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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
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Windows 11: Core i9-12900K and i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks — The TLDR

Below you can see the geometric mean of our gaming tests at 1080p and 1440p, with each resolution split into its own chart to give us a decent overall view of the current landscape. As usual, we're testing with an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3090 to reduce GPU-imposed bottlenecks as much as possible, and differences between test subjects will shrink with lesser cards or higher resolutions. You'll find further game-by-game breakdowns below. Most of the titles below show little meaningful differentiation at higher resolutions, so we only tested four of the seven titles at 1440p to analyze performance scaling. Additionally, it's easy to overwhelm the charts with multiple DDR4 and DDR5 results for each chip, so in an attempt to keep the charts as decipherable as possible, we're only presenting our DDR4 overclock performance results in this article. We'll post the DDR5 overclocking results to our CPU Benchmark hierarchy.  

Due to Alder Lake's hybrid architecture, there will be teething pains with some games. As we reported, Denuvo DRM falsely identified Intel's E-cores as a separate system, and thus 91 Denuvo-enabled game titles wouldn't work with Alder Lake chips. Intel has worked with Denuvo, and the software maker issued a flurry of game patches to fix the issue. However, some titles are still not patched, though more patches are incoming. [EDIT: As of December 2021, only three games remain unpatched] Intel says that all games should eventually work with Alder Lake. We didn't encounter any issues with Denuvo in our testing, thanks to our gaming test suite

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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The $549 12-core Ryzen 9 5900X is AMD's fastest gaming chip, but the $589 Core i9-12900K is 8.7% faster in the cumulative 1080p gaming measurement across our entire test suite. And that's with both the DDR4 and DDR5 memory configurations, so you won't have to drop serious cash on a DDR5 kit to get there.

Stepping down $300, the $289 Core i5-12600K with DDR5 memory is ~2.7% faster than the $299 Ryzen 5 5600X, but that gap widens slightly with less expensive DDR4 memory. The Core i5-12600K also effectively ties the Ryzen 7 5800X, but for $161 less.

Rocket Lake buyers will be plenty disappointed. The Core i9-11900K landed a mere six months ago at $539, but the 12900K is ~11% faster in gaming. It's also much faster in the threaded workloads that we'll see later in our application testing. We see a similar story unfold with the Core i5-11600K compared to the 12600K, with 9% more performance in gaming coming for $27 more.

Naturally, moving over to 1440p brings a GPU bottleneck into the equation, so the performance deltas between the chips shrink tremendously. Here the Core i5-12600K effectively ties the 5600X and 5800X, while the 12900K is a mere 3.6% faster than the Ryzen 9 5950X.

Flipping through the 99th percentile charts shows larger deltas, but we have to view those with caution as Windows 11 is still young and seems to suffer from more framerate variability than our Windows 10 test platform. This could result from yet-to-be-updated game code, the relatively new graphics drivers for Windows 11, or some other combination of factors that could be smoothed out in the future.

The Alder Lake chips profit more from overclocking than the AMD Ryzen models. After tuning, the Core i9-12900K with DDR4 was 9.7% faster than the stock configuration at 1080p. Meanwhile, the Core i5-12600K jumped 15%, which is more than we would expect from the gains we see with new chip generations. In fact, it's been a long time since we've seen double-digit overclocking performance gains in gaming from easily-attainable frequencies.

Overall, the Alder Lake chips are a boon for enthusiasts. By comparison, the overclocked Ryzen chips were anywhere from 3.7% to 6.6% faster after tuning. You can read more about our overclock settings on the overclocking page.

Intel's Alder Lake carves out a win in Windows 11, but large performance deltas in a few of the game titles can heavily impact these types of cumulative measurements. For instance, Intel enjoys a sizeable lead in Hitman 3, but that game is specifically tuned to leverage the E-cores effectively by offloading low-priority tasks like physics to the small cores. That can be seen as an advantage by some because more game devs could take this approach, or as a fluke by others that think this type of optimization will only come to Intel-sponsored titles.

The competition between Intel and AMD is absolutely closer now, so it's best to make an informed decision based on the types of titles you play frequently. Be sure to check out the individual tests below.

Windows 11: 3DMark, VRMark, Chess Engines on Intel Core i9-12900K

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Synthetic benchmarks don't tend to translate well to real-world gaming, but they do show us the raw amount of compute power exposed to game engines. It's too bad most games don't fully exploit it.

The Core i9-12900K is a whopping 41% faster than the Ryzen 9 5950X in the 3DMark Time Spy CPU test, but as we've seen with most of the Windows 11 gaming benchmarks, it doesn't pick up too much additional performance by using DDR5.

We can't say the same for the 12600K, at least in this benchmark. The 12600K with DDR5 is 21% faster than it is with DDR4, and it easily leads the Ryzen 5 5600X in both configurations. Surprisingly, the DDR4 configurations yield tangible performance gains in the DX11 Fire Strike physics benchmark, with the 12900K with DDR4 being ~10% faster than the DDR5 config.

We've added the open-source neural network-based Leela chess engine to our benchmark roster. As evidenced by the DDR5 test results, this AI-powered engine obviously scales better with more memory throughput than the Stockfish engine.

Far Cry 6 on Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Far Cry 6 Game benchmark

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Far Cry 6 Game benchmark

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F1 2021 on Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K

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Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming benchmarks

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Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming benchmarks

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Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming benchmarks

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Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming benchmarks

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Hitman 3 on Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Horizon Zero Dawn on Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Microsoft Flight Simulator 2021 on Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K 

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Red Dead Redemption 2 on Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Watch Dogs Legion on Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K Gaming Benchmarks

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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.