Intel 12th-gen Core CPUs are official: Performance preview, Alder Lake models and specs

After much anticipation and tons of leaks for the last few months, Intel is finally ready to unveil their first “Alder Lake” 12th-gen Core desktop processors and they’re giving us a performance preview based on their benchmark tests ran in-house. Come next week, you’ll also have TechSpot’s independent review of the CPUs as we start exploring all the related elements to Alder Lake, like DDR5 vs. DDR4 performance, which motherboards are worth buying, and so on. Lots of fun times ahead.

Intel had already given us a whole range of details about the Alder Lake architecture including the new hybrid design with P-cores and E-cores, but today that all comes together into the actual CPUs that will become available starting November 4.

In previous generations, Intel had launched their mobile processors first, but that’s set to change with the 12th-generation lineup. The first CPUs to be released next week are enthusiast desktop K-series models, with everything else scheduled to launch early next year. Given Intel’s desktop parts are finally moving to a new process node with a brand new architecture, it seems they want to lead with their highest performing models before filling out the rest of the series.

As a quick refresher on Alder Lake, Intel is moving to a new hybrid design that features both performance cores (P-cores) and efficient cores (E-cores). The P-cores are an overhaul of Intel’s existing high performance cores bringing a bigger, wider, deeper design with more cache and improved features. Intel are claiming a 19% IPC improvement for these P-cores versus the Cypress Cove cores seen in Rocket Lake.

Meanwhile the E-cores are a big overhaul of Intel’s old Atom cores, improving performance into the range of Skylake, while being much smaller in terms of die space, and more efficient in terms of power consumption. Intel says that these cores are mostly designed for background applications, but they are no slouch and should significantly help with multi-thread performance in some applications.

Joining all of this together is Intel’s new cache architecture. Each P-core has 1.25 MB of L2 cache, and each group of four E-cores has 2 MB of L2 cache. Then, accessible across both P and E cores, Intel are providing up to 30 MB of shared L3 cache. Rocket Lake topped out at 16 MB of L3 cache for an 8 core design, so the jump up to 16 cores with Alder Lake sees that cache almost double.

Also part of Alder Lake is the Thread Director, a hardware scheduling feature that assists Windows 11 in allocating tasks to the appropriate cores. When you have a hybrid design, it’s of utmost importance that applications are run on the right cores – foreground, high performance apps on the P-cores, and background tasks on the E-cores. Thread Director provides feedback to Windows 11 that assists with that process.

The CPUs
Intel are launching six 12th-gen Core models, three in the K series and three in the KF series. So essentially we’re getting a Core i9 design, a Core i7 design and a Core i5 design, each with and without integrated graph.

The Core i9 model, the i9-12900K, is the fully unlocked Alder Lake die. It brings with it 8 P-cores and 8 E-cores for a total of 16 CPU cores and 24 threads. Why not 32 threads? Well, the E-cores do not have hyperthreading, so the P-core cluster is providing 8 cores and 16 threads, while the E-core cluster has 8 cores and 8 threads. There’s also 30 MB of L3 cache.

Because there are two types of cores in this CPU, clock speeds are more complex than before. The P-cores run at between 3.2 GHz base and 5.2 GHz boost, while the E-cores sit at 2.4 to 3.9 GHz. So while the top frequency the P-cores can hit is similar to previous generations, the E-cores are clocked a bit lower in addition to having lesser IPC.

The Core i7-12700K brings 8 P-cores and 4 E-cores for a total of 12 cores and 20 threads, with 25 MB of L3 cache. Boost clock speeds are slightly lower than the Core i9 model, though base frequency is higher: 3.6 to 5.0 GHz for the P-cores, and 2.7 to 3.8 GHz for the E-cores.

Then we have the Core i5-12600K, which has 6 P-cores and 4 E-cores for a total of 10 cores and 16 threads, plus 20 MB of L3 cache. The P-cores are clocked between 3.7 and 4.9 GHz, while the E-cores sit at 2.8 to 3.6 GHz.

All models support overclocking, and the K-SKUs with integrated graphics have Xe-based UHD Graphics 770, though Intel hasn’t go into much detail on what this would bring. All models also include DDR5-4800 and DDR4-3200 memory support, though you’ll have to choose which technology to use, you can’t use both at the same time.

Intel is going straight for the throat by pricing the 16-core Core i9-12900K at $589

Intel are not messing around with pricing. Even though AMD’s competing Ryzen 9 5950X CPU with 16 cores has an MSRP of $800, Intel is going straight for the throat by pricing the 16-core Core i9-12900K at $589. You’ll then be able to save around $25 opting for the Core i9 KF model. This is looking very competitive, although we haven’t seen how it performs yet.

The Core i7 and Core i5 models are even more aggressive. The 12700KF is going for a $384 tray price, roughly the same as the current price for AMD’s Ryzen 7 5800X. However, Intel is offering not just 8 performance cores, like the 5800X, but four efficient cores as well, which could deliver a decent boost to multi-threaded performance. Intel is clearly looking to regain enthusiast market share with this pricing.

Then we have the Core i5-12600KF at just $264, lower than the Ryzen 5 5600X’s $300 price tag, but with 10 cores instead of 6. Personally, I’m pretty excited to see this sort of price war brought back to the desktop market as AMD hasn’t exactly been offering the best value parts with their Ryzen 5000 lineup, even though performance has been impressive. If Intel can deliver great performance with these CPUs at a lower price than AMD, that’s a big win.

Another interesting thing to note about the lineup is that Intel has changed the way they report power, depreciating the “TDP” in favor of two metrics: processor base power, and maximum turbo power. Processor base power is essentially the same as the “PL1” power limit of previous generations, and maximum turbo power is the same as PL2 – it’s just that both of these values are being exposed and listed on Intel’s spec sheet to make it much easier for buyers to see what power level these chips will run at. No more “125W” CPUs that run in excess of 200W: Intel are showing you the full turbo value, which ranges from 150W for the Core i5s, to 241W for the Core i9s.

But there’s a bigger change here as well…

Intel is finally updating their “default” power configuration to fall in line with how motherboard makers have been running these CPUs for years now. For all K-SKU processors, the default power mode will be to run the CPU at its maximum turbo power indefinitely (the graph on the right) for the best performance. Previously the default configuration was technically what you see in the left graph, except almost all motherboards overrode this by default to run the CPU like the graph on the right. Both configurations were always in-spec, but it caused confusion as to which configuration was “correct” or “default” and which mode reviewers should test with.

Intel is clearing that up this generation, so there’s no confusion and no argument over what way these CPUs should be run. The Intel default spec is now to run the CPU at the maximum turbo power indefinitely, which is the default out of the box configuration motherboards were running these CPUs in. Running at base power is still in-spec as well, but it’s now being clarified as being an optional configuration that you’ll have to enable.