Intel 12th gen Alder Lake CPUs: What are they, when will they launch, and how fast will they be?


  • Release date: November 4 2021
  • Architecture: Golden Cove (Performance) + Gracemont (Efficient) cores
  • Max Cores: 8P + 8E (24 threads)
  • GPU: Intel UHD Graphics 770
  • Socket: LGA 1700
  • Process: Intel 7 (previously known as 10nm Enhanced SuperFin)
  • RAM support: DDR5-4800 and DDR4-3200

The Intel Alder Lake CPU lineup is the 12th generation Core processor family for desktops and laptops. Intel has confirmed that Alder Lake will launch on November 4 2021, with a healthy amount of details being officially made public during its InnovatiON event on October 27.

Alder Lake represents a significant shift in how CPUs are pieced together, as it will be Intel's first hybrid design for desktops. It will also be the first desktop processor to use the Intel 7 production process, which was previously known as its 10nm Enhanced SuperFin process—the name recently changed when Intel realigned its naming scheme with other chip manufacturers

Intel Alder Lake slide

(Image credit: Intel)

The hybrid design refers to the fact that Alder Lake uses a mix of high-performance and high-efficiency cores in one chip package—in a similar way to how ARM has high-power and low-power cores in its mobile chips. That's why the core count above is written as 8P+8E, that's eight big “Performance” cores and eight smaller, more “Efficient” ones. 

The big Golden Cove silicon is very much like the cores you'll find in Intel's current CPUs and represents an evolution from the Willow Cove core design inside the Tiger Lake CPUs found in Intel's current 11th Gen mobile chips.

For the efficient cores, Intel has turned to its Atom offerings. In case you haven't been paying attention to the budget laptop market, Atom is Intel's low-power, energy-efficient mobile CPU brand. The kind of silicon best avoided by gamers for years, but which has been gradually improving to the point it's now actually decent. The rumours are that Gracemont, which is the version of Atom used in Alder Lake, is now comparable to Skylake's performance, which if true, means that Alder Lake could be a powerful force to reckon with. Indeed early Alder Lake benchmark leaks have it performing very impressively.

Alder Lake also packs in plenty of next-gen technology into its design, including support for PCI Express 5.0 and DDR5 RAM. With so many changes, it should come as no surprise that Alder Lake will use a new LGA 1700 socket and be supported by a new chipset family—headed up by the Z690 chipset at the high-end. The important point is you won't be able to drop Alder Lake into current Z490 and Z590 motherboards, you're going to need to start afresh here.

Release date

Greg Bryant showed off Alder Lake running Windows at CES 2021. (Image credit: Intel )

Intel Alder Lake release date

For the longest time, Intel stated that Alder Lake would release in H2 2021, but wouldn't be pushed on anything more specific than that. Intel even showed off Alder Lake at CES 2021, back in January 2021, and there have been numerous leaks of specific versions of the chip since.

We finally have an official date though, as Intel's 12th generation Alder Lake CPUs will launch on November 4 2021.

This information was made public at the Intel InnovatiON event on October 27, something that had been rumoured as a likely place for the official announcement for months now.

A total of six Alder Lake chips will be available on November 4: the Core i9 12900K, Core i9 12900KF, Core i7 12700K, Core i7 12700KF, Core i5 12600K, and Core i5 12600KF. Where the K denotes an unlocked chip and the F means there is no integrated graphics and should therefore be a bit more affordable.

There have been plenty of leaks prior to this official date though, with qualification samples of the Core i9 12900K being sold in China, and some impressive benchmark results appearing months before the official release date.

There are a lot of new ideas being aired in these new chips, which equates to plenty of elements that could have gone wrong along the way. Firstly, there is the whole thorny subject of getting the two different types of cores working efficiently together, with a healthy dollop of Windows scheduler magic needed as well. 

Intel has worked with Microsoft to roll out a significant scheduler update in Windows 11 that makes the most of Intel's new hybrid design. Called Thread Director, this actively works with the Alder Lake CPU to ensure the right cores are handling the right loads.

Alder Lake is also Intel's first desktop CPU to use its problematic 10nm production process, which has now been renamed to the Intel 7 production process. It'll be interesting to see if this all goes smoothly when it comes to efficiencies and clock speeds. Only time will tell on this front.

Specifications

(Image credit: Intel)

Intel Alder Lake specifications

We now have the official specifications for Intel Alder Lake, at least for the six chips it is launching the processor family with. More chips are expected down the line, with varying numbers of cores and clock speeds, but for us gamers, the launch line-up is looking pretty sweet anyway.

Take a look at the table below and you can start rethinking how you look at CPU specifications. Gone are the simple doubling of cores to get thread counts. There are no TDPs either, as it's been replaced with Base Power and Maximum Turbo Power. There are also separate base and turbo frequencies for the P-cores and E-cores. It's all change.

Intel 12th Gen Alder Lake K-series processor line-up
Core i9 12900K & Core i9 12900K12900KF Core i7 12700K & Core i7 12700KF Core i5 12600K & Core i5 12600KF
Cores (P+E) 8+8 8+4 6+4
Threads 24 20 16
L3 Cache (Smart Cache) 30MB 25MB 20MB
L2 Cache 14MB 12MB 9.5MB
Max P-core Turbo frequency (GHz) 5.2 5 4.9
Max E-core Turbo frequency (GHz) 3.9 3.8 3.6
P-core base frequency 3.2 3.6 3.7
E-core base frequency 2.4 2.7 2.8
Unlocked Yes Yes Yes
PCIe lanes available 20 20 20
Memory support (up to) DDR5 4800MT/s, DDR4 3200MT/s DDR5 4800MT/s, DDR4 3200MT/s DDR5 4800MT/s, DDR4 3200MT/s
Processor Base Power (W) 125 125 125
Maximum Turbo Power (W) 241 190 150
Availability November 4 November 4 November 4

Alder Lake's hybrid design means that each chip has a number of Golden Cove traditional cores and a number of Gracemont Atom cores as well. Note that Golden Cove supports Intel's Hyperthreading for doubling up the number of threads that those cores can handle, but Gracemont doesn't. This is why you'll see specs for chips like 8P+8E cores but only 24 threads.

An early leak of Intel's mobile Alder Lake plans paints an interesting range of configurations here, with between one and eight Golden Cove cores working alongside four or eight Gracemont cores. Intel does have to cover some low power options on mobile, all the way down to 5W CPUs, which aren't too interesting for gamers, but it does suggest that Alder Lake can scale well.

Intel has kitted out Alder Lake with some serious next-gen tech as well, with PCIe 5.0 and DDR5 both getting a look in. There are 16x PCIe 5.0 lanes and 4x PCIe 4.0 lanes as standard, which should give plenty of bandwidth for storage and graphics cards.

DDR5 looks to have some neat tricks up its sleeve on the platform as well, with XMP3.0 support potentially helping to ensure that you get the best from your memory without needing to spend hours rebooting first. Maybe we're just being hopeful on this front, but it's potentially great news.

Performance

(Image credit: Intel)

Intel Alder Lake performance

So what are we talking about performance-wise? It's tricky to say until we get Alder Lake on our test bench (and we can talk about it.) But there are a few tantalising snippets that could point to good things.

There was an early leak of the Cinebench R20 benchmark that put the qualification sample of the Core i9 12900K in a very healthy place—22% faster than AMD's impressive Ryzen 9 5950X. That's just one benchmark of course, and until the chips are actually released, you have to take this with a pinch of salt. Still, it's hard not to be impressed by the potential there. 

Rumours have talked about a 20% IPC performance improvement for the Golden Cove cores over the current Rocket Lake chips. That's not bad, seeing as Rocket Lake offers a 19% boost over the previous Comet Lake generation to start with. As for the Gracemonet cores, the rumours are that these are on a par with Skylake. Combined there's the potential for a CPU family that can beat AMD's Zen 3 family. Frequencies definitely matter here though.

Moving over to the Intel 7 production process should have a notable impact on performance as well. A smaller process generally equates to either a more efficient processor or a faster one. A combination of the two is the dream here though. And given Intel has been stuck on different iterations of its 14nm node for so long, hopefully, it's got some pent-up frustration up its sleeve that it will vent on the clock front.

One interesting take on the hybrid design is that the more energy-efficient Gracemont cores could allow the Golden Cove cores to run faster. The idea is that the Atom cores produce less heat for the same workloads, thus easing the thermal envelope for those big cores. How this will work for gaming has yet to be seen—although Intel is already laying claim to the faster gaming CPU again for the Core i9 12900K. We need to verify this ourselves, but Intel is clearly hopeful.

Price

(Image credit: INtel )

Intel Alder Lake price

Intel is pretty consistent when it comes to chip pricing, but given this is a completely different type of processor with a completely different core configuration, drawing parallels with its existing line-up is not so easy. For instance, the current top-of-the-line chip, the Core i9 11900K only has eight cores and 16 threads, while the top Alder Lake, the Core i9 12900K has 16 cores and 24 threads. A very different proposition, even if not all of those cores are directly comparable. 

Intel's goal here is to make the new architecture an attractive proposition, and so isn't expected to bump the price too much. All we've had so far is that pricing will start from $264 and up to $589. How that actually translates to the end-user in these silicon-starved times is anyone's guess, but it doesn't sound like Intel has any nasty surprises up its sleeve.

Pricing will be a lot clearer when Intel starts confirming the specifications of the complete stack. And once it starts talking about that, we'll have a much clearer idea of when Alder Lake will arrive as well. 

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