Every year for the past decade, Intel has released a new generation of its Core processors. And every year, we’ve recommended that people buy the newest version they can get—if you’re paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for a computer, you should get one that will feel fast and run all the apps you use for as long as possible. But Intel’s 11th-generation Core processors are a little different, and there are some models we don’t think you should buy.
Specifically, the 11th-generation Core i5, i7, and i9 processors that will be available in many desktop computers in the next couple of months are difficult to recommend because they are only a little faster than the 10th-generation processors they replace, and because they run much hotter and use much more electricity than either those 10th-generation processors or competing AMD Ryzen chips do. Here’s what you need to know about the problems with these processors, what you should look for instead if you’re shopping for a desktop PC, and why, in contrast, we believe Intel’s 11th-generation laptop processors are safe to buy.
Hotter, more power-hungry desktops
To understand why these 11th-generation desktop processors are having problems, you need to know a little about how the processors in computers, tablets, phones, and game consoles get better over time. First, there’s the chip’s architecture, or how it has been designed—a processor is structured a bit like the blueprint of a house, with processor cores, cache memory, and blocks for playing 3D games or high-definition video files all laid out in a precise arrangement. And then there’s the manufacturing process, or how the chip is physically constructed in a chip maker’s factory.
Those two concepts are deeply intertwined. One way to make a processor faster is by adding more transistors to the design—a transistor is the basic building block of a computer processor, and the more of them you have, the more your processor can do. The transistor count of a typical desktop computer processor has increased from tens of thousands in the late ’70s to billions today. As you use the computer, those transistors are all being switched on and off constantly, which requires power, which in turn produces heat. So all else being equal, a processor design with more transistors requires more electricity to run and a bigger fan to cool.
But newer manufacturing processes make transistors smaller, which generally reduces the amount of power required to switch them on and off. That way, processor designers can add more transistors to make a processor architecture faster without worrying about making it physically larger or more power-hungry. If you’ve ever wondered why a MacBook Air you can buy today is faster, smaller, thinner, and lighter than a MacBook Air from a decade ago, that’s one major reason.1
So what happened to Intel’s latest desktop chips? Compared with the 10th-generation chips, the 11th-generation processors have an updated architecture but not a newer manufacturing process. This means that they can be faster sometimes, since Intel has added more transistors to their design. But each of those transistors requires the same amount of electricity as those in 10th-generation processors, and as a result, the 11th-generation processors run hotter and are more difficult to cool down. And because processors are designed to slow down (or “throttle”) when they get too hot to avoid burning themselves out, that increased heat can often cancel out whatever speed improvements Intel might have achieved by updating the processors’ architecture in the first place.
What you should buy instead
Intel’s 10th-generation desktop processors are still widely available, and they still perform reasonably well for most tasks, including gaming, professional photo and video editing, 3D modeling, and other tasks that benefit from a lot of processor power. And if you just need a basic desktop for editing documents and spreadsheets, browsing the web, and chatting on video calls, the 10th-generation Core i3 processor is an excellent value.2
We also like desktop processors from AMD, Intel’s biggest competitor in computer processors. Ryzen 5, Ryzen 7, and Ryzen 9 processors from the Ryzen 3000, 4000, and 5000 series are all as good as or better than Intel’s processors in both performance and power use (quite a bit better, once you start comparing Ryzen 7 and Ryzen 9 chips against the Intel Core i7 and i9 lineups). But AMD is a smaller company, and it has been a victim of its own success—AMD Ryzen systems are often harder to find and go out of stock more quickly than Intel PCs. Ryzen 5000 processors in particular are worth waiting for if you can get them, especially if you’re buying a PC for gaming or professional work such as video editing, coding, or designing 3D models. Just know that they have a reputation for being hard to find in an industry where currently everything is hard to find.
11th-generation laptop processors are good, actually
Our problems with Intel’s 11th-generation Core processors for desktops don’t extend to the company’s 11th-generation laptop processors, which are completely different chips despite sharing that Core name and generation. (Perhaps to distinguish between the two, 11th-generation Core laptops are often sold with Intel’s Evo branding instead, which literally downplays the “Core” by putting that word under the “Evo” in tiny print.) These chips offer a maximum of four processor cores, down from six or eight cores in the desktop chips, which means they aren’t as fast on some heavy-duty tasks like editing videos or playing games. But they generally offer a big step up in performance from their 10th-generation counterparts, they work great for everyday computing tasks such as browsing and editing documents and photos, and they offer excellent battery life in the laptops we’ve tested.
And although these processors were designed for laptops, they do appear in some desktops, mainly all-in-one PCs and mini desktop computers. We wouldn’t recommend those kinds of computers if you’re a professional photo editor or if you’re looking for a high-end gaming PC, but they’re great for everyday web browsing, video chatting, working from home, remote schooling, and less-intensive games like Fortnite (or older ones like Fallout 4).
If you’re shopping for a desktop and you need to be able to tell what kind of chip it has inside, you can look at Intel’s (admittedly bewildering) model numbers to distinguish the 11th-generation laptop chips from the desktop ones. The laptop chips have a four-digit model number followed by the letter G and another number, as in i5-1135G7 or i3-1115G4. The desktop chips have five-digit model numbers that are sometimes followed by one or two letters, as in i5-11400, i5-11600K, or i7-11700KF.
What if you need to buy an 11th-gen desktop anyway?
An ongoing shortage of silicon chips has made buying pretty much any piece of technology more difficult and expensive than it was even a few months ago, and that’s likely to be true throughout most of 2021. So what do you do if you need a desktop PC today, and one carrying an Intel 11th-generation chip is your only option?
If you’re in this position, the 11th-generation Core i5 processors are the least bad of the lot. They do use more power than 10th-generation i5 processors or AMD’s Ryzen processors, but they’re reasonably affordable, their six processor cores offer good-enough performance for graphics-intensive games, and they don’t emit so much heat that it will cause major problems in the long run. The 11th-generation Core i7 processors run hotter and use even more power, but their two extra processor cores do at least offer a noticeable speed increase for high-end video editing or 3D drafting apps—you wouldn’t notice the difference if you were just browsing or editing documents, though.
Regardless of the kind of work you’re doing, you should completely avoid the 11th-gen Core i9 models, which cost a lot more than the Core i7 versions and use more power without offering appreciably better performance. Early reviewers have even had problems with crashing and instability with the Core i9 processors (though we expect those issues to be fixed once Intel and the PC makers have had some time to work the bugs out).
1. Sometimes, chip makers choose to keep a processor’s architecture more or less the same while upgrading the manufacturing process. This results in a chip that performs the same but requires less power and heat and can be cooled with fewer fans or a smaller heat sink. This is why you often see new “slim” versions of video game consoles a few years after the originals were released.