Intel’s back — or so the lead-up to the release of its 12th Generation Core CPUs would have you believe. We’ve spent the last two weeks putting the Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K through their paces to see if real-world performance lives up to the hype. Coming in at $589 for the 12900K and $289 for the 12600K, they’re priced aggressively and promise big results. Let’s see how they perform.
- Current Price:
- Core i9-12900K: $589
- Core i7-12700K: $409
- Core i5-12600K: $289
Intel 12th Generation Overview
With its 12th generation processors, code-named Alder Lake, Intel is out to regain the personal computing throne. It brings with it a number of advancements, including a new approach to how its chips handle different workloads with the promise of improved performance. It’s the most exciting release from Team Blue in generations for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because it’s the first major departure from the Skylake design that debuted six years ago.
The biggest cause for excitement is the new hybrid core design. Historically, Intel’s CPU cores were uniform: a core is a core is a core. With the release of this generation, that paradigm has shifted to Performance cores (P-cores) and Efficiency cores (E-cores). Using a new scheduler within Windows, the CPUs will theoretically be able to do differentiate between high-performance tasks taking place in the foreground and lower priority tasks occurring in the background. This, in fact, is very similar to the approach Apple has taken with its silicon and experienced much success with.
The ability to differentiate tasks means that workloads (such as games) will be able to have interrupted processing power. The spin-up of a background process can now be handled by an E-core while the P-cores remain dedicated to the game. The same can be said for other demanding tasks like content creation. This will be driven by a new Thread Director technology that will ensure tasks are directed in an efficient manner, resulting in the highest possible performance uplift.
This shift does turn one element on its head: core and thread count. Because of the way the new structure is designed, threads are no longer simply double the number of cores. Since only the Performance cores are multi-threaded, the thread count doubles the P-Cores only. For the 12900K, this would mean 8 P-cores, 8 P-core threads, and 8 E-cores, leading to a 16-core/24-thread CPU.
To that end, Intel is promising big gains this generation. The Performance cores are set to offer a 19% IPC improvement from the 11th generation of Core CPUs. In single-threaded tasks, this jumps all the way to 28% (again, according to the company — see below for our results) The Efficiency cores are even more impressive. A single E-core is said to offer 40% great performance than a Skylake core in single-threaded applications. On paper, this means Intel’s 12th Generation should offer a noticeable gain in processor performance alone, but these CPUs also open the door to a second performance booster.
Launching on the Z690 platform and a new, larger LGA 1700 socket, these CPUs will officially support DDR5 memory (and is also backward compatible with DDR4). Almost immediately after the embargo lift last week, memory manufacturers began sending out press blasts about incredible new speed records. No sooner had G.SKILL announced its record-setting 6800MHz Z5 memory (10/28) that it announced hitting 7000MHz (11/2). Officially, the chips support DDR5 speeds of 4800MHz and DDR4 at 3200 MHz, though you should expect to see this immediately exceeded. Our own test kit from ADATA runs at 5200MHz.
Supporting DDR4 memory isn’t just a good move, it’s borderline necessary in this competitive market. Intel has something to prove and ground to retake from AMD’s Ryzen processors with this release. Shifting to a new socket means that potential customers will also have to purchase a new motherboard. Adding an expensive new memory kit could be a bridge too far for many users. Thankfully, many CPU cooler vendors are providing free upgrade kits to make their current solutions compatible with LGA 1700.
In addition to supporting DDR5 memory, Alder Lake also supports PCI Express 5.0. Even though it seems like we just received PCIe Gen 4, PCIe 5 doubles the bandwidth of Gen 4. At the moment, there are no components that support PCIe Gen 5, but as new generations of SSDs and graphics cards hit the market, is sure to become an influential factor in performance components.
All of this sounds great on paper, but it comes at a price: power draw. The base TDP of each processor is identical to the last generation at 125 watts. Alder Lake CPUs now feature a Maximum Turbo Power (MTP), however, which represents a target peak under heavy load. The 12900K is 241 watts and early reports indicate that it’s possible to exceed this draw. The 12700K and 12600K line up at 190 watts and 150 watts, respectively.
This kind of power draw inevitably leads to more heat. To address this, Intel has thinned down the die and thermal interface material, making room for a thicker integrated heat spreader. If past generations have taught us anything, though, it’s that you should plan on purchasing an effective cooler to accompany your new CPU. In our testing with a 360mm radiator from Corsair, temperatures still peaked at 100C under load (though generally hovered closer to 85C while gaming). With a TJMax of 100C, it’s not quite in the red zone for normal use but is still a very warm CPU that will require a good cooler.
A Closer Look at the i9-12900K and i5-12600K
For this review, we were sent the Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K; however, the stack also includes the Core i7-12700K and versions of all three without integrated graphics (designated KF). The top-end Core i9-12900K retails for $589, while the 12700K and 12600K retail for $409 and $289. Dropping the integrated graphics cuts costs by another $25 each.
This is aggressive pricing when compared against the AMD Ryzen 5000 series. On paper, the 12900K competes most closely with the Ryzen 9 5900X and 5950X. While the 5900X is slightly cheaper at $524 (as of this writing), it also features four fewer cores. Both Ryzen CPUs feature 64MB of L3 cache compared to the 12900K’s 30MB, however, which can be an influential factor in the efficiency of those cores. The 5950X matches the core count and features another 8 threads but tips the scales at $749.
Conversely, the 12600K competes most closely with the 5800X which retails for $449. The 12600K features two additional cores (but only six are performance cores) and only 7MB less cache. As has been the case for multiple generations, the 12600K is the value winner of the current stack. If you’re looking for a closer price comparison, the 12700K fills that gap for $409 and twenty total threads.
Both processors also feature fast clock speeds to support gaming performance. The 12900K is capable of a max Turbo Boost speed of 5.2GHz. The 12600K, on the other hand, tops out at 4.9GHz. Both seem ripe for overclocking, so it will be exciting to see where they land when pushed to their limit.
Motherboard (MSI), Memory (ADATA), and Cooling (Corsair)
Since this generation required a new motherboard, it necessitated a brand new test bench. For this review, we worked across multiple brands to build a rig that will allow both processors to operate at their fullest without encountering bottlenecks.
For the motherboard, we’re using an MSI MPG Carbon WiFi. This motherboard represents the middle-tier of MSI’s motherboard line-up. Carbon-series motherboards offer solid performance and features without costing exorbitantly high prices and forcing customers to pay for features they may never need. It offers highlight features including thick heatsinks for the chipset, CPU MOSFETs, and M.2 SSD ports. It also offers solid power delivery with an 18 phase system and plentiful overclocking options in the BIOS for performance tweakers. Maximum memory support is 6666MHz, so there’s room to expand in the future. In addition, it offers 2.5G Ethernet, support for WiFi 6E, ten USB ports (including USB 3.3 Gen 2x2 to support the highest speed external drives available today. And style; this is a nice-looking, RGB-enabled motherboard.
For memory, we turned to ADATA. ADATA reached out to us early to see if we would be interested in taking a look at its new XPG Lancer kit. This kit is available in both RGB and non-RGB variants. The kit used for this review is a 2x16GB kit clocked to 5200MHz. This level of performance is a good balance of capacity and rapidity, making it a good entry point for mixed workloads and to assess gaming performance. Expect a full review on this next week.
Finally, for cooling, we went with the big boy: Corsair’s new iCUE Elite LCD all-in-one CPU cooler. We’ve had great experiences with Corsair coolers in the past, and knowing the 12900K, in particular, had such high maximum power draw, we knew a meaty cooler was a necessity. This new entry has a few neat tricks up its sleeve for both cooling and aesthetics that make it a compelling option, especially if you’re already in the Corsair ecosystem.
The first big change is that it features a big and bright LCD display on the pump head. It’s 2.1 inches in diameter and has a peak brightness of 600 nits (that’s brighter than many gaming monitors). You can use it to display system information or custom graphics. For this review, I found it especially useful to be able to display my CPU temperature, allowing me to check thermals at a glance. And yes, it’s pretty cool to be able to display a custom graphic. It’s a fitting upgrade to an AIO line-up that’s been becoming progressively flashier with each major release. The ML fans on the top are all RGB enabled and completely customizable, so it’s party in the front and in the back with this one.
It’s not all about the fancy new screen, though. It’s also just a great cooler. It features Corsair’s new split-flow pump design with a low noise design. The ML fans offer good static pressure to dissipate heat across the 360mm radiator and are customizable from 450 to 2000 RPM. When working on low-intensity tasks (like writing this review), I appreciated the fact that it had a zero RPM mode for near-complete silence. It also features an innovative tool-free mounting system, so installation is easier than ever and because it includes Corsair’s Commander Core component, it can also take over control of your Corsair system fans for syncopated lighting effects.
Most importantly, it has a five-year warranty. I abhor having water neat expensive computer components, but have been lucky and not had an AIO spring a leak. In the unlikely event the worst did happen, the Elite LCD would be covered.
Intel Test System #1: MSI Z690 MPG Carbon WiFi, Corsair iCUE Elite LCD 360mm, ADATA XPG Lancer DDR5-5200MHz, Nvidia RTX 3090, Samsung 970 Pro NVMe 1TB, Corsair HX-1050 1050 Watt Power Supply, Windows 11 (fully updated).
Intel Test System #2: ASUS Z490 Maximus XII Extreme, Corsair iCUE Elite LCD 360mm, G.Skill TridentZ Royal DDR4-3600MHz 32GB DRAM Kit, Nvidia RTX 3090, Samsung 970 Pro NVMe 1TB, Corsair HX-1050 1050 Watt Power Supply, (fully updated).
AMD Test System: Gigabyte X570 AORUS Master Motherboard, Corsair iCUE Elite LCD 360mm, G.Skill TridentZ Royal DDR4-3600MHz 32GB DRAM Kit, Nvidia RTX 3090, Gigabyte AORUS NVMe Gen4 SSD 2TB, Corsair HX-1050 1050 Watt Power Supply, (fully updated).
Before we begin, there are a couple of things to know. First, these tests were conducted on Windows 11. Due to some late-arriving components, we were unable to do separate testing on a Windows 10 based system. That said, in discussion with our colleagues, other testers are reporting that the lack of a Thread Director on Windows 10 can lead to worse performance on systems that haven’t made the jump in some cases. It’s best to view these new chips as Windows 11 reliant to really push them to their peak.
Additionally, we would advise all users to be on the lookout for in-depth comparisons between DDR4 and DDR5 memory for gaming performance. The speed boost will unquestionably be a boon to gaming performance, but as it stands today, the pricing on many DDR5 kits is much higher than DDR4. This is something we would like to delve into further in a future article, but anyone considering building a new PC in the current climate will also need to consider the cost to performance benefit of paying up for the new RAM.
Finally, the following tests were done using the processors in their stock state. Overclocking was conducted separately.
Thermals and Overclocking
Given the performance caliber of these processors and that they’re unlocked for overclocking, many users will find themselves venturing into the BIOS to try their hand at overclocking. Both CPUs are already performers when it comes to gaming, but given the value of the 12600K in particular, it’s exciting to see just how far you can push the envelope.
The first thing to assess when overclocking a CPU is your temperature at stock. Under full load, the CPU peaked at 100C while running synthetic benchmarks. Over the last several generations, Intel’s CPUs have been particularly “spiky” and often jump to near this temperature, but it’s clear that the sheer amount of power this CPU can draw under full load is resulting in extra heat that demands a substantial cooling solution.
For the 12900K, I was able to achieve a stable overclock of 5.3GHz on the Performance cores at 1.4v. Surprisingly, I was able to accomplish this using Intel’s own tuning utility; it’s made a lot of progress and, while enthusiasts will almost certainly feel more confident working in the BIOS, I wanted to see what was possible and was happy with the growth. Now for the bad news. Achieving that overclock lead to the processor running at 93-95C while gaming. While benchmarking, it hit 100C quite quickly which forced the CPU to throttle itself back down. This is far too hot for comfort and I cannot recommend people overclock with these temperature results. The standard boost behavior is effective at achieving class-leading FPS as it stands, so most gamers will be best suited leaving it alone.
The Core i5-12600K fared much better in terms of temperatures. In the same Aida64 stress test, it only hit a peak temperature of 66 degrees. While gaming, it hovered closer to 53 degrees. Not bad at all! Because of this, I was able to achieve a stable overclock of 5.1GHz at 1.39v. Temperatures here peaked at 85C.
The other thing to be aware of is that overclocking on these CPUs, and subsequently removing their power limits, draws tremendous power. The Core i9-12900K drew an incredible 442 watts at 5.3 GHz. The Core i5-12600K is less but still massive: 323 watts! On stock settings, they run near-consistently at their maximum turbo power draw. These processors are capable of excellent performance but they’re far less efficient than AMD’s Ryzen 5000 series.
Results Discussion and Final Thoughts
Looking at the results, I think it’s clear that Intel has made some serious strides with its 12th generation Core processors. We’re officially seeing Intel step back onto the playing field in a meaningful way and make a direct challenge to AMD on the value of its Ryzen processors. The level of performance we’re seeing here on both of the CPUs we tested is excellent for the cost. In the market we’re in, we wouldn’t be surprised to see AMD respond with a price cut. Intel is forcing its hand and pushing the value proposition.
Like last generation and the two generations before it, the Core i5-12600k is really the value winner here. At $289, it delivers exceptional performance inside of games and out. Because it runs at lower temperatures, it’s also a better candidate for overclocking. As the core counts climb, it’s entirely possible for gamers and content creators to turn to mid-range processors like this and find them perfectly sufficient for gaming, streaming, and moderate video editing. The 12900K, then, is left to the enthusiasts who want raw power.
On that front, is the i9-12900K is the expected winner. Intel has made big gains in multi-threaded performance, approaching the 5950X in many workloads. Given the price differential between the two CPUs, the 12900K seems to be the better value. This is especially true if you’re a gamer as it’s also the leading gaming CPU on the market today.
That power comes at a price, however. The power draw and heat from these CPUs is exceptional and not in a good way. We’ve heard manufacturers make claims about their chips being designed to run hotter for several generations. I don’t doubt that’s the case, but it doesn’t make me any more comfortable with my processor running in the mid-80s playing games. With the 12900K quickly hitting 100C, overclocking just isn’t a reasonable option in my opinion. Likewise, the amount of power they require, in combination with a high-end GPU could easily push you toward a PSU upgrade sooner than later. Between these CPUs and the current crop of high-performance GPUs, it might bring about the return of 1000-watt plus GPUs (though, we admit, enthusiasts very well may be running high spec PSU already… we are!).
So, some of that performance gain on the 12900K is mitigated by what it takes to get there. For some users, that may not matter. But, if you’re running high-intensity workloads, thermal throttling is a real possibility that’s going to diminish some of the uplift the CPU would otherwise be capable of.
Still, the Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K remain powerhouse processors. This is the first real challenge we’ve seen from Intel in some time, and that’s exciting. Support for DDR5 and PCIe makes them feel all the more cutting edge. We would recommend most users look toward the i5-12600K as the best value for gaming and creation, but enthusiasts with big coolers will also find a lot to enjoy with the 12900K.The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes.