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Intel's Alder Lake CPUs Revolutionize x86 CPUs

Published: 11-2-2021

For the last few years, Intel has been facing some stiff competition on multiple fronts. AMDís Ryzen series of processors eroded virtually all of Intelís advantages, offering more cores and faster IPS (instructions per clock) at lower prices. The only real advantage left to a technologically struggling Intel was its manufacturing capacity. AMD also has the video game console sewn up, because Intel canít offer a good enough GPU in its SoCs (System on a Chip) to make an Intel-based Xbox or PlayStation feasible.

On top of this, Apple completely ditched Intel in their computers, switching over to their own ARM-based CPU designs. So far, this has been a major success for Apple, with their own processors soundly outperforming previous Intel Macs while offering silly amounts of battery life without compromises.

Intel hasnít taken this lying down! For one thing, we are about to see the fruits of their GPU development labors, with the imminent release of Intelís Arc Alchemist. A GPU thatís promised to compete with the RTX 3070, and will include dedicated hardware ray tracing and machine learning hardware. Then we have the latest Alder Lake CPUs, a return to form for Intel, and also a real revolution in the x86 CPU world.

The Hybrid Theory of Alder Lake

Alder Lake is the first mainstream x86 desktop CPU product line to use a hybrid architecture. This means that there isnít just one type of CPU core within the CPU package. Instead, you have P-cores for high performance and E-cores for power efficiency. If youíve been following the development of mobile processor technology, you may find this approach familiar.

Both smartphones and tablets have been using a ďBIG.littleĒ architecture for some time. Background processes and simple apps only run on energy-efficient cores that are fast enough for the basics. If you fire up a video game or another intense type of app, the high-performance cores kick in. This allocation can be dynamic as well. For example, the high-performance cores can switch on to do one particular intensive task for an app and then switch off again when done. This design means you can access the performance you need when you need it, but also maximize battery life.

Appleís M1-derived CPUs in their laptop and desktop computers use this design to great effect and thereís no question that Intel needed something to compete.

The Alder Lake CPU Family

At the time of writing, there are six Alder Lake desktop CPUs:

  • i9 12900K with 8P and 8E cores.

  • i9 12900KF with 8P and 8E cores and no GPU.

  • i7 12700K With 8P and 4E cores.

  • i7 12700KF With 8P and 4E cores and no GPU.

  • i5 12600K with 6P and 4E cores.

  • i5 12600KF with 6P and 4E cores and no GPU.

Itís worth noting that the P-cores are hyperthreaded, while the E-cores are not.

Why is This Hybrid Approach Good?

Why have these lower-performing cores in a desktop CPU at all? Sure, it makes sense to have them in a battery-powered device like a laptop, but who cares if the CPU draws a few extra watts at the wall?

While having a desktop computer that uses less power when not running heavy loads is a good thing, the advantages of a hybrid design on a desktop system go far beyond that.

Letís say you have eight P-cores and four E-cores. Those E-cores can handle all of the system overhead. The background processes donít take much power to run but need to run for the computer to work. If all you have are full performance cores, then inevitably some of them are going to process these low-impact threads, wasting the majority of their performance. Even with hyperthreading, there may still not be enough to do to saturate the CPU. If youíre also running a high-performance application such as a video game, video editor, or CPU renderer, you are briefly giving up performance. It all adds up!

E-cores also reduce the cost of adding additional computing power to a CPU. You can first multiple e-cores into the room a P-core takes up and since they are simpler they cost less to make, with (presumably) better yields. Not to mention, they make it easier for a system to remain quiet when youíre just browsing the web or watching a movie.

We also canít forget the large user base who run high-impact applications and have applications such as screen recorders and streaming software in the background. Hybrid CPUs are an excellent way to efficiently manage these loads.


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