If you’re reading this, you probably know that most models can be configured with an Intel Core m, Intel Core i5, or Intel Core i7 processor. Each of the processors has different strengths and weaknesses. As such, making sure you choose the processor best suited to the type of things you want to do with your Surface, can have a large impact on how happy you’ll be with your device.
(NOTE: A new battery life comparison article has been published, measured on the Surface Pro.)
That’s where this article comes in. Today, I’m going to compare the price vs the performance for each of the 3 CPU choices and come up with a rating system that accounts for processor and graphics performance versus price. In turn, we can use that information to figure out which CPU version offers the best “bang for the buck” in an SP4.
FAIR WARNING: This article might be a bit harder to follow than most of my articles because of the complexity of comparing all of the different CPU/RAM/SSD combinations available with the SP4. This is complicated since I only have three machines to benchmark (the m3/4GB, i5/8GB & i7/8GB) while there are 10 available variants of the SP4 for sale on Microsoft‘s website (go under the “customize your device” option to see them all.)
It also means that some folks will undoubtedly have problems with some of the assumptions or workarounds I used to try and get an “apples to apples” comparison despite the inherent disparity between the versions. If you happen to be one of those people, please try to keep your arguments in the comments above the “contradiction” level in Graham’s Hierarchy. That will benefit everyone since it’s possible I overlooked something or didn’t explain it clearly enough and good feedback will help me improve the information in this article.
So, let’s get started…
Core m3 vs i5 vs i7: What Processor Choices Do I Have?
- The Core m3-6Y30 (m3) is a lower-end processor which (supposedly, see my post on SP4 battery life benchmarks) offers better battery life by sacrificing computing power.
- The Core i5 6300-U (i5) is a “jack of all trades”. It can do just about everything fairly well but isn’t (usually) the best at anything.
- The Core i7 6650-U (i7) is the “Alpha Dog” of the group. It offers the most all-around power but comes with a hefty price tag.
You can compare technical specifications of the three processors on Intel’s site: HERE
Core m3 vs i5 vs i7: Processor Performance
In this section, I’m going to compare the CPU performance of all three processors. CPU power, when it comes right down to it, refers to the ability of the processor to do math. Essentially, all a computer ever really does is math, just incredibly quickly.
This is important for “number-crunching tasks” such as compiling code, processing video and, database processing. In addition, most “normal” computing tasks such as web surfing, iTunes, Facebook, e-mail, etc., tend to be CPU and RAM dependent.
To come up with my benchmarks, I used the PCMark 8 benchmarking package. This software includes three tests (Home Score, Creative Score, Work Score) to test different “use cases”. For example, the Home Score test is designed to test normal “at home” usage scenarios such as web surfing and browsing social media. In contrast, the “Work Score” is intended to test things like working with spreadsheets and running productivity tools.
I ran the test 5 times on each Surface model and averaged them to get the results below:
As you can see (and maybe as expected) the i7 did the best and the i5 was in the middle while the m3 did the worst.
Unfortunately, the above graph is a bit complicated to understand; so, in order to make it a bit easier, I averaged the results (for each processor) to give you an “overall” score for each CPU model. Below are those results:
Now, it’s pretty easy to see the different performance levels for each CPU.
ABOUT RAM: Unfortunately, since the m3 version of the SP4 only offers the 4GB option, while the i5 and i7 both sported 8GB, I wasn’t able to keep all three models on an equal footing when it comes to the amount of RAM in each device. This disparency is responsible for, at least, some of the lower results for the m3 model in the above graph.
Core m3 vs i5 vs i7: Graphics Performance
Now, let’s look at the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) for each of the models. You may not realize this but, each of the processors has both a CPU (as explained above) and a GPU. The GPU handles the graphics and can have a lot of impact on the processor’s ability to perform graphically intensive tasks such as 3D rendering and video games.
Each of the 3 processor offerings has a different GPU. The m3 offers an Intel® HD Graphics 515, the i5 offers an Intel® HD Graphics 520, and the i7 offers an Intel® Iris™ Graphics 540 GPU.
To come up with these scores, I used 3DMark 11 to obtain the overall benchmark for each Surface model 5 separate times then I averaged them together:
As you can see (and again, probably as expected) the i7 version is the most powerful, followed by the i5 with the m3 bringing up the rear.
Core m3 vs i5 vs i7: Price Comparison
Now that we’ve quantified the processor and graphics for each processor and established the importance of RAM, let’s look at price vs performance for each SP4 model. This will tell us which gives the biggest “bang for your buck”. To get started, I’ll simply average the processor and graphics performance scores to come up with a “unified score” that effectively (if somewhat simply) combines to the two scores.
After that, it gets tricky since I didn’t have one of each possible i5 or i7 variant on hand to test. To get around this, I’m forced to assume and extrapolate a bit in order to come up with reasonably accurate price/performance values.
I can reasonably assume that the size of the SSD will have little or no bearing on the performance of a system. However, doubling up the RAM to 16GB in an i5 or i7 SP4 might.
To compensate for that, I’m going to give the 16GB versions a flat 5% performance bonus for the processor when calculating the price/performance score. I also gave the 4GB version of the i5 a 5% penalty for the same reason.
This gives me these performance scores:
To eliminate the SSD as a scoring factor while accounting for the performance gains inherent with more RAM, I’m only going to compare the AVERAGE RAM/SSD combination for each processor. For example, with the i7/16GB RAM models of the SP4, I have the choice of a 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB SSD. I’m simply going to average the price of these three variants to use in my price/performance calculation.
Here’s the average price I calculated for each CPU/RAM combination:
Now that I have the average price and performance data for each CPU/RAM combination, I can finally come up with a relative price/performance score. To do so, I’ll simply divide the price by the performance score.
And, at last, here are my final results:
In this graph, a SHORTER bar/lower value is better. Don’t let the fact that all of the values are under 1 fool you, it’s not important. What is important are the scores relative to each other.
As you can see, despite not having the best performance, the i5/4GB version comes out with the best price/performance score with the m3/4GB following very close behind.
Surprisingly, while the i5/16GB version is a powerful machine, it’s not going to give you the best bang for the buck according to these results. It’s actually at the bottom of the list lagging behind even the i7/16GB variant.
Does that mean it’s a bad machine? Of course not, it will be snappy and powerful. It’s just not offering the “best bang for the buck” because of how expensive it is.
Core m3 vs i5 vs i7: Conclusion
In general, I recommend that you buy as much computer as you can afford but, if you’re looking for the most “bang for the buck” you’re not going to do better than an i5/4GB version since it clearly offers the best performance to cost score. Surprisingly, however, the other i5 models have a poor cost/performance score.
If you’re not quite so worried about the cost/performance score, there’s still a lot of useful information above to help you decide which model is for you. For example, from the benchmarks, you can see the i7 is the best for computing power and can probably handle anything you can throw at it. Same goes for the i5/8GB and i5/16GB models.
In contrast, The m3 model is really inexpensive but lags behind on power, graphics and (surprisingly) battery life when compared to the others so, it might not run the software you need fast enough for you to be happy with it.
UPDATE: I had incorrectly presented my data in the final analysis. Originally, I had stated that models with a longer bar in the cost/performance graph offered “more bang for the buck”. After a few folks pointed out the error in the comments, I made the correction as they were, of course, correct.
I really appreciate the correction (I hate being wrong, but I hate bad data worse) and I will try to refrain from staying up too late into the night writing posts (as I did with this one) in the future.
Tim Rolston is a professional geek with over 23 years of experience working in Information Technology and dealing with everything from large-scale storage to remote systems management and automation for organizations such as Texas Instruments, Mobil Oil, and the University of Michigan (where he was an Academic IT Director).
He co-founded JTRTech along with Joanna to realize his long-time dream of working for himself.