Intel’s Alder Lake Processors — Full Explanation & What’s At Stake [ELI5]

The Alder Lake series of processors from Intel is right around the corner which means that a somewhat thorough... | 30. October 2021

The Alder Lake series of processors from Intel is right around the corner which means that a somewhat thorough breakdown is in order! These CPUs are going to pack a punch, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be worth the asking price — far from it, in fact! Power comes at a cost, and it still remains to be seen whether Alder Lake will allow Intel to compete on even footing with AMD after years of being fairly irrelevant.

In any case, this is undoubtedly an exciting moment for IT aficionados across the globe — doubly so if you’re partial to “team blue” and have been eagerly awaiting their 12th generation of processors!

We already covered the first three CPUs that’ll hit the market in just a few days, so this time around we’ll focus on the architecture itself and the reason why Alder Lake is so darn interesting.

A Scalable Architecture

One of the biggest benefits that Intel Alder Lake brings to the table is its scalable architecture. In other words: it has a unique core layout, one that we haven’t seen yet in x86 processors of the past. Instead of having multiple cores of the same kind, Alder Lake employs a hybrid set-up with Performance cores (or P-cores) and Efficiency cores (E-cores).

Not all workloads are equally as demanding. So, for instance, if you’re gaming or rendering, you’ll want to have as much power as you can possibly get, but that doesn’t hold true for stuff like web browsing or general day-to-day tasks. Traditional x86 processors treat these workloads equally (in accordance with the Windows Task Scheduler); Alder Lake ones, however, have dedicated cores and can harness them either separately or at the same time, depending on the workload.

P-cores will tackle anything that requires high frequencies, with E-cores stepping in for those menial, day-to-day tasks that don’t really require as much horsepower. P-cores are not exactly efficient, but they’re powerful as heck and will chew through any task you might throw their way.

Alder Lake processors come with up to 8 Performance and 8 Efficient cores, with the former being hyperthreaded. This means that the top-of-the-line model will come with 16 cores in total and 24 threads. It’s a great approach, and it allows Intel to simply lower the number of P/E cores in accordance to what kind of performance is expected from each and every single SKU.

One architecture across three different product categories!

Software Support Is Key

Intel’s Thread Director also warrants a mention as it basically assigns all tasks to the appropriate cores. And it does so dynamically based on TDP, operating conditions, and power settings without any user input. It sounds powerful and, in all fairness, it probably will be, but we first need to see it in action before we can fully and objectively assess its effectiveness.

To fully harness Alder Lake’s power, however, you’ll not only have to be on Windows 11, but you’ll have to use an obscenely fast kit of DDR5 RAM. Technically speaking, these CPUs will support DDR4 as well, but that’ll probably come at a performance penalty. How big of a penalty still remains to be seen as there’s quite a lot of testing that needs to be done.

DDR5 memory will bring huge memory bandwidth to the table but at the cost high latency. So, it’s safe to assume that existing DDR4 modules will outperform the cheapest DDR5 ones at launch, although that’s just a hypothesis.

Finally, PCIe Gen 5 support will be baked right in, and even though you won’t really be able to harness its full potential just yet, it’s definitely a nice thing to have further down the line.

Immense Power Cost At a Cost

The headline above this paragraph is true in more ways than one. These processors might be incredibly powerful, but they’ll also draw about as many Watts as a nuclear power plant. Top-of-the-line models have a base TDP of 125W, but they’ll draw up to 241W when under full load.

Moreover, Alder Lake CPUs will run at full throttle for as long as they can, so if you have a good enough power supply and an adequate cooling solution, you’ll not only get incredible performance but increased electricity bills as well.

This whole thing really warrants a mention as Alder Lake processors will almost surely be very hot and will require the beefiest of aftermarket coolers. And while that’s problem per se, it is something you should keep in mind. And, well, AMD’s Ryzen CPUs draw a lot less power and can deliver comparable performance, so it’s obvious that Intel took no prisoners and pulled no punches in their attempt to win as many benchmarks as possible.

Should You Buy An Intel Alder Lake CPU?

Well, that’s a complicated question as it really boils down to your personal preference and use-case scenario. Getting the latest and greatest piece of tech is always alluring, but it’s rarely justified. These processors won’t come cheap, and it’s not like you can just purchase one of them and call it a day — to truly harness their power you’ll have to invest in a fancy new motherboard and some insanely fast DDR5 memory.

These things will burn through your wallet like it’s nobody’s business and there’s really no reason for you to run out and go on a frivolous spending spree. If you’re looking to upgrade, it’d be best to first wait things out, analyze the impending slew of benchmarks, and then see whether AMD’s Ryzen V-Cache refresh has what it takes to compete.

It’s probably going to be cheaper and won’t trail much behind in terms of performance.

Intel Alder Lake | What’s At Stake?

Whether it’ll be as big of deal as Intel claims still remains to be seen, but it’s nonetheless worth our attention. It’s not often that we see such a huge shift in architecture — a decision that entails quite a bit of risk — so you’d be wise to read the fine print! Moreover, depending on how this whole thing pans out, we might see other companies follow suit which would then, in turn, affect the entire industry.

The most important thing is that Intel has finally moved on from its age-old 14nm designs, and that we’ll finally see a bit of innovation from “team blue.” They’ve reached for such a tremendous undertaking solely because they’ve been pushed into a corner — they’re innovating so as to stand a chance of surviving the battle with AMD.

Is this the way to go? It’s impossible to know at this point in time, but we’re bound to find out in just a few days!