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Intel Core i3-12100 Review: The Little Gaming Giant

Lowly quad-core serves up big gaming performance.

Intel Core i3-12100 Review
(Image: © Tom's Hardware)

Budget Gaming Dominance

Like the rest of the Alder Lake family, the $104 to $130 Core i3-12100 comes to market with disruptive pricing as Intel continues to attempt to claw back market share from AMD at any cost.

Frankly, given that Intel has virtually no competition from AMD in the sub-$200 market, it's surprising that Intel has delivered this much performance at such attractive pricing. Below, we have the geometric mean of our gaming test suite at 1080p and 1440p and a cumulative measure of performance in single- and multi-threaded applications. We conducted our gaming tests with an RTX 3090, so performance deltas will shrink with lesser cards and higher resolution and fidelity settings. 

The Core i3-12100 eschews the hybrid Alder Lake design, instead going with 'only' four P-cores. That doesn't hold the chip back in gaming, though, and the Core i3-12100 now reigns as the fastest budget gaming CPU on the market.  

The Core i3-12100 represents a massive leap forward for Intel in budget gaming performance, beating the Core i3-10100 by a whopping 29.5% at 1080p. The Core i5-11600K, last-gen's fastest Core i5, was surprisingly only 3.5% faster than the stock Core i3-12100, but at twice the price. The 12100 is also equally impressive compared to Intel's higher-end Alder Lake models, delivering 88% of the 12400's gaming performance but for 56% less cash.

AMD's chips can't compete, but that's because the company has completely abandoned the sub-$250 market. The Core i3-12100 easily beat AMD's previous-gen Ryzen 5 3600 and 3600X, not to mention the venerable 3300X, by margins ranging from 9% to 19%, respectively, showing that the 12100 has the chops to take on AMD's entire sub-$250 roster in gaming.

The Core i3-12100 is plenty impressive in lightly-threaded apps, too. In fact, the $800 Ryzen 9 5950X is the only Ryzen chip that can match the Core i3-12100's single-threaded performance in our CPU benchmarks hierarchy. You'll have to look to other Alder Lake chips to find faster performance in single-threaded work.

The Core i3-12100 is impressive in threaded productivity workloads for its price point, easily beating the price-comparable Ryzen 3 3300X in nearly every benchmark and establishing a commanding 30% lead over the Core i3-10100. Of course, AMD's more expensive six-core chips provide more performance in threaded work, but they should given their higher price tags.

You can also pick up the graphics-less $104 Core i3-12100F for ~$25 less than the full-featured model, but it provides the same level of performance. In addition, both the Core i3-12100 and 12100F also come with a capable Laminar RM1 cooler that delivers the full performance of the chip, making a sweet deal even sweeter for budget builders.

You should pair the Core i3-12100 with a B- or H-series motherboard, though the latter doesn't allow memory overclocking. That said, memory overclocking only imparted a 2.2% gain in 1080p gaming performance and no gain in most applications, so it doesn't make too much sense — especially for budget builds.

The Core i3-12100 also has a much more modern platform than AMD's AM4 ecosystem. Leading-edge DDR5 and PCIe 5.0 interfaces add too much cost for this class of chip, so look for DDR4 B660, H670 and H610 motherboards for the best value. You won't need DDR5 memory to unlock the best gaming performance, and that's a good thing because DDR5's high pricing doesn't make sense for sub-$250 chips.

Alder Lake has delivered a decisive blow to AMD's entire Ryzen 5000 family, and it doesn't look like we'll have a chance to see competitive new budget offerings until the Zen 4 'Raphael' Ryzen 7000 chips arrive later this year. If you're looking for a bit more performance in threaded workloads than you'll get with the 12100, the Core i5-12400 remains the undisputed value champ for an all-rounder chip, but you'll have to shell out an additional $65.

Overall, the Core i3-12100 is a balanced chip that offers exceptional performance in gaming and lightly-threaded work in tandem with leading performance for its price point in multi-threaded workloads. If you're looking for an unprecedented amount of gaming and application performance from a $105 to $130 chip, the Core i3-12100 is the hands-down winner and takes a spot on our list of Best CPUs for gaming

Paul Alcorn
Paul Alcorn

Paul Alcorn is the Deputy Managing Editor for Tom's Hardware US. He writes news and reviews on CPUs, storage and enterprise hardware.

  • adamXpeter
    What is wrong with the Core i5-12600K?
    Reply
  • Why_Me
    adamXpeter said:
    What is wrong with the Core i5-12600K?
    My guess is it was reviewed before newer bios came out.
    Reply
  • deepblue08
    This chart makes me think how good of a value 5600X has been all this time. Even now it performs very solidly against the latest from Intel.
    Reply
  • blagomils
    The only thing is that i3-12100 should be compared against i5-10400 (if comparing current alternatives from previous generations) instead of i3-10100, as the i5 is the one that is similarly priced and the older i3 has much lower price. Basicaly the same 30% lower price for the same performance drop.
    Reply
  • rtoaht
    deepblue08 said:
    This chart makes me think how good of a value 5600X has been all this time. Even now it performs very solidly against the latest from Intel.
    5600x was getting sold for over $300 a year ago. It is now getting matched by a $169 12400F. Doesn’t seem to be a good value for “all the time” when a $300 class CPU becomes a sub $170 class CPU within a year. There wasn’t much inflation when 5600X launched for AMD to jack up the Ryzen 5 price by $50. Consumer mentality like yours can make them increase the price again this year by another $50 or may even be more since now there is an inflation to blame as well.
    Reply
  • tennis2
    rtoaht said:
    5600x was getting sold for over $300 a year ago. It is now getting matched by a $169 12400F. Doesn’t seem to be a good value for “all the time” when a $300 class CPU becomes a sub $170 class CPU within a year.
    AMD was a little too proud of their accomplishment in Ryzen 5000 at launch for sure.

    Can we appreciate that 4 cores is still relevant in offline/single-player gaming though!
    Reply
  • spentshells
    tennis2 said:
    AMD was a little too proud of their accomplishment in Ryzen 5000 at launch for sure.

    Can we appreciate that 4 cores is still relevant in offline/single-player gaming though!
    too proud? They overcame their only rival for the first time in a decade and did so quite handily.
    I'd say they were right on the money........
    Reply