Intel’s 11th generation desktop processors, codenamed Rocket Lake, didn’t impress us much. They were from Intel sixth processor architecture based on a version of Intel’s 14nm manufacturing process and the first not to use an iteration of the venerable Skylake core from 2015.
They improved performance, mostly by backporting features from newer and faster processor architectures. But if you add features without improving the manufacturing process, you get exactly what Rocket Lake delivered: a processor that’s slightly faster but also a lot hotter, with much higher power consumption than the 10th gen Intel CPUs that preceded it or the AMD. Ryzen 5000 series CPUs they compete against.
Now Intel is trying to make a course correction in the form of its 12th-generation core CPUs, codenamed Alder Lake. The first six processors in the lineup are now available for pre-order and will be available from November 4.
The new chips are Intel’s first desktop processors (outside of servers) manufactured on a version of the company’s 10nm production, but you won’t see “10nm” in Intel’s marketing materials or product pages. The process formerly known as “10nm Enhanced SuperFin” is now called “Intel 7” because the company says its transistor density will be comparable to 7nm processes from competing foundries such as TSMC and Samsung. Intel announced its updated manufacturing process naming scheme earlier this year.
A new chapter for Intel’s desktop CPUs
Alder Lake signals a significant shift in the composition of Intel’s processors. The 12th generation Core chips announced today will all ship with a combination of “performance” and “efficient” CPU cores, known as P-cores and E-cores. The P-cores are the successors to the cores used in previous desktop processors, with Hyperthreading support, 1.25 MB of dedicated L2 cache per core, and fast single-threaded performance. The E-cores can be used to assist with heavily threaded workloads, but are generally intended to run background tasks, do not support Hyperthreading, and are arranged in four core clusters with 2MB of shared L2 cache per cluster.
The initial lineup includes three processor options offered with and without integrated graphics, for a total of six processors. The top-of-the-line i9-12900K includes eight P-cores and eight E-cores, plus integrated graphics, for $589. The i7-12700K still has eight P-cores, but goes back to four E-cores and will set you back $409. And the midrange i5-12600K includes six P-cores and four E-cores for $289. Subtract $25 to get the price for one of the GPU-less KF variants of the processors.
Due to the mix of cores, the ratio between cores and threads is different from what we are used to from typical Intel and AMD CPUs. You get two threads per P-core but only one thread per E-core, which is why the 16-core i9-12900K, for example, has 24 threads instead of 32.
The prices of these processors and the higher core count will help Intel compete better with AMD in multithreaded workloads – AMD will sell you a 12-core, 24-thread Ryzen 9 5900X processor for around $560 and a 16-core, 32 thread 5950X for $750. Intel’s benchmarks tend to avoid comparing Alder Lake CPUs to these AMD chips in multithreaded tasks, favoring instead more favorable comparisons to the thermally challenged 8-core, 16-thread i9-11900K. But improved performance from Alder Lake’s P-cores and the extra core count from the E-cores should at least help close the gap.
To put the P and E cores in context, Intel compared the single-threaded performance of both to the 10th-generation Comet Lake cores, the latest desktop iteration of Skylake. At the same clock speed, a 12th generation P-core has approximately 28 percent faster performance than a 10th generation core, while an E-core is roughly equivalent to a 10th generation core. Intel says the E-cores can deliver performance equivalent to Skylake, while consuming only 40 percent of the power.
This mix of “big” and “small” cores has been common in phones and tablets for a while now, and Apple uses it in its various M1 chips as well. But to make the installation work better with desktop operating systems that are used to treating all cores the same way, Intel uses something it calls the “thread director”, a hardware-level function that works in tandem with the OS scheduler to assign certain tasks to certain tasks. cores based on workload, power limits and heat. Intel specifically mentioned that the feature was made to work well with Windows 11 and that “features and functionality available vary by operating system”.