I recently did a video and article on Building a Bad Ass 1U Server.  I chose to build this server with an Intel Core i7-6700K.  The YouTube comments immediately erupted with naysayers commenting on my CPU choice with the likes of “That’s not a server, its 1U Desktop”, or “No ECC RAM, not a server.”  These threads quickly turned to debates over whether an Intel XEON was better than in Intel Core i7. I think you’ll find it of little to no surprise that many of these commenters were making baseless claims on things they really didn’t even understand. In fact, many of our so-called experts were even wrong on what constitutes a server in the first place. So XEON vs Core i7?  Which is better?  Let’s find out!

XEON vs Core i7: First, What Constitutes a Server?

Before we get into this XEON vs Core i7 battle, the first thing we need to get an understanding of is what actually constitutes a server (hint: It’s not hardware).

Webster’s defines a server as: A computer in a network that is used to provide services (as access to files or shared peripherals or the routing of e-mail) to other computers in the network.

Wikipedia defines a server as: A server is a computer program or a device that provides functionality for other programs or devices, called “clients”.

You’ll notice that the definition of a server mentions nothing about the hardware it resides on, but rather the services it provides to other computers and devices on the network.  As one commenter going by Jack in the comments thread so eloquently stated “A server is a function, not a piece of hardware. Anything can be a server, even a Raspberry Pi. Some servers need more redundancy than others, but they are still performing a server’s role.”

I made a similar statement in one of my replies stating “Anything can be a server, even a Raspberry Pi. The use case is what matters. I wouldn’t run credit processing on this server, but its perfect for a theater room.”

It is true that in many business situations, companies require high uptime and large processing power on their server equipment and therefore purchase more redundant systems that include Error Correcting Code Memory RAM (ECC RAM), RAID cards, redundant power supplies, and other such extras.

One of the most common processors in servers is the XEON processor. This processor may have some additional features based on its SKU number, and unlocks some additional features that may benefit servers (we’ll discuss more in the next section).  That’s why you generally will find a XEON in server systems.  But it’s also very common to find XEON processors in Workstation class desktop computers! If you’re doing high level critical number crunching for NASA, there’s a good chance your desktop PC will be fitted with XEONs. An example of this is the Apple Mac Pro which is designed for the professional user, such as video editors.  The Mac Pro ships with either a XEON 4-core or XEON 6-core processor and ECC memory, and I don’t think any of us would confuse the Mac Pro with a server!

XEON vs Core i7: The Core i7 Pros

If the XEON unlocks additional features then you’d think it would be the choice for most computers, right?  Well not exactly.  Let’s explore starting with the Core i7! There are plenty of benefits to sticking with this “desktop class” processor.

Cost

In our XEON vs Core i7 showdown, some will argue, but it takes little more than a search on Amazon or NewEgg to realize that cost per gigahertz the Core series processors are always cheaper (unless there is a shortage or sale happening). At the current time of this writing, the equivalent XEON to the Core i7-6700k is almost $100 more on Amazon and $125 more on NewEgg. And the cost per gigahertz gets even more appealing when we take the next Core i7 pro into mind, overclocking.

Overclocking

Overclocking allows you to increase the performance of the processor by raising its clock speed from say 4.0 Ghz to 4.5 Ghz (or even 5.0 Ghz) by making some changes to the BIOS settings. In most cases it does require some additional thought put into your cooling configuration, such as the use of larger CPU coolers, or even water coolers, but in the end it still turns out to be additional horsepower that can be passed along to your applications. This become especially important if you’re application mostly relies on a single core for processing in the case of single threaded applications and many games. Every little bit will result in real world improvements. XEON processors can not be overclocked.

On Board Integrated Video

The Intel Core processors include integrated video on the CPU. This is something the XEON processors do not have.  Even the most casual of users isn’t going to get very far without video, which means with a XEON you’ll need to add a discrete video card into a PCIe slot, or purchase a motherboard that has graphics added to it. But there is one additional benefit of the Core i7 that can be beneficial, even in certain server environments: Quick Sync Video

Intel Quick Sync Video

Intel Core processors include Intel Quick Sync Video.  QSV was introduced in the Sandy Bridge line of Core processors and offers hardware based compression and decompression (CODECs) for video. This is a dedicated core on the processor and is extremely fast compared to software based CODECs that must use the general purpose cores of the processor. In the case of server running Plex or KODI, a QSV core can be of extra value and more important that other features of the XEON.

XEON vs Core i7: The XEON Pros

So as you can tell this battle of the XEON vs Core i7 isn’t as cut and dry as you might think. But the XEON does have some very redeeming qualities of its own.  Let’s break them down.

Support for ECC RAM

Probably the most notable feature that the XEON enables is support for Error Correcting Code Memory RAM. This is something not supported on the Core series processors.  ECC RAM is typically most important in applications where data corruption of even one bit would be catastrophic, such as financial or scientific computing, but due to the low cost you will find it in most all hardware that is sold with business data processing in mind.  ECC RAM contains an extra memory chip that is used as a parity chip.  This allows the memory DIMM to not only detect a bit that is incorrect, but correct it on the fly.  This is why many professionals often refer to ECC incorrectly as Error Checking and Correcting RAM. ECC is nice to have, but certainly not important on your average desktop PC or home server.

L3 Cache

Level 3 cache is a small amount of memory set aside directly on the processor chip that allows the CPU to quickly fetch subsequent retrievals of certain stored items much faster than reaching out to the system bus and asking a DIMM to return a piece of data. XEON processors typically have double the amount of cache that comes on the Core i7.  For high demand applications, more L3 cache can make a large difference in CPU performance.

More Cores Possible

If cost is of no concern to you, then the XEON will always win in number of cores. Current XEONs go as high as 48 cores where the current Core i7 tops out at 8 cores. That sounds amazing until you find out that the 48 Core XEON will cost you almost $10,000 USD.

 

XEON vs Core i7: Which One to Choose?

For many of you this article may have made your choice even harder, and unfortunately for some uses cases the choice can be daunting. There is good news though.  For many use cases the decision is quite simple.  If you are building a gaming rig to play the latest Doom or Titanfall, the Core i7 is the clear winner. If you’re building a home server where ECC isn’t really important, and on-board video is a plus, or for that awesome homebrew plex server, you’ll probably still want to stick with the Core i7. If you’re building a server for your business that is mission critical, XEON all the way. If you’re building a business class workstation for Computer Aided Design (CAD) or 3D Modeling, again, the XEON is the way to go.

I hope this article helps you make the decision on which CPU is right for you!  Leave a comment below to let us know which CPU you chose, and why!

9 Responses

  1. Josie

    The ability to use ECC is my most important need. That’s why I chose the xeon. I can’t see the average home server needing that though.

    Reply
  2. sean

    Good read, but there is a couple of things that are wrong.

    1. Some core processors do support ECC RAM but they do not support VT-d (I have a i3 just for the ECC RAM). But in general core processors do not have ECC support.
    2. Some xeon processors have integrated graphics (I have one in my server now). If the sku ends in a 5 it has integrated graphics and if it ends in a 0 it does not.

    Reply
  3. Kim

    Hi Mike.

    I will be building a trading computer and i am stuck between these options, the xeon and i7. I see that most other people is going for the i7700k with a, say 150$ motherboard and 8-16gb ram.

    Would it be more correct to get a xeon with 8-16gb of ECC and a fairly nice motherboard with that? I am looking at the amd firepro w5100 since it supports 4k and that would make me get more info on the screens, with 4k monitors?

    What do you advice on this matter?

    Reply
  4. Slam Lander

    I just bought a Titan Computer CAD workstation. Both Core i7 and Xeon processors were available; I chose the Core i7 due to its over-clock ratings. It is intended to be used as a 3D graphics workstation and has a GTX 1080ti graphics card..

    Usually, I build frankenbox servers for my SOHO operations. However, my next target for build is a render farm (1-4 boxen). Would I be better off sticking with Core i7 or going with Xeon?

    Reply
  5. Hebekiah

    As a small business or home user the i7 seems more versatile in the long run, as you clearly state (though people always find a way to get the most out of old server hardware – I’m still running an old Opteron 180 as a casual use machine out in the shop).
    My basic conclusion is i7 if you want speed with say 4 maximum cpu intensive programs running at the same time. If more, gotta go with Xeon.

    Reply
    • Mike Murray
      Mike Murray

      Solidworks (from what I understand) cares more about core speed than number of cores. In that case, i7 all the way. But I am not an expert on solidworks.

      Reply
  6. Ben Shaw

    Such a great article Mike! There are so many stupid people today commenting on the forums and YouTube who think that just because something costs more it is better. With that logic I should buy a M1 Abrahms tank to drive to work, since it costs a fortune, even though for my 30+ mile commute the Prius is the best for me. Thanks again for setting the record straight. For almost any home computer, workstation, gaming rig, or server the Core i7 is the way to go. There’s just no good reason to use XEON at home.

    Reply

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