In terms of overall gaming performance, the Intel Core i7-3612QM 4-Core 2.1GHz is massively better than the Intel Core i5-3230M 2.6GHz when it comes to running the latest games. This also means it will be less likely to bottleneck more powerful GPUs, allowing them to achieve more of their gaming performance potential.
The Core i5-3230M 2.6GHz was released less than a year after the Core i7-3612QM 4-Core, and so they are likely to have similar levels of support, and similarly optimized performance when running the latest games.
Both CPUs exhibit very powerful performance, so it probably isn't worth upgrading from one to the other, as both are capable of running even the most demanding games at the highest settings (assuming they are accompanied by equivalently powerful GPUs).
The Core i7-3612QM 4-Core has 2 more cores than the Core i5-3230M 2.6GHz. With 4 cores, the Core i7-3612QM 4-Core is much less likely to struggle with the latest games, or bottleneck high-end graphics cards when running them.
The Core i7-3612QM 4-Core has 4 more threads than the Core i5-3230M 2.6GHz. Both the Core i5-3230M 2.6GHz and the Core i7-3612QM 4-Core use hyperthreading. The Core i5-3230M 2.6GHz has 2 logical threads per physical core and the Core i7-3612QM 4-Core has 2.
Multiple threads are useful for improving the performance of multi-threaded applications. Additional cores and their accompanying thread will always be beneficial for multi-threaded applications. Hyperthreading will be beneficial for applications optimized for it, but it may slow others down. For games, the number of threads is largely irrelevant, as long as you have at least 2 cores (preferably 4), and hyperthreading can sometimes even hit performance.
More important for gaming than the number of cores and threads is the clock rate. Problematically, unless the two CPUs are from the same family, this can only serve as a general guide and nothing like an exact comparison, because the clock cycles per instruction (CPI) will vary so much.
The Core i5-3230M 2.6GHz and the Core i7-3612QM 4-Core are from the same family of CPUs, and thus their clock speeds are directly comparable. With this in mind, it is safe to say that with a 0.5 GHz faster base clock rate, the Core i5-3230M 2.6GHz manages to provide noticeably better performance than the Core i7-3612QM 4-Core. What is more, the Core i5-3230M 2.6GHz also manages to eke 0.1 GHz higher frequency when being stressed by CPU-intensive applications.
Aside from the clock rate, the next-most important CPU features for PC game performance are L2 and L3 cache size. Faster than RAM, the more cache available, the more data that can be stored for lightning-fast retrieval. L1 Cache is not usually an issue anymore for gaming, with most high-end CPUs eking out about the same L1 performance, and L2 is more important than L3 - but L3 is still important if you want to reach the highest levels of performance. Bear in mind that although it is better to have a larger cache, the larger it is, the higher the latency, so a balance has to be struck.
The Core i7-3612QM 4-Core has a 512 KB bigger L2 cache than the Core i5-3230M 2.6GHz, which means that it, at worst, wins out in this area, and at best, will provide superior gaming performance and will work much better with high-end graphics cards.
The maximum Thermal Design Power is the power in Watts that the CPU will consume in the worst case scenario. The lithography is the semiconductor manufacturing technology being used to create the CPU - the smaller this is, the more transistors that can be fit into the CPU, and the closer the connections. For both the lithography and the TDP, it is the lower the better, because a lower number means a lower amount of power is necessary to run the CPU, and consequently a lower amount of heat is produced.
Both the Core i5-3230M 2.6GHz and the Core i7-3612QM 4-Core have the same TDP of 35 Watts, and were created with the same manufacturing size of 22 nm, which means they will affect your yearly electricity bill about equally.
The Core i5-3230M 2.6GHz and the Core i7-3612QM 4-Core both have an on-board GPU, which means that they will be capable of running basic graphics applications (i.e., games) without the need for a dedicated graphics card.
For an in-depth GPU comparison, click on the GPU comparison icon that you can find throughout Game-Debate:
On-board GPUs tend to be fairly awful in comparison to dedicated cards from the likes of AMD or Nvidia, but as they are built into the CPU, they also tend to be cheaper and require far less power to run (this makes them a good choice for laptops). We would recommend a dedicated card for running the latest games, but integrated GPUs are improving all the time and casual gamers may find less recent games perform perfectly acceptably.