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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Review: Retaking the Gaming Crown

Alder vs Zen, Fight!

Intel Alder Lake
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Tom's Hardware)

Our Verdict

The Intel Core i9-12900K is the fastest gaming processor on the planet while the Core i5-12600K offers unprecedented gaming performance at its price point. Whip in superior pricing and excellent performance in all other types of workloads, and both Alder Lake processors handily beat competing AMD models.

For

  • Exceptional gaming performance
  • Competitive pricing
  • PCIe 5.0 and DDR5 memory
  • Leading single-threaded performance
  • Multi-threaded performance
  • Overclockable

Against

  • No bundled cooler
  • Requires LGA1700 motherboard
  • Platform pricing

Tom's Hardware Verdict

The Intel Core i9-12900K is the fastest gaming processor on the planet while the Core i5-12600K offers unprecedented gaming performance at its price point. Whip in superior pricing and excellent performance in all other types of workloads, and both Alder Lake processors handily beat competing AMD models.

Pros

  • +

    Exceptional gaming performance

  • +

    Competitive pricing

  • +

    PCIe 5.0 and DDR5 memory

  • +

    Leading single-threaded performance

  • +

    Multi-threaded performance

  • +

    Overclockable

  • +

Cons

  • -

    No bundled cooler

  • -

    Requires LGA1700 motherboard

  • -

    Platform pricing

Intel's $589 Alder Lake Core i9-12900K and $289 Core i5-12600K come to market with a powerful combination of competitive pricing and impressive performance, taking the lead in gaming over comparable Ryzen 5000 models and assuring a position on our list of Best CPUs for gaming. Intel's newest chips are also incredibly competitive in productivity work, ranking among the top chips on our CPU benchmark hierarchy, and provide the biggest gains in overclocking performance that we've seen in the last several chip generations. Combine that with Alder Lake's new next-gen connectivity technologies that bring big increases in throughput via DDR5 memory and PCIe 5.0 interfaces, outstripping AMD's venerable AM4 platform, and Intel has a winner on its hands.

With up to 16 cores and 24 threads on the flagship Core i9-12900K, Intel has finally achieved a comparable core count to AMD's halo mainstream PC chips that have held the core count lead since the first 16-core 32-thread Ryzen 9 landed back in 2019. In fact, the $589 Core i9-12900K even beats the ultra-impressive $799 Ryzen 9 5950X in many threaded applications that have become Ryzen's uncontested stomping grounds, like Cinebench.

That's enabled by a first for desktop PCs — Intel's new hybrid x86 design represents the company's most disruptive architectural shift in a decade. Alder Lake combines big and fast Performance cores (P-cores) with a smattering of small and powerful Efficiency cores (E-cores) that chew through background processes with surprising speed. The Golden Cove architecture powers the 'big' P-cores while the 'little' E-cores come with the Gracemont architecture, with both providing much-needed IPC improvements to Intel's core designs.

Intel etches those cores on its 'Intel 7' process, finally ending the misery of the 14nm node after six long years that ultimately cost the company its performance lead over AMD in desktop PCs. We previously knew this 'Intel 7' manufacturing tech as 10nm Enhanced SuperFin, but Intel recently renamed its process nodes to match industry nomenclature. Technically, this is the second generation of Intel's 10nm process, but it's a first for desktop PCs.

U.S. PriceCores | ThreadsP-Core Base/BoostE-Core Base/BoostTDP / PBP / MTPDDR4-3200L3 Cache
Core i9-12900K / KF$589 (K) - $564 (KF)8P + 8E | 16 Cores / 24 threads3.2 / 5.2 GHz2.4 / 3.9 GHz125W / 241WDDR4-3200 / DDR5-480030MB
Core i7-12700K / KF$409 (K) - $384 (KF)8P + 4E | 12 Cores / 20 threads3.6 / 5.0 GHz2.7 / 3.8 GHz125W / 190WDDR4-3200 / DDR5-480025MB
Core i5-12600K / KF$289 (K) - $264 (KF)6P + 4E | 10 Cores / 16 threads3.7 / 4.9 GHz2.8 / 3.6 GHz125W / 150WDDR4-3200 / DDR5-480016MB

Intel released three high-end overclockable K-series models today, along with their graphics-less KF counterparts that are slightly less expensive. The P-cores are hyper-threaded, while the E-cores only have a single thread, leading to what we would normally consider as non-standard thread counts. As a result, the chips stretch from a 10-core 16-thread Core i5-12600K up to the 16-core 24-thread Core i9-12900K.

The hybrid design is old hat for Arm processors, but it's groundbreaking for the desktop PC. Unfortunately, that comes with some baggage. The new heterogeneous design requires special accommodations to unlock the best performance: High-priority tasks execute best on the P-cores, while the background and threaded workloads should run on the E-cores. That requires operating system intervention.

The Alder Lake chips work with both newer and older versions of Windows, but Windows 11 unlocks the best of Alder Lake because it supports Intel's new Thread Director. The tech provides the operating system with information that assists in assigning work to the correct cores. Alder Lake's performance is still competitive in Windows 10, but you might encounter wayward performance and/or variability, meaning some workloads will be slower at times due to unoptimized thread scheduling. We have plenty of evidence of that in our tests below.

Intel's chips are competitively priced, but PCIe 5.0 and DDR5 are also significant cost-adders for motherboards. All signs point to DDR5 kits being expensive in the early days, so it's good that some motherboards support the more affordable DDR4.

You'll also need a new motherboard for an Alder Lake chip, and for now, Z690 boards are the only option on the menu (lower-end B- and H-Series boards won't come until later). According to our tests, most users will be fine with DDR4-equipped motherboards (especially if you're sticking with Windows 10), but that restricts you to lower-end Z-Series motherboards. Either way, you'll pay a hefty platform premium to access Alder Lake's leading gaming performance, at least until B- and H-series motherboards arrive.

Alder Lake takes the lead over Ryzen in most workloads, but it isn't a slam dunk in every regard — we ran into several odd performance trends with Windows 10, and a few programs even refused to run correctly. We do expect those issues to be fixed sooner rather than later, though, as the industry adapts to the hybrid architecture.

Conversely, Alder Lake is incredibly impressive in Windows 11 and takes the lead over AMD in gaming and performance in most types of workloads. Overall, the Core i5-12600K is now the best gaming CPU on the market, while the Core i9-12900K slots in as the best high-end processor for mainstream platforms.

We have plenty of testing with both Windows 10 and 11 below, not to mention DDR4 vs. DDR5, as we take a closer look at the next chapter in the AMD vs Intel rivalry. We've also included in-depth overclocking testing, which unearthed the biggest gains we've seen from recent Intel chip generations — we certainly haven't seen double-digit percentage increases in gaming performance from overclocking in several chip generations. 

Intel Alder Lake-S Core i9-12900K and i5-12600K Specifications and Pricing

Intel is only bringing its most expensive chips from the Core i9, i7, and i5 families to the retail market for now, but it is also shipping 28 more models to OEMs for prebuilt systems that arrive early next year. Intel isn't sharing details yet, but those models will eventually come to retail at an unspecified time.

We have deep-dive coverage of the Alder Lake SoC design and core microarchitectures here, along with a broader overview in our Alder Lake all we know article. Additionally, Intel has removed its 'TDP' (Thermal Design Point) nomenclature from the spec sheets, and now assigns a Processor Base Power (PBP) value in its place. The company also added a secondary Maximum Turbo Power (MTP) value to the spec sheets to represent the highest power level during boost activity. You can read more about that change here

U.S. PriceCores | ThreadsP-Core Base/BoostE-Core Base/BoostTDP / PBP / MTPDDR4-3200L3 Cache
Ryzen 9 5950X$79916P | 32 threads3.4 / 4.9 GHz-105WDDR4-320064MB (2x32)
Core i9-12900K / KF$589 (K) - $564 (KF)8P + 8E | 16 Cores / 24 threads3.2 / 5.2 GHz2.4 / 3.9 GHz125W / 241WDDR4-3200 / DDR5-480030MB
Ryzen 9 5900X$54912P | 24 threads3.7 / 4.8 GHz-105WDDR4-320032MB (1x32)
Core i9-11900K$5498P | 16 threads3.5 / 5.3 GHz-125WDDR4-320016MB
Core i7-12700K / KF$409 (K) - $384 (KF)8P + 4E | 12 Cores / 20 threads3.6 / 5.0 GHz2.7 / 3.8 GHz125W / 190WDDR4-3200 / DDR5-480025MB
Core i7-11700K$4098P | 16 threads3.6 / 5.0 GHz-125WDDR4-320016MB
Ryzen 7 5800X$4498P | 16 threads3.8 / 4.7 GHz-105WDDR4-320032MB
Core i5-12600K / KF$289 (K) - $264 (KF)6P + 4E | 10 Cores / 16 threads3.7 / 4.9 GHz2.8 / 3.6 GHz125W / 150WDDR4-3200 / DDR5-480016MB
Core i5-11600K$2726P | 12 threads3.9 / 4.9 GHz-95WDDR4-320012MB
Ryzen 5 5600X$2996P | 12 threads3.7 / 4.6 GHz-65WDDR4-320032MB

All Alder Lake chips support DDR4-3200 or up to DDR5-4800 memory, but caveats apply. Alder Lake chips expose up to 16 lanes of PCIe 5.0 (technically for storage and graphics only, no networking devices) and an additional four lanes of PCIe 4.0 from the chip for M.2 storage. We'll cover those details further below.

Intel's $589 16-core Core i9-12900K comes with eight P-cores that support hyper-threading, and eight single-threaded E-cores for a total of 24 threads. That's a 33% increase in thread count over the previous-gen Core i9-11900K. The P-cores have a 3.2 GHz base, and peak frequencies reach 5.2 GHz with Turbo Boost Max 3.0 (this feature is only active on P-cores).

This chip comes with 125W PBP (base) and 241W MTP (peak) power rating, but be aware that Intel has also changed its default boost duration for all K-series chips from the 56-second duration with Rocket Lake to an unlimited value. This means the chip will effectively always operate at the 241W MTP when it is under load.

The 12900K has a 100 MHz reduction in peak clock frequency compared to the 11900K, but that isn't too important given the entirely new hybrid architecture — the P-cores process ~19% more instructions per cycle and the SoC realizes performance gains from using different core types for different tasks. Speaking of which, the E-cores have a 2.4 GHz base and stretch up to 3.9 GHz via the standard Turbo Boost 2.0 algorithms. The chip is also equipped with 30MB of L3 cache and 14MB of L2.

At $589, the Core i9-12900K comes at a $40 premium over its prior-gen counterpart, squeezing in between the $799 16-core Ryzen 9 5950X and $549 Ryzen 9 5900X. That leaves a sizeable $185 gap between the Core i9 and i7 families that Intel inadequately plugs with the graphics-less $564 Core i9-12900KF. It's logical to expect a filler product between Core i7 and i9 in the future (possibly like the Core i9-10850K).

The Core i5-12600K's $289 price point remains the same as the prior-gen Core i5-11600K, meaning it lands right smack dab in gamer country, going toe-to-toe with the $299 six-core twelve-thread Ryzen 5 5600X and representing the lowest point of entry to the Alder Lake family (at least for now).

The 12600K comes with six threaded P-cores that operate at 3.7 / 4.9 GHz and four E-cores that run at 2.8 / 3.6 GHz, for a total of 16 threads. That's paired with 20MB of L3 and 9.5MB of L2 cache.

The $409 Core i7-12700K comes with the same $409 tray pricing as the previous-gen Core i7-11700K and has eight P-cores and four E-cores, for a total of 20 threads. The P-cores run at a 3.6 / 5.0 GHz base/boost, while the E-cores weigh in at 2.7 / 3.8 GHz, all fed by 25MB of L3 cache and 12MB of L2. The graphics-less $384 Core i7-12700KF comes with a $25 price reduction.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
  • The Alder Lake SoC will span from desktop PCs to ultramobile devices with TDP ratings from 9W to 125W, all built on the Intel 7 process. The desktop PC comes with up to eight Performance (P) cores and eight Efficient (E) cores for a total of 16 cores and 24 threads and up to 30 MB of L3 cache for a single chip.
  • Alder Lake supports either DDR4 or DDR5 (LP4x/LP5, too). Desktop PC supports x16 PCIe Gen 5 and x4 PCIe Gen 4.
  • Intel's new hyper-threaded Performance (P) core, which comes with the Golden Cove microarchitecture designed for low-latency single-threaded performance, comes with an average of 19% more IPC than the Cypress Cove architecture in Rocket Lake
  • Intel's new single-threaded Efficiency (E) core comes with the Gracemont microarchitecture to improve multi-threaded performance and provide exceptional area efficiency (small footprint) and performance-per-watt. Four small cores fit in roughly the same area as a Skylake core and deliver 80% more performance in threaded work (at the same power). A single E core also delivers 40% more performance than a single-threaded Skylake core (at the same power) in single-threaded work (caveats apply to both).
  • Intel's Thread Director is a hardware-based technology that assures threads are assigned to either the P or E cores in an optimized manner. This is the sleeper tech that enables the hybrid architecture.

Intel Alder Lake Z690 Motherboards

Intel's Alder Lake drops into Socket 1700 motherboards with the Z690 chipset. You can read about the chipset and some of the first 60+ motherboards in our Z690 motherboard roundup here.

Because the new LGA1700 socket is physically larger and has a lower Z-height, existing air and water coolers for LGA1200 and LGA115x motherboards won't work with 600-series motherboards. As a result, upgraders will need to acquire a conversion kit from the cooler-maker or buy a new cooler. 

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Intel Alder Lake

(Image credit: Intel)
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Intel Alder Lake

(Image credit: Intel)
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Intel Alder Lake

(Image credit: Intel)

Alder Lake chips expose up to 16 lanes of PCIe 5.0 and an additional four lanes of PCIe 4.0 from the chip for M.2 storage. Those lanes are split into x16 or x8 for GPUs, or x4/x4 for storage slots. PCIe AICs (Add-In Cards) that support PCIe 5.0 M.2 SSDs (which don't exist yet) are already in the works.

Just like Z590, the 14nm Z690 chipset sports 16 lanes of PCIe 3.0, but Intel also added 12 lanes of PCIe 4.0, which is a nice boost to overall connectivity. Intel also doubled the throughput of the DMI connection between the chip and chipset from an x8 DMI 3.0 pipe, which clocks in at 7.88 GB/s, to an x8 DMI 4.0 connection that delivers 15.66 GB/s. This much-needed bandwidth improvement allows for more throughput from attached RAID arrays.

In that vein, Intel also added support for the Volume Management Device feature that supports creating and managing PCIe storage volumes, including bootable PCIe RAID configurations. The increased DMI throughput is also beneficial for Z690's bolstered connectivity options, like the new second USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 20 Gbps connection.

Intel Alder Lake DDR4 and DDR5 Support

Alder Lake chips support both DDR4 and DDR5 memory, but there are several caveats tied to DDR5. As a default, DDR5 runs in Gear 2 mode, resulting in higher latency. Additionally, standard motherboards only support DDR5-4800 if the motherboard has only two physical slots. Therefore, at stock settings, Alder Lake only supports DDR5-4400 on any motherboard with four slots — even if only two slots are populated. Support drops as low as DDR5-3600 if four slots are filled with dual-rank memory DIMMs. Here are the population rules for DDR5:

(Image credit: Intel)

In contrast, Alder Lake supports DDR4-3200 in Gear 1 mode for all processors. That can yield latency and performance advantages for the tried and true memory.

There is a wide selection of DDR5 motherboards spread among the various motherboard makers' Z690 families, but it appears that you'll only find DDR4 support on lower-end Z690 boards. Also, unlike previous generations, no motherboard supports both DDR4 and DDR5, which is probably due to DDR5's much tighter signal integrity requirements and onboard power control circuitry.

Alder Lake's memory bus has four 32-bit DDR5 channels that create a 128-bit interface. Additionally, unlike DDR4, DDR5 DIMMs come with PMIC (Power Management ICs) chips that control three on-DIMM voltage rails – VDD, VDDQ, and VPP.

DDR5 supports the new XMP 3.0 standard that supports up to five memory profiles (SPDs) to define unique frequency, voltage, and latency parameters, and XMP 3.0 also lets you write and name two of the profiles. That means you can adjust the frequencies and all the timings and voltages to your liking, assign a profile name, and save the settings directly to the XMP profile stored in the SPD.

The new XMP profiles can also control the PMICs now present on DDR5 DIMMs. Intel has defined a common set of PMIC standards among the vendors to align maximum voltages and voltage steps, among other parameters. Naturally, there are variances in PMIC designs and quality, adding yet another variable to watch out for when selecting the Best RAM for overclocking.

Intel has also posted a new certification page on its website to help assure that each kit is compatible with certain motherboards and firmware revisions. You can read more about DDR5's new features here. We expect pricing for DDR5 to be substantially higher than DDR4, currently projected to be a 50 to 60% markup, for some time.

Intel Alder Lake Thread Director and Windows 10 Performance Problems

Alder Lake comes with a mix of both performance and efficiency cores, so it's important that the workloads land on the correct cores. It's easy to see that having a core that excels at high-performance workloads isn't much help if the high-performance workloads often land in the slower cores. It's not quite as bad if lighter workloads to land on the high-performance cores — they'll still run fine — but that could potentially burn extra power and slow down other tasks. Unfortunately, the current Windows 10 thread scheduling system is based entirely on static rules (priority, foreground, background) that are inefficient and create software programming overhead.

Intel's Thread Director technology is the quiet star of the Alder Lake show. This technology works by feeding the Windows 11 operating system with low-level telemetry data collected from within the processor itself, thus informing the scheduler about the state of the cores, be it power, thermal, or otherwise, and the type of workload being executed by any given thread. The Windows scheduler then uses this additional information to make real-time intelligent decisions about thread placement.

You can read the in-depth details of the Thread Director tech here, but it's important to know that this feature is only supported on Windows 11.

As you'll soon see, the lack of optimized thread scheduling can greatly impact performance with Windows 10 systems, at least in some situations. To be clear, Windows 10 does have limited support for hybrid-optimized thread scheduling due to optimizations for Intel's Lakefield chips. However, while Windows 10 is aware of hybrid topologies, meaning it knows the difference between the performance and efficiency of the different core types, it doesn't have access to the thread-specific telemetry provided by Intel's hardware-based solution.

As a result, threads can and will land on the incorrect cores under some circumstances, which Intel warned could result in higher run-to-run variability in benchmarks. It will also impact the chips during normal use with Windows 10, too.

Additionally, we found that performance can be inconsistent on Windows 10, with some programs running faster some times, but slower at others. This seems to become more prevalent during multitasking, but we're still working to fully quantify the impact — its variable nature makes it hard to pin down. Toying with various settings, like assigning the priority of background tasks through the standard Windows settings, can help, but it isn't a cure-all.

Some programs may also need to be forced to run in the foreground for optimal performance, which Intel advises you can accomplish via the command line using powercfg commands. There's also the more user-friendly Process Lasso that is designed with Alder Lake optimization in mind. That type of intervention isn't ideal for all users, though, especially the casual type, so be aware that Windows 10 could require extra babysitting if you're searching for every last bit of performance. For most users planning on buying an Alder Lake CPU, Windows 11 is the best option.

And with that, let's take a look at performance in both Windows 10 and 11 on the following pages. 

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.