The Unlocked i3 Cometh
Enthusiasts have long flocked to Intel’s Core i5, Core i3, and Pentium processors as go-to solutions for budget-minded gaming rigs, particularly in light of AMDs waning innovation over the years. Each series offers its own advantages, and in the past, Intel’s surgical trimming of overclocking, Turbo Boost, and Hyper-Threading features separated the families into a well-defined hierarchy. We could tune i5s with easily-overclocked K-series SKUs, for example, but the i3 and Pentium families employed locked multipliers.
Intel set the benchmark for affordable overclocking when it released the unlocked Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition in July 2014. We have to reach even further back to find the last unlocked Hyper-Threaded dual-core CPU, Intel's Pentium EE 965, which surfaced in 2006. Now, in 2017, we get another taste in the Kaby Lake-based Core i3-7350K. It includes the benefit of Hyper-Threading, which makes the -7350K even more enticing to gamers than the Pentium G3258. After all, two Hyper-Threaded cores can work on four threads at a time, and that's a requisite in many of today's most popular titles.
The chip operates at a base clock rate of 4.2 GHz, similar to a Core i7-7700K. But it doesn't support Turbo Boost, though this isn't altogether disappointing given the unlocked multiplier. Intel shares 4MB of last-level cache across the die, yielding a ratio of 2MB per core, also like the higher-end models. And whereas the locked Core i3s are rated at 35W and 51W, the Core i3-7350K is the lone 60W SKU. Intel also re-introduced TSX-NI support, which can boost multi-threaded performance, to the i3 series.
Core i3-7350K is of course based on the Kaby Lake architecture, the second tock of Intel’s 14nm process. Due to a lack of IPC improvements, Kaby Lake isn't inherently faster than Skylake on a per-cycle basis. Instead, faster transistors enable generally higher clock rates. Intel also focuses on adding more features to the low-end processors in a move that many see as preparation for AMD's Ryzen launch. Beyond the process improvement, we get a revamped SpeedShift to keep power consumption in check without sacrificing responsiveness and a refined media engine.
The Core i3 processors come armed with HD Graphics 630 in a GT2 configuration (that's 24 execution units (EU) operating at a base 350 MHz and able to hit 1150 MHz). The Gen 9.5 graphics architecture provides fixed-function hardware for HEVC 10-bit decode/encode, VP9 8/10-bit decode, and VP9 8-bit encode. Most enthusiasts will pair this CPU with a discrete GPU, so the integrated graphics certainly aren’t the main attraction. It's worth noting, however, that you need a Kaby Lake-based system to stream 4K video due to hardware-based DRM requirements.
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The Price Dilemma
The allure of an unlocked dual-core model really boils down to pricing, and the Core i3-7350K unsurprisingly bears a higher price tag than other Core i3s. Like all K-series SKUs, the -7350K doesn’t come with a stock heat sink. We wouldn’t recommend one for overclocking anyway. But you do need to add the price of a cooler to your budget when you consider this CPU. Also, you need a Z170 or Z270 motherboard in order to take advantage of the unlocked multiplier, which also adds cost. These days, Z170-based platforms slot in as your value option, while Intel's Z270 PCH offers increased connectivity options due to more HSIO lanes. The company also touts “Optane Ready” status for Z270, so the new chipset is your only option for adding a touch of next-generation 3D XPoint memory caching when it becomes available later this year.
Most games don't fully utilize Intel's big six-, eight-, and 10-core chips, so the quad-threaded Core i3-7350K should still offer potent performance with the right GPU at a $179 price point. However, after you invest in a capable cooler and enthusiast-oriented motherboard, the extra costs push this supposed budget processor into the same range as a quad-core Core i5-7400 with an H- or B-series chipset and Intel's stock heat sink. The i5 doesn't benefit from Hyper-Threading or an unlocked multiplier, but Turbo Boost takes it from a base 3 GHz up to 3.5 GHz. And four physical cores are complemented by 6MB of shared L3. The Core i5-7500 is even faster thanks to a 3.4 GHz base frequency and 3.8 GHz peak Turbo Boost rate, so long as you're willing to spend $192.
Then again, if overclocking an unlocked processor is your only concern, the Core i3-7350K is your best bet short of the $236 Core i5-6600K. The Pentium family is much cheaper, sure, but even with the addition of Hyper-Threading to select models, a locked multiplier means none of them can challenge an overclocked Core i3. The -7350K also supports AVX and AVX2, whereas the Pentiums do not. Core i3s give you more L3 cache, too.
The price of a CPU affects how much you can spend on a graphics card or SSD, so it’s always a challenge to strike the right balance. Intel's Core i3-7350K blurs the line between its i3 and i5 families, so let's take a closer look at how this model fares against pricier alternatives.