Intel Alder Lake CPUs: Everything we know about the new hybrid chips

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 the Enhanced 10nm SuperFin process, now known as Intel 7.

Alder Lake uses a hybrid design that mixes performance and efficient cores to, well, improve performance and increase efficiency. It could be the paradigm shift Intel has needed for the past several years, especially with new advancements in architecture design and operating system implementation.

Still, there’s reason to be skeptical given the disappointing launch of Rocket Lake and Intel’s issues moving beyond its 14nm process. Before the processors arrive later this year, here’s everything we know about the Alder Lake release date, architecture, performance, and more.

Pricing and availability

Intel announces the Xeon 5100 Microprocessor for servers.
Court Mast/Intel via Getty Images

Intel announced that its 12th-gen Alder Lake is slated to debut in late 2021, but has yet to provide a specific release date. Given advancements in Alder Lake — which we’ll dig into a bit later — we expect the platform to launch alongside Windows 11. Intel says Windows 11 will be able to leverage the platform unlike previous generations, so it’s likely a major focus.

A leaked Intel document points to a launch date in October, which seems like the right timeline. Microsoft is expected to start rolling out Windows 11 in October, with the general update coming later in early 2022. Alder Lake will likely arrive inside prebuilt machines and laptops with the Windows 11 launch, which looks to be October based on various leaks and rumors.

We don’t know if that timeframe applies to all Alder Lake chips, however. Current reports suggest that Intel will lead with its mobile platform first and release a limited number of desktop chips — in particular, a single i9, i7, and i5. Speculation from Videocardz points to these processors arriving on October 27, 2021.

That’s when the Intel Innovation event begins, and the company says that will offer updates to some upcoming products. Given that we know Alder Lake is coming in 2021 and its deep integration with Windows 11, that seems like the right date. However, Intel hasn’t confirmed anything, so we’re not sure yet.

For pricing, we don’t have any details. That said, it should line up with the last generation of Intel processors. The i9 should cost around $550, the i7 around $400, and the i5 around $300. Intel could get more aggressive to take back some market share from rival AMD, but we don’t know right now.

Architecture design

Alder Lake uses a hybrid architecture that brings together two types of processing cores. The first is a performant core that mirrors what you’d typically find in a new processor generation, and the second is an efficient core that’s used to handle background tasks and beef up applications that like a lot of cores.

Intel is designing both cores on Intel 7, which is the new name for the Enhanced 10nm SuperFin process node. Golden Cove cores are the big ones, and they handle the bulk of work you’d do on a computer. Gracemont cores are the little ones, and they’re useful for handling background tasks or conserving battery life when a performant core isn’t needed.

Golden Cove cores are focused on high-frequency, single-threaded performance. Utilizing Intel’s new Matrix engine, the company says that the cores should have higher frequencies across applications. The Matrix engine is a coprocessor that handles matrix multiplication, which can speed up A.I. workloads, in particular.

Intel Alder Lake performance core design.

These cores also feature a new power management controller that offers the processor finer control over frequency given a certain power budget. Intel revealed these details to press and analysts at Architecture Day 2021, but we’ll need to wait for further testing to see these architectural improvements in action.

Gracemont cores handle the other side of the performance spectrum. Intel says they’re all about multi-threaded performance, juggling several lightweight tasks across multiple cores. Although we don’t have a ton of information on Gracemont cores right now, Intel says they can perform about 40% above old Skylake cores at the same wattage.

Bringing the two core designs together is a series of high-bandwidth interconnects. The Compute Fabric ties the two cores together with up to 1,000 GBps of bandwidth, the I/O Fabric delivers up to 64 GBps of bandwidth between inputs and the memory subsystem, and the Memory Fabric offers up to 204 GBps of bandwidth between the memory and the rest of the processor.

We haven’t tested Alder Lake, but we have a decent idea of its improvements based on various leaks. A leaked Intel slide, for example, showed Alder Lake’s architectural change delivering up to 20% single-thread performance improvement, thanks to the Golden Cove cores and the Enhanced 10nm SuperFin design, and up to 2x multi-threaded performance gain with Gracemont cores.

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.

We don’t have official specs from Intel yet. However, the company says Alder Lake chips can supports up to 16 cores and 24 threads, confirming earlier rumors. Eight of those are Golden Cove with support for hyperthreading, while the other eight are Gracemont cores without support for hyperthreading.

In addition, all Alder Lake products will come with onboard Xe LP graphics, which are available currently in Tiger Lake processors. It’s also important to note that Alder Lake is a scalable architecture. Desktop chips have been the focus so far, but Intel says it can shrink the architecture down to laptops and embedded solutions, as well.

Performance

Source: Videocardz

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 2.7GHz 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. Other rumors say the flagship processor can clock as 5.3GHz when pushed.

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.

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

11th-gen Intel Core desktop processor.
11th-gen Intel Core desktop processors (code-named “Rocket Lake-S”) deliver increased performance and speeds. Intel launched the processors on March 16, 2021. (Credit: Intel Corporation)

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.

New socket and Z690 motherboards

Biostar Z170GT7
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

With Alder Lake, Intel will be moving on to a new socket design. Alder Lake uses the new LGA1700, 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 seems some existing coolers will work with LGA1700, provided you use a bracket. Noctua, for example, said it would offer owners of its coolers a free LGA1700 bracket starting in mid-October for supported coolers.

Thread Director and Windows 11

Alder Lake will be able to leverage Windows 11 in a way a processor never has before. Thread Director is a new hardware-level feature on Alder Lake processors that helps the operating system — Windows 11, in particular — know how to assign tasks to different cores.

As mentioned, Alder Lake is a hybrid architecture that uses performant and efficient cores. Normally, an OS chooses which tasks go where through a combination of calculations (such as if the task is in the foreground or background) and guessing. The result is inefficient thread scheduling, which is a big deal for a hybrid CPU.

Intel Thread Director scheduling examples.

Enter Thread Director. With this feature, Intel is able to offer Windows 11 full visibility into what kind of workload the task is handling. That removes the guesswork from the equation, helping the operating system better assign tasks to appropriate cores.

Thread Director hits on two fronts. Although Alder Lake doesn’t have the first hybrid CPU architecture, most previous versions have focused on battery life and efficiency. Thread Director allows the processor to reach a peak performance state when tasks call for it while conserving battery life when the machine doesn’t have a large workload.

“We didn’t want to sacrifice,” Intel client architect Rajshree Chabukswar told Digital Trends. “It’s really about keeping [performance and battery life] in mind.”

This looks like the largest improvement in Alder Lake, as it should speed up any workflow that has multiple sets of instructions running at the same time. We still need to wait to test Alder Lake before drawing conclusions, but Thread Director is one of the largest features for the upcoming platform.

Right now, Windows 11 will see the biggest improvement, but Intel tells us that Windows 10 will see some improvements, too. Down the line, Intel says it hopes to work with more partners to bring Thread Director support to other operating systems. Based on leaked benchmarks, Alder Lake could offer up to an 8.2% improvement in single-threaded workloads on Windows 11.

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