Intel Alder Lake CPUs: Everything we know about its first 10nm desktop chip

After suffering numerous delays and setbacks in its 10nm chip design, Intel finally launched its Ice Lake processors in late 2019. On the desktop side of things, though, 10nm still feels distant.

Reporting in late 2019 indicated that the architecture might be skipped on desktop altogether. Intel has since confirmed that 10nm desktop is still on the road map, but with AMD having pushed ahead to 7nm in 2019, Intel’s desktop plan still looks cloudy.

A recent leak illuminates Intel’s plans for 10nm desktop, though, suggesting a launch under the code name Alder Lake. Rumored to have 16 computing cores and a more efficient design, Intel has its eyes set squarely on AMD’s 16-core mainstream Ryzen CPU. Though nothing official has been announced yet, here’s everything we know about Intel’s 12th-gen Alder Lake processors so far.

Pricing and availability

Intel Announces The Xeon 5100 Microprocessor For Servers
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Alder Lake is speculated to debut in either late 2021 or early 2022, according to an estimated timeline posted on Notebook Check. As an unannounced 12th-gen desktop processor, there’s still a lot of unknown variables surrounding Alder Lake, which remains two years out.

Intel only announced its 10th-gen Comet Lake-S for the desktop at the end of 2019, with availability planned sometime in early 2020. That processor is based on Intel’s 14nm++ process, representing the company’s fifth optimization for this architecture.

Following Comet Lake-S in 2021, Intel is 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.

And then, finally, we arrive at Alder Lake, tentatively scheduled for the end of 2021 or early 2022. While AMD has been succeeding with 7nm, both companies have recently stated plans to move toward 5nm in the future for better performance and power efficiency.

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 in the past by EE Times for comment.

At this point, pricing information is still unknown for Alder Lake, and even Intel hasn’t released pricing for its 10th-gen Comet Lake-S processors yet. 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 competing high-end 16-core Intel Alder Lake is expected to be priced to compete against AMD’s premium processor.

Architecture design

Intel Lake Field at CES 2019

A leak posted by Twitter user @momo_US and published on Chinese e-commerce site PTT revealed Intel’s plans to move to a hybrid desktop architecture with Alder Lake in a move that mimics what Arm has been doing with its processors for smartphones and tablets. The hybrid design, also known as “big.LITTLE,” allows the chip to use the low processor cores for handling lo- level and background tasks, while switching to high-powered cores for applications that require more performance.

With the high performance cores on Alder Lake, Intel could utilize its Golden Cove cores for the “big” cores in the big.LITTLE design. The Golden Cove cores could bring better performance with artificial intelligence tasks and give the processor more instructions per clock (IPC). At this point, clock speeds for Alder Lake are unknown, though Intel processors have historically run on higher speeds than competing AMD parts.

With the hybrid architecture using eight high-performance cores and eight low-powered powers, Intel will likely transition beyond the Willow Cove microarchitecture design on its 10nm+ Tiger Lake processors. While Ice Lake and Tiger Lake look to be exclusively mobile chips, Alder Lake would be the company’s first 10nm desktop chips, if the reporting is accurate.

The eight smaller cores could rely on a next-generation Atom design called Gracemont, which is expected to bring more instructions per clock, along with better vector performance. And like the unannounced 11th-gen Rocket Lake-S processor, Intel is expected to support PCIe 4.0 for Alder Lake-S.

In addition to the 16-core big.LITTLE design, the 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.

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 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 capabilities. Intel is also working on its own discrete Xe GPUs based on that same architecture.

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 comes with 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 multi-threaded performance. On Lakefield, high-performance tasks are performed on Sunny Cove, while background threads are relegated to the Atom Tremont cores. In multi-threaded 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 holds true, 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.

New socket

Biostar Z170GT7
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Intel may be transitioning to a new socket design with this generation of desktop processor, meaning you’ll need a new motherboard. Unlike rival AMD, which has maintained socket consistency between successive generations of chipsets, Intel will be moving to the LGA 1200 socket for its 10th-gen Comet Lake-S CPU.

Details are still unknown at this point, but it’s expected that the 11th-gen Rocket Lake-S processor will utilize the same LGA 1200 socket. However, once Alder Lake-S hits, it’s rumored that Intel will move to a new LGA 1700 socket, which means that the LGA 1200 socket will only get utilized in two generations of Intel chips before becoming obsolete.

If Intel continues to change socket designs so quickly, it could limit the processor’s appeal among high-end desktop users, gamers, and PC tinkerers who want the flexibility of just upgrading their silicon.

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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