After suffering numerous delays and setbacks to its 10nm chip design, Intel finally launched its Ice Lake mobile processors in late 2019. On the desktop, however, 10nm won’t be arriving until about two years after Ice Lake’s launch. Intel confirmed at CES earlier this year that Alder Lake will launch toward the end of 2021 with an enhanced 10nm SuperFin process.
Though 10nm will soon be available on both desktop and mobile, Intel still trails behind rival AMD, which pushed ahead to 7nm in 2019. There’s still a lot about Alder Lake to be excited about, however, especially on desktop, as the platform ushers in a new architecture that focuses on efficiency and performance. And with up to 16 cores, Intel has its eyes set squarely on AMD’s 16-core mainstream Ryzen CPU. Little information has been announced about the processor platform since Intel’s CES teaser, but here’s everything we know about Intel’s 12th-gen Alder Lake processors so far.
Pricing and availability
Intel announced that its 12th-gen Alder Lake is slated to debut in late 2021, and we expect the mobile variant to arrive first. This means that desktop variants of the chip will likely arrive later in the year, which matches up with a prior rumored timeline posted on Notebook Check. We expect that Alder Lake could be announced as early as September, though more recent leaks suggest that Intel’s 12th Gen platform could launch in November in time for the holiday shopping season.
More recently, the November launch timeline for desktop Alder Lake-S was confirmed by Wccftech. Citing Intel partners, the publication reported that the launch timeline will mean that Intel will be the first to market with support for PCIe Gen 5 and DDR5 memory support. However, Wccftech cautiously warned that the November launch could either be moved up or pushed back depending on a number of undisclosed variables.
Alder Lake for laptops, however, could launch in October. The earlier-than-anticipated launch date for the mobile platform could be aligned with Microsoft’s debut of major overhauls to its Windows operating system. This means that the new version of Windows — it’s unclear if Microsoft will retain the Windows 10 name or if it will usher in a new Windows 11 — will mark its debut on Alder Lake, if these rumors are accurate, and the OS could finally bring the Sun Valley design language to life.
Intel only announced its 10th-gen Comet Lake-S for the desktop at the end of 2019, before it arrived in the first half of 2020. That processor is based on Intel’s 14nm++ process, representing the company’s fifth optimization for this architecture.
Intel is next expected to move to its 11th-gen Rocket Lake on the desktop, which will again be based on Intel’s 14nm design. A recent leak posted by SharkBay and published by Wccftech suggests that the chipset will come with Gen 12 Xe graphics, eight cores of processing power, and a revision of the Willow Cove microarchitecture that’s been ported back to 14nm.
Despite numerous leaks in recent months about Intel’s silicon plans, the company did not offer any official insights on its future plans when pressed by EE Times for comment.
At this point, pricing information is still unknown for Alder Lake. However, given recent rumors that the Intel Core i5-10500 processor is expected to retail for around $285, we expect the midrange Alder Lake generation to be similarly priced.
Historically, AMD has undercut Intel in pricing, and the company’s future Ryzen processors could do the same. AMD did recently reveal that it has been slowly increasing the profit margins for its chips in recent years, so the pricing gap between Alder Lake and AMD’s Zen-based CPUs may be smaller than in years past.
AMD’s high-end Ryzen 9 3950X desktop processor with 16 cores and 32 threads currently retails for $738. The high-end 16-core Intel Alder Lake is expected to be priced to compete against AMD’s premium processor.
Intel’s Alder Lake will be based on an improved 10nm process, which the company is calling 10nm SuperFin. Intel claims that this process delivers faster transistors and improved MIM capacitors in what is described as a “breakthrough in x86 architecture” design.
And at CES, Intel confirmed earlier leaks and rumors reported by Twitter user @momo_US and published on Chinese e-commerce site PTT suggesting that it will move to a hybrid architecture.
During its keynote presentation, Intel executives stated that the hybrid design, similar to what Arm had been doing with its silicon for smartphones and tablets, will also be coming to the desktop for the first time. This means that Alder Lake will come with efficient cores for handling background and low-level tasks and high-powered cores that will kick in when applications need more performance.
For its efficiency cores, Intel will rely on its Atom-based design, known as Gracemont, while the new Golden Cove cores will drive performance. Gracemont is expected to bring more instructions per clock, along with better vector performance.
Intel is expected to combine eight Gracemont cores with eight Golden Cove cores on its premium Alder Lake processor design for a total of 16 cores on desktop, though other configurations will also be available. This makes it hard to compare Intel’s hybrid 16-core CPU against AMD’s homogenous architecture with the same number of cores, though the change to a hybrid design should help Intel stay competitive against a new crop of ARM-based processors, such as Apple’s M1 and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon PC processors.
Based on a leaked Intel slide, Alder Lake’s architectural change is expected to deliver up to 20% single-thread performance improvement, thanks to the Golden Cove cores and an enhanced 10nm SuperFin design, and up to 2x multithread performance gain with Gracemont cores.
For its heterogeneous architecture, early leaks show that Intel can combine anywhere between one and eight Golden Cove cores with four to eight Gracemont cores on mobile. This suggests that Alder Lake can scale well, and power consumption starts at just 5 watts on mobile. This should help Intel deliver longer battery life on notebooks, an important feature needed to compete against Apple’s recent M1 silicon on the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. Alder Lake on laptops is expected to succeed Tiger Lake in Intel’s lineup, and the mobile variant is expected to be labeled as Alder Lake-P. These chips are destined for various notebooks and tablets.
On desktop, an early leak revealed that Intel may also have a six-core version of Alder Lake. With this variant, Intel will have all six cores based on the bigger Golden Cove cores, eliminating the smaller Gracemont cores entirely. The six “big-core” variant of Alder Lake-S is expected to have a TDP (thermal design power) of 80 watts, while the 16-core version can go up to 125 watts, though Videocardz suggested that Intel could scale power up to 150 watts for this design.
In a separate desktop Alder Lake-S leak, the chip was shown in a benchmark with eight cores and 16 threads. This means that this configuration won’t come with the Gracemont cores, a move likely made because Intel’s high-efficiency cores lack Hyper-threading support, according to Tom’s Hardware. The processor has been shown with a clock speed of 3GHz in one benchmark, though an earlier benchmark showed it with a 4GHz frequency.
Alder Lake will rely on Intel’s integrated GT1 graphics. Intel has been heavily investing in its integrated graphics, and the Gen 11 graphics will bring casual gaming performance to its Ice Lake laptops. We expect similar performance jumps on the desktop side.
As Moore’s Law is slowing on the processor side, Intel is looking toward improved graphics capabilities to help with data analytics and artificial intelligence applications. The company recently demoed how creative workflows, like video and photo editing, could be sped up with more capable graphics. Intel is also working on its own discrete Xe GPUs based on that same architecture.
Other changes to Alder Lake include support for PCIe Gen 5 and PCIe Gen 4 as well as DDR5 and DDR4 memory. In terms of memory, though Alder Lake will support both generations of DDR system memory, it will be up to the board manufacturer to decide which standard to support. Users won’t be able to mix DDR4 and DDR5 modules on the same board. Thunderbolt 4 and Wi-Fi 6E Gig+ will also be supported on Alder Lake.
Compared to current Rocket Lake processors, early rumors suggest that we can see a 20% IPC uplift with Alder Lake, thanks to the new Golden Cove cores. And given that Rocket Lake already delivered a 19% IPC boost over the prior-generation Comet Lake design, this should help Intel deliver consistent gains to those looking to upgrade.
Intel has talked up the 10nm process, its heterogeneous architecture, and support for faster memory that will help drive these gains, but there’s still a lot of unknowns about Alder Lake at this time. The company has not released any details about clock speeds, and we don’t know how clock speeds on the different types of cores will affect the CPU’s overall performance across a number of tasks, including productivity, video performance, and gaming.
Initially, there were speculations that the 12th Gen Alder Lake platform may not be as tuned for gaming, given the chipset’s use of mixed core architectures, compared to 11th Gen Rocket Lake. However, a more recent Dota 2 benchmark taken from an early engineering sample of Alder Lake proves that this isn’t the case, and despite early speculations, the platform is well adapted for gaming. Alder Lake scored an impressive peak of 549 frames per second on the game when paired with Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3080 graphics card, with an average frame rate of 120 fps.
An early benchmark taken of a 16-core Alder Lake-S engineering sample suggests that Intel’s hybrid architecture is a capable performer. According to Videocardz, the 12th-gen CPU with 16 cores and 24 threads outperformed Intel’s Core i9-9900K on Geekbench 4.4. Because the chipset was an early sample, the benchmarking utility was not able to accurately measure the clock speed. Here, the base speed was listed at 2.19GHz, and it’s likely that the 27.2 GHz boost speed was an error. The publication speculates that the actual boost speed would be between 2.7 to 3.4GHz.
A similarly configured 12th-gen CPU was also recently spotted in the Ashes Escalation Benchmark database, according to Hardware Times, and the clock speed was listed at 2.2GHz.
While the heterogeneous architecture will deliver power savings benefits to laptops, power efficiency will also be a hallmark of Alder Lake’s desktop design. Intel is reported to be pushing its new more power-efficient ATX12VO standard to launch alongside Alder Lake later this year.
The standard, which requires a new motherboard with a 10-pin power connector and compatible power supply, is said to boost power efficiency of power supply units on desktops, according to VideoCardz. The 10-pin connector would replace the current 24-pin connector on today’s motherboards, and manufacturers have been hesitant to proceed with the change as it would require a DC-to-DC converter on the board itself. Intel’s push could help spur adoption and give Alder Lake the high-performance-per-watt label to compete against AMD’s upcoming Ryzen processors that are said to be based on that company’s Zen 4 architecture.
Power consumption can be reduced by as much as 50% when desktops are running at or near idle, according to the publication, which reported that Intel is in talks to work with its partners to begin work on shifting to the new ATX12VO. The ATX12VO will have little effect on power consumption when PCs are running under heavier loads, however. And since manufacturers need four to five months of lead time, Alder Lake could launch as early as September, according to PC Gamer.
According to VideoCardz sources, entry-level motherboards and pre-built systems will likely leverage ATX12VO, while high-end gaming rigs and motherboards designed for workstation use could retain the existing 24-pin power connector.
A stopgap to 7nm
It’s interesting that Intel is bringing this hybrid architecture to the desktop. On mobile, the company debuted its big.LITTLE approach on Lakefield, which features four Atom Tremont cores and a Sunny Cove core. It’s speculated that Intel’s motive for bringing this hybrid design to the desktop, where power efficiency isn’t such a big constraint, is to help bridge the gap until it is ready to launch a 7nm desktop CPU.
The additional core could also help boost multithreaded performance. On Lakefield, high-performance tasks are performed on Sunny Cove, while background threads are relegated to the Atom Tremont cores. In multithreaded applications, all cores are fired up for a boost in performance. It’s unclear how much gain in performance could be obtained with a desktop design.
The hybrid big.LITTLE design could also be a last-minute decision, according to a report from Tom’s Hardware. It’s been reported that the company initially did not want to commit to all 16 cores on the 10nm design, and having eight big cores and eight little cores could have been a design compromise while still allowing Intel to match the 16 cores on AMD’s mainstream Ryzen processor.
If the timeline for a 2021-2022 launch pans out, AMD’s 7nm process will likely have matured, and a 5nm Zen 4 process could give it an IPC advantage over Alder Lake. AMD announced it will rely on its 3D Infinity Fabric 3 packaging and chiplets expertise for its next-generation Zen 3 architecture, while Intel is leaning on its Foveros acquisition to package its high-performance cores with its low-powered Atom cores for efficiency. Like AMD, Intel has also confirmed it will move toward 5nm in the future for better performance and power efficiency.
With Alder Lake, Intel will be moving on to a new socket design. Alder Lake-S is expected to usher in the new LGA 1700 socket, which will support DDR5 and DDR4 memory along with PCIe Gen 5. A number of Asus boards supporting the LGA 1700 socket and Intel Z690 chipset were shown in HWiNFO, according to Wccftech. In terms of RAM, you won’t be able to mix DDR4 and DDR5 modules together on the same board.
With LGA 1700, Wccftech reported that Intel will be switching to a rectangular socket size, so upgraders to Alder Lake-S will need a new board. Additionally, new coolers will be required for socket compatibility, and LGA 1700 may mark the beginning of Intel’s transition to a platform-agnostic design, though this hasn’t been confirmed. If accurate, Intel will be following the lead of smaller rival AMD, and the design could be welcome news for future upgraders as multiple chip generations could reuse the same board and socket.
It’s also unclear if Intel will have the opportunity to address the latest security vulnerabilities by the time Alder Lake launches. A security researcher discovered a vulnerability in Intel’s Converged Security and Management Engine that potentially affects all Intel chips released within the last five years. Malicious actors could exploit the vulnerability to decrypt confidential files if they gain access to a lost or stolen laptop, security researcher Mark Ermolov said.
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