for a new desktop computer, and I see that Intel has released the new Core i9 chip, but plenty of computers containing the Core i7 are still available. Which core should I choose and why?

A. Here's a summary of the two Intel Core chipsets you mentioned, along with a summary of AMD's highest-performing chipset for comparison.

  • Core i7: First introduced in 2008, the Intel Core i7 is a family of 64-bit x86-64 processors designed by Intel for high-end desktops and laptops. By my count, there have been 164 Core i7 chips released, each supporting between two and four cores; between four and 12 threads, running at clock speeds ranging from 1.5 to 5.0 GHz; and between 16 and 64 GBs of RAM. The higher-end Intel i7 cores have retail prices roughly from $339 to $599.
  • Core i9: Introduced in mid-2017, Core i9 is Intel's newest family of 64-bit x86 microprocessors, which offer a significant increase in core and thread count. By my count, 17 Core i9 chips have been released during the past two years, each supporting between six and 18 cores; between eight and 36 threads, running at clock speeds ranging from 2.3 to 4.0 GHz; and between 16 and 64 GBs of RAM. The top-of-the-line Core i9 has 18 physical cores with hyper-threading for a total of 36 threads. The higher-end Intel i9 cores have retail prices from $999 to $1,999.
  • AMD's Ryzen: For comparison purposes, AMD's top-of-the-line core CPU is the Ryzen Threadripper series, a set of 64-bit processors supporting clock speeds ranging from 3.7 to 4.0 GHz; 16 to 32 GBs of RAM; and eight to 16 cores with 16 to 32 threads. These AMD cores have retail prices from $549 to $999.

The clock speed refers to how fast the microprocessors operate. Clock speeds close to or greater than about 4.5 to 5.0 GHz tend to generate enough heat to damage the core; therefore, sophisticated cooling systems are required to support these higher speeds.

The term "thread" refers to how many tasks or processes the computer can handle simultaneously. Many of today's top-of-the-line core processors include hyper-threading technology that enables a single core to perform two tasks (or threads) at the same time. More threads translate to faster computer performance initially, but at some point adding more threads (or additional core processors) has diminishing returns. This is because while your computer may frequently be doing four or five things at a time, it is rarely doing nine or 10 things at a time, so adding a ninth or 10th thread may be pointless much of the time. For example, at any point your computer may be: (1) reading your hard drive, (2) recalculating your spreadsheet, (3) writing to a USB drive, (4) displaying the copy progress results on your screen, (5) displaying your webcam image, (6) scanning an image, (7) retrieving a webpage, and (8) playing music. Even in this unlikely scenario where eight activities are being processed at the same time, eight threads are sufficient to handle this workload simultaneously, and in all likelihood, a ninth core (or thread) would remain idle waiting for a task to perform.

In simpler words, my point is that more cores do not always translate to faster performance. As a simplified analogy, picture a farmer carrying water to the field with a bucket in each hand. Since the farmer can carry only two buckets at a time, supplying him or her with more buckets won't increase the farmer's productivity. Similarly, supplying your computer with more threads won't necessarily increase its performance.

There are exceptions to this rule. For example, some applications, such as Excel, can use all of the core processors simultaneously to make simultaneous calculations, but unless you are working with massive computations, any extra threads would probably be underutilized in most common business situations. The i9 core is primarily found in high-powered computers used by gamers to play heavily graphical video games.

While it is rare for me to recommend anything less than the highest-performing technology, in this case, I can't make a compelling argument justifying the more expensive i9 core-based computers over the i7 core-based computers. For now, I recommend that CPA power users purchase desktop computers with the following minimum specifications:

  • A minimum of four i7 cores/eight threads (or equivalent from AMD).
  • Windows 10 (any edition).
  • At least 12 GBs of RAM (preferably fast RAM).
  • A minimum of 3.2 GHz clock speed.
  • At least a 1 TB hard drive with a 256 GB solid-state drive (SSD) component.

As an example, I found a desktop that meets these requirements at Sam's Club, priced at $999 (as of April 2019), including a 32-inch monitor (an HP ENVY 32-inch premium desktop bundle, Intel Core i7-8700 processor, 12 GB memory, 2 TB hard drive, HP 32s monitor, optical drive, wireless keyboard and mouse, two-year warranty care pack, and Windows 10 Home). In contrast, the least expensive i9 core desktop computer system I could find online was from NewEgg.com, priced at $4,189 (as of April 2019) (the CLX SET Intel Core i9 7920X, 2.90 GHz, 12-Core, liquid-cooled 32 GB DDR4 480 GB SSD, 3 TB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 Ti 8 GB, and Windows 10). In conclusion, unless your daily computer activities involve playing a few hours of Minecraft, FIFA 19, or League of Legends, I recommend you stick with the less expensive Core i7-based computer systems for now. 


About the author

J. Carlton Collins, CPA, (carlton@asaresearch.com) is a technology consultant, a conference presenter, and a JofA contributing editor.

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