One geoscience application of portable XRF (pXRF) technology is acquiring ‘whole-rock’ analyses of unmineralized or weakly mineralized rock cores for major oxides and trace elements, to fill the gaps between traditional laboratory analyses and/or obtain geochemical data more quickly. But the question of whether the samples actually need to be crushed and pulverized before analysis to produce useful results has not been extensively studied. In this paper pXRF data quality is compared on unprepared rock cores and on powders in three ways: instrumental precision (relative standard deviation [RSD] of a series of measurements on the same spot), sample precision (for unprepared samples, RSD of a series of measurements on different spots on the core), and accuracy (average pXRF value versus laboratory geochemistry). Two Olympus Innov-X Delta Premium pXRF devices were tested on 27 core samples of dense, non-mineralized, fine- to medium-grained, Precambrian volcanic and intrusive rocks from Canada. In general, sample preparation does not improve instrumental precision or accuracy. The significant advantage of powders is to avoid mineralogical heterogeneity. However, sample precision for in situ data is improved by averaging multiple measurements of different points on the sample: a significant gain is obtained between three and seven measurements. The sample precisions at 25 points – which is about the most measurements one can make during the same amount of time used for powdering a rock core sample – are better than the instrumental precision on powders for most elements. For high spatial resolution down-hole element profiles on entire drill-holes, in situ pXRF measurements with smoothing (e.g. 3–5 point moving averages) provide fit-for-purpose data; the alternative of turning the entire drill-core into powder is not realistic.