Intel's 12th Gen Alder Lake takes a vital step forward

Intel Alder Lake render
(Image credit: Intel)

An early engineering sample of Intel's next CPU design, codenamed Alder Lake, has surfaced, and it looks every bit as intriguing as anyone could have hoped. The engineering sample has popped up on Igor's Lab and is a 16-core, 24-thread model that utilizes Intel's 10nm production process and boasts a brand new architecture too. 

Alder Lake uses a big.LITTLE design that's similar to what you'll find in many ARM-based phones and tablets. The big Golden Cove cores are similar to what we have in CPUs today and are joined by smaller Gracemont cores, which are essentially Atom cores, to make for a more efficient design overall. 

In case you were wondering about that disparity between core and thread count, that's because the Gracemont cores don't feature Hyper-Threading, while the Golden Cove cores do. So the big cores double up their thread count, while the little ones don't. Thus 16 cores become 24 threads.

The engineering sample isn't final silicon, but it is a good way of making sure that all is logically sound with a new architecture. The operating frequencies won't be finalized at this point, and sure enough, the Core-1800, as it is known, has a relatively low base clock of just 1,800MHz. Hardly what you'd expect from a new release. Indeed at launch, we'd expect the base clocks to be much more in line with what we've got today (at least for the Golden Cove cores).

The good news is that the turbo clocks for this 16-core, 24-thread chip do appear to be a bit more in line with what we'd expect to see. The Turbo goes as high as 4.6GHz for 1–2 of the bigger cores, while the Atom cores can hit 3.4GHz for 1–4 cores and 3GHz if you're using 5–8 of the little cores. 

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Not only is Alder Lake introducing this new hybrid architecture, but it will be the first consumer processor to support PCIe 5.0 and DDR5 memory, up to DDR5-4800 apparently. The chips will also support PCIe 4.0 and DDR4 RAM, although it'll be down to motherboard manufacturers to implement whichever support makes the most sense. 

As Alder Lake is such a different architecture, it needs a new LGA 1700 socket, so you'll need a new motherboard either way. We'd expect high-end Z690 motherboards to support DDR5, while budget motherboards may stick with DDR4. 

The fact that an engineering sample has surfaced already is potentially a good sign that Intel is on track to deliver its 12th-gen CPU well within the timeframe it has set itself for the second half of 2021. 

Alan Dexter

Alan has been writing about PC tech since before 3D graphics cards existed, and still vividly recalls having to fight with MS-DOS just to get games to load. He fondly remembers the killer combo of a Matrox Millenium and 3dfx Voodoo, and seeing Lara Croft in 3D for the first time. He's very glad hardware has advanced as much as it has though, and is particularly happy when putting the latest M.2 NVMe SSDs, AMD processors, and laptops through their paces. He has a long-lasting Magic: The Gathering obsession but limits this to MTG Arena these days.