Intel’s Alder Lake big.little CPU design, tested: It’s a barn burner

Enlarge / Our test team marries the Alder Lake i9-12900K (pictured) or the i5-12600K with 64GB DDR5 SDRAM, an MSI Carbon motherboard, SK Hynix Gold NVMe SSD, and Apex Gaming 850M PSU. Cooling is provided by a Corsair liquid cooler and triple fan radiator.

Jim salter

After spending several days with Intel’s newest consumer CPU designs, we have some surprising news – they are faster than AMD’s latest Ryzens on both. and most multithreaded benchmarks.

We suspect this will be especially surprising to some, as Intel’s newer desktop CPUs feature a hybrid. “big small“Design similar to those found in ARM CPUs. AMD’s flagship Ryzen 9 5950x is a traditional 16-core, 32-thread design, with all symmetric multi-threaded” large “type cores (SMT (also known as “hyperthreading”) In contrast, the i9-12900K offers 16 cores and only 24 threads, with eight “performance” cores with SMT and eight lower performance “efficiency” cores without SMT.

Although the world largely understands small and large design in mobile CPUs, where the value of having slow, efficient cores for non-latency-sensitive tasks means longer battery life and less waste heat, the value is not understood. just as well on desktop CPUs, where power and thermal budgets aren’t such an obvious issue. But there’s still good reason for hybrid designs even on the desktop: Matrix space is still severely limited on CPUs, and you can fit more smaller “efficiency” cores into a given fixed packet size.

The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the tasting, or in this case, in the benchmarking. And despite having the same number of cores and fewer overall threads, Intel, for the first time in years, comfortably outperforms AMD in almost every multi-threaded benchmark. Unfortunately, it still requires an energy premium to achieve those results; Despite its theoretically more efficient design, Alder Lake consumes more power and runs hotter than Zen 3.

Multi-threaded CPU performance

For the first time in several years, the story here is not just whether or not Intel managed to outperform its own previous generation; The story here is that Intel actually beats AMD’s best consumer CPU offerings, almost across the board.

In addition to nearly doubling generation-to-generation performance from i9-11900K to i9-12900K, Intel outperforms the Ryzen 9 5950x in Geekbench 5 and Cinebench R20 multi-threaded benchmarks. Passmark is the only benchmark we ran that still gave the thumbs up to AMD’s Ryzen 9 CPUs, and even there, AMD wins only by a narrow margin.

We weren’t too surprised to see the i9-12900K beat the 12c / 24t Ryzen 9 5900X, with DDR5 RAM and a quad-core lead – that was Intel’s fight to win or lose. Seeing the i9-12900K outperform the 5950X was a considerably bigger surprise, as the 5950X has the same sixteen cores, all of which are SMT-enabled high-performance cores, compared to eight performance cores and eight performance cores. Intel efficiency.

Usually we’d target Geekbench 5 as an outlier likely to favor Intel, but this time Passmark is the odd one out. Cinebench is, as always, our gold standard for one-size-fits-all multi-threaded CPU benchmarks, and Intel’s extreme results in both Cinebench and Geekbench match our seat-of-the-pants observations of the i9-12900K.

This is an incredibly fast CPU and it feels like this in action. If you were concerned that those efficiency cores might make the system feel sluggish or choppy, you can put that concern aside.

Falling into the “value performance” segment, the Core i5-12600K is the clear winner across the board. The new i5 outperforms both the i5 and last year’s Ryzen 5 5600X by very unsubtle margins of 30-50 percent. We generally advise readers not to be swayed by the subtle performance differences between CPUs, but these are not subtle differences.

A 30-50 percent performance advantage is something you can feel right away on CPU-bound tasks, without the need for special timers or benchmarks. AMD has a lot of work ahead of it if it wants to regain the value performance crown in its next launch cycle.

Single threaded CPU performance

It should be a lot less surprising that Intel excelled across the board when it came to single-threaded CPU performance; after all, that’s the only area in which it has been able to compete strongly with AMD in recent product cycles. However, as with multithreaded testing, Intel wins by a wider margin than before.

We still think that most readers should pay more attention to multi-threaded results than to single-threaded ones, but with margins of 15 percent across the board in Intel’s favor, the results are at least worth talking about. single threaded wins here, as opposed to the measly 2-5 percent single threaded wins we’re more used to seeing.

The single threaded story with Intel’s i5-12600K is the same as with the larger i9-12900K – unusually large wins (for a single thread) across the board. Geekbench 5 once again offers Intel the narrowest win of our top three CPU benchmarks, but the 9 percent margin we see is still much higher than what we’re used to seeing.

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