This week, Intel launches their 12th generation Core CPUs for desktop, marking an interesting point in their technological movement. For the first time since the 6th generation CPUs, we have a brand new silicon process technology from Intel, the old Intel 10nm SuperFin, now named Intel 7, and with it comes a second generation of Xe graphics integrated, a new processor architecture paradigm, and new standards in both DDR5 and PCIE 5.0, making Intel first to these technologies after recently being beaten to PCIE 4.0 by AMD and only just having implemented that technology themselves.
The highlight of the design is the new Performance/Efficiency hybrid design, a similar idea to the big.LITTLE design used in ARM CPUs for a long time now. What P/E aims to do is simple – increase core counts without bloating die size by using a mix of full-sized, desktop-first core designs with their lineage in the Core desktop lineup, and smaller, more power efficient cores pulled from the Intel Atom lineup.
Alder Lake, the codename for the 12th gen CPUs, features a 16-core CPU at the top of the stack, but not quite how you might expect – it is 8 performance cores and 8 efficiency cores. Efficiency cores cannot use hyperthreading as of yet, and so the result is somewhat odd – 16 physical cores and only 24 threads. Intel’s gamble on this lineup is that they can improve performance this way without pushing the power envelope as much as they have become known for, and much of this gamble is on the OS scheduler.
Intel has a software division that worked closely with Microsoft on Windows 11 to ensure that the scheduler in that OS would know how to address Alder Lake appropriately, giving high-demand workloads to the performance cores while more “background” tasks can be handed off to the efficiency cores. This is something that most modern CPUs have to address in some ways – while AMD’s Ryzen lineup is full of equivalent CPU cores, the arrangement must be accounted for to have full speed by preventing the OS from assigning two threads of a task across different CCX or chiplets.
This design will be interesting for a few reasons. Firstly, it may end up breaking games with CPU-detecting DRM like older versions of Denuvo, which will require game patches to ensure compatibility. Secondly, the performance of each core type will weigh heavily on production workloads like 3D rendering that can use all the cores – Intel’s claims are that the performance cores are very fast, with an IPC uplift over the Comet Lake cores that were new to the 11th gen Core CPUs, and that the efficiency cores are “faster per watt” than the same cores, although how much faster and if that is workload dependent remains to be seen.
Intel has boldly claimed that this CPU lineup puts them back into gaming leadership, after two generations of playing second-fiddle to AMD’s Ryzen CPUs. However, there is a contentious, old-Intel style trick in their first party benchmarks (which should never be trusted regardless of the company issuing them): Windows 11 had multiple bugs with Ryzen cache speed and latency which caused drastic performance hits, and when Intel says they are “30%” better in a single game tested on a Windows 11 build with these issues, that claim must summarily be thrown out. In an AMA on r/intel, the team there said that they are confident that retesting with the newer, fixed builds of Windows 11 would not change their number 1 slot, but third-party benchmarks will be out on launch day to tell that tale.
The generational leaps in technology are perhaps the next most interesting part, for what is there despite a lack of support and what is being launched alongside. PCIE Gen 5 is easy to discuss, as there is nothing on the shelves with it yet. It is a future-proofing measure that will bring some measure of comfort to those upgrading to better and better GPUs and storage over the coming years, yet the interesting flaw in the Alder Lake design is that the CPU has only 16 PCIE Gen 5 lanes, which would go to the GPU slot, and the 4 direct-connect lanes of PCIE for NVMe storage are Gen 4. Today, this is mostly irrelevant – you can’t get Gen 5 storage or GPUs yet, so who cares? But in the near future, this will become a sticking point, especially when Windows 11 brings up the DirectStorage API for faster access to NVMe storage and that bus can be used more efficiently and fully.
The second future-proofing is in DDR5 memory. DDR5 memory is the longest wait we’ve had between DDR generations, as DDR4 launched in 2014, barely 4 years after the initial launch of DDR3, which itself came around 4 years after DDR2, which itself was around 4 years after DDR SDRAM. With this long of a wait, what does DDR5 memory bring?
Well, like similar older generations, at launch, not much. The baseline speed of most enthusiast DDR5 kits for sale is DDR5-4800, which represents an increase in clockspeed and bandwidth over the most common DDR4 tech today, DDR4-3200. At those speeds, DDR5 sees a nearly 50% increase in bandwidth, however it comes at nearly double the latency of the best DDR4-3200 kits, and double still from even higher speed DDR4-3600 kits. The latency in question is clock cycles, so this will likely wash with the higher frequencies, but at launch, this will be a tradeoff. Higher DDR4 speeds are largely enthusiast overclocker kits, so I won’t go on about how you can get DDR4-5000 which is faster and lower latency compared to DDR5-4800, because running those kits requires a lot of voodoo, some luck with your CPU’s integrated memory controller, and a saint’s patience in locking in the settings needed to get that performance out of it.
DDR5 has some edges over DDR4 however, that represent a departure from the standard launch of new DDR memory, where the initial lot of it is a tradeoff over the prior gen. DDR5 moves voltage regulation hardware from the motherboard to the memory modules, which means that DDR5 will generate more heat on each module but can also better control its own voltage and power delivery, and will mean that higher-quality modules for overclocking or general high-performance use are about more than just the memory ICs and binning. DDR5 also introduces on-die ECC (error checking and correction) technology, which reduces the manufacturing defect rate and allows increases in density of memory with higher reliability. This on-die ECC is not the same as a full ECC module, which comes with additional technology to report back errors to the CPU and correct them, but stability should overall be higher, as power will be less reliant on a motherboard manufacturer not cheaping out on memory VRM while the on-die ECC will allow some measure of recovery from errors while increasing the amount of memory we can all stuff inside our PCs.
Overall, DDR5 is a good step forward that will eventually be a standard – higher bandwidth means that integrated GPU solutions will have a lot more memory speed to play with, while high-bandwidth ops will be easier to run. The tradeoff today is that the higher-latency may result in some performance degradation over DDR4 memory, although the result of the much-faster base speeds should mean that such tradeoffs are relatively minor and not hampering of the overall increase in performance. With Intel’s Xe graphics on-board, a DDR5 equipped system using the integrated GPU should get some reasonably impressive performance, although most cheap systems will lean on the fact that Alder Lake can also use DDR4 memory and instead supply that to reduce stockpiles of older memory modules, reducing the potential performance of prebuilt systems with no dedicated graphics card.
As a whole launch, I’m deeply fascinated by the 12th gen Core products, although not into wanting to purchase one. I think that like any first generation of a new technology, there will be unseen issues with the P/E core design, with use on Windows 10, and with DDR5 being more expensive per GB than DDR4 for, at best, a very modest increase in overall system performance. It rarely pays to be an early adopter, and here, you are early adopting a handful of tech – PCIE 5, DDR5, P/E cores, and being put into a situation where Windows 11 is the only OS that fully supports all of the new tech, an OS that is itself…uh, not well-received as of yet.
I’m also very curious to see third-party benchmarks. I’m an AMD fan and I make no effort to hide that, so I am quite curious to see what actually comes from unbiased benchmarks with a properly fixed Windows 11 on Ryzen compared to Alder Lake. Intel’s own first-party benchmarks with a Windows 11 build that hamstrings Ryzen were still not super impressive, as Ryzen still had wins in spite of the higher cache latency, and most Intel wins were single-digit percentages. Like today, I suspect that the head-to-head will see AMD win some and Intel win others, and which brand you’ll prefer for gaming will come down to the titles tested.
On the power usage front, some early rumors had pegged overclocked Alder Lake as being able to eat up 330w of power all to itself, which represents an increase over several high-end Comet Lake 11th gen overclocks.
Looking at the whole thing, I find the idea of buying in early based on hype to be incredibly stupid, and I only know of a single person doing so, which aligns with my expectations (yes, there’s some shade in that). For Intel fans, the new lineup is a hope of being the top dogs again, and I don’t want to downplay the significance of these changes. For almost a decade now, Intel has rested on its laurels, been caught off-guard by a suddenly-competitive AMD, and then been on the backfoot as their struggles with the now-named Intel 7 kept them cranking out the same core architecture for over 5 years and just trying desperately to bolt more cores and features onto it. Intel being competitive with AMD is in our best interests, as it means that AMD has incentive to invest more into R&D to keep the Ryzen lineup moving. Early 2022 is expected to see Zen 3 CPUs with V-cache, a stacked 3D cache that increases the L3 cache to the existing Ryzen 5000 CPUs by a lot, a move which sounds meh but increases performance substantially, if first-party benchmarks are to be believed (and I wouldn’t innately trust them). Later in 2022, AMD is expected to launch Zen 4 on a new AM5 socket, with support for DDR5 and eventual PCIE Gen 5 support as well. If Intel finds a footing here and really has recaptured the performance crown, it will be very interesting to see what happens next.
For now, though, it means 11th gen Intel CPUs are likely to start seeing discounts at many retailers, and if you want to support my writing, here are some links to buy them on Amazon! As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.