Intel today announced their 12th Generation Core "Alder Lake" desktop processors, debuting with six "unlocked" models aimed at gamers and PC enthusiasts. Intel claims that these will be "the world's best gaming processors," marking a giant leap in performance for content-creators while being the most rewarding for enthusiasts and overclockers.
Today, we are allowed to share first details with you about the fascinating new hybrid architecture that's making its debut to the desktop segment with these processors—the biggest change to the x86 ecosystem since the introduction of x64—and many other innovations they bring. The processors are open for pre-orders starting today and will be generally available from November 4 onward. For performance numbers from our reviews, you'll have to check back with us on that same date as that's when the Intel review embargo lifts.
In a recent interview, Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger claimed that Intel is back with performance leadership, and that its competitor AMD, which currently has the lead, is "over." This underscores the importance Intel attaches to Alder Lake. AMD's latest Ryzen 5000 "Zen 3" processors comprehensively beat Intel both in single and multi-threaded performance. The red team has been tormenting Intel ever since Ryzen's debut in 2017, which is partially Intel's own fault. Intel was comfortable selling 4-core/8-thread processors to the mainstream segment, taking their time with innovation. With the company's transition from 14 nm to 10 nm slowing down, the company found itself stuck with a flat-core IPC growth rate since 2016, and hence had to dial up core/thread counts with each generation since 8th Gen Core.
Intel did achieve 10 nm mass-production as far back as 2019, but market demand surged, causing chip shortages, and Intel probably decided to allocate all its foundry capacity to making mobile chips that could benefit from the 10 nm node, leaving desktop with 14 nm until now. The new 12th Gen Core Alder Lake processors are built on the new "Intel 7" process, which is technically 10 nm Enhanced SuperFin rebadged. Intel isn't totally off as that process offers comparable transistor-density and power characteristics to 7 nm-class DUV nodes from TSMC or Samsung.
The switch to Intel 7 enabled the company to dial up transistor counts, and deploy its latest "Golden Cove" high-performance cores, but it faced a problem. Intel does not [yet] believe in the CPU chiplet approach to building processors with large CPU core-counts that AMD uses. Given the target die-area of Alder Lake, it could just about deploy 10 performance cores, which come in short compared to AMD's offerings, not only psychologically. Intel's engineers came up with an innovative solution: adding two quad-core "Gracemont" low-power core clusters in place of what would've been the 9th and 10th CPU core. Alder Lake is now a 16 core processor, with 8 "performance cores", and 8 "efficiency cores." Seems like a lazy way to catch up to AMD in the core-count game? This is where Intel's smarts really come in.
Intel figured out that its Golden Cove P-cores already give it a 28% IPC gain over the "Skylake" core (about 15–20% over AMD's Zen 3). If it could just design its Gracemont E cores to be reasonably fast (think within 10% of Skylake), the net performance of the processor would be similar to a 16-core Ryzen. Games don't need 16 cores and would benefit from the sheer weight of the IPC gain of the P-cores, while multi-threaded productivity tasks would benefit from the cumulative performance of both core types. When neither gaming nor dealing with heavy productivity workloads, the processor could send the P-cores to sleep, operating them at very low power, and let the E cores deal with the workloads, thereby giving consumers a leap in efficiency. This is all easier said than done from the perspective of software.
In this article, we'll dive a little deeper into the inner workings of Alder Lake. Our performance reviews of these processors will go live on November 4.