The Intel Alder Lake CPU lineup is the 12th generation processor family for desktops and laptops. It’s set for release in the second half of 2021—the rumour mill is currently split on exactly when, but the best guesses have them dropping sometime between September–November. The exact date isn’t known yet, but October is looking more and more likely, especially with Intel’s InnovatiON event taking place that month—the perfect time to get everyone up to speed with a completely new CPU architecture.
Alder Lake also represents a significant shift in how CPUs are pieced together, as it will be Intel’s first hybrid big.LITTLE design for desktops. It will also be the first desktop processor to use the Intel 7 production process, which was previously known as its 10nm Enhanced SuperFin process—the name recently changed when Intel realigned its naming scheme with other chip manufacturers.
The big.LITTLE terminology comes from Arm’s mixed use of high and low-performance cores in one chip package. And means, essentially, that Alder Lake combines Intel’s traditional high-performance CPU cores with its lower-spec Atom silicon. That’s why the core count above is written as 8+8, that’s eight big traditional cores and eight smaller, more efficient ones.
The big Golden Cove silicon is very much like the cores you’ll find in Intel’s current CPUs and represents an evolution from the Willow Cove core design inside the Tiger Lake CPUs found in Intel’s current 11th Gen mobile chips.
Atom, in case you haven’t been paying attention to the budget laptop market, is Intel’s low-power, energy-efficient mobile CPU brand. The kind of silicon best avoided by gamers for years, but which has been gradually improving to the point it’s now actually decent. The rumours are that Gracemont, which is the version of Atom used in Alder Lake, is now comparable to Skylake’s performance, which if true, means that Alder Lake could be a powerful force to reckon with. Indeed early Alder Lake benchmark leaks have it performing very impressively.
Alder Lake also packs in plenty of next-gen technology into its design, including support for PCI Express 5.0 and DDR5 RAM. With so many changes, it should come as no surprise that Alder Lake will use a new LGA 1700 socket and be supported by a new chipset family—mostly likely headed by the Z690 chipset at the high-end. The important point being you won’t be able to drop Alder Lake into current Z490 and Z590 motherboards, you’re going to need to start afresh here.
The official line is the Intel Alder Lake release date is H2 2021, but we’re expecting it to drop sometime in early Q4. Intel showed off Alder Lake at CES 2021, and there have been numerous leaks of specific versions of the chip since. This suggests that the stated launch frame of sometime in the second half of 2021 still seems possible.
The latest rumours have the chip dropping in October, possibly to line up with Intel’s InnovatiON event. The fact that qualification samples of the Core i9 12900K are being sold in China, and that we’ve seen some impressive benchmark results already suggests that the architecture is close to being released.
Rumours from WCCFTech have Alder Lake launching in November, so on the later side of our expectations. That’s reportedly a “mostly fixed” date, but we’ll find out as the year progresses. Then you have leaker Moore’s Law is Dead, who is suggesting an October release for Alder Lake and seems pretty confident in that date.
Intel does have a lot to get right before it can drop this new kind of processor on the world though, and it’s likely to arrive in the last quarter even if everything goes to plan.
There are a lot of new ideas being aired in these new chips, which equates to plenty of elements that could go wrong and push the release back. Intel has been savvy on this front at least, simply stating that it’ll be available in the second half of the year. Six months is a lot of wiggle room in this industry. Even if it doesn’t launch until 31 December 2021, it will still have hit its target.
Two elements of Alder Lake stand out as being most likely to cause issues. Firstly, there is the whole thorny subject of getting the two different types of cores working efficiently together, with a healthy dollop of Windows scheduler magic needed as well.
Intel is reportedly working with Microsoft to roll out a significant scheduler update roughly around the time Alder Lake is expected to rear its head. That might just ease this concern a little. This code is expected to be up and running in Windows 11 as well.
Secondly, Alder Lake is destined to be Intel’s first desktop CPU to use its problematic 10nm production process, which has now been renamed to the Intel 7 production process. It has proved it can deliver on the mobile side of things, so in theory, this shouldn’t be an issue, but it tends to push its desktop chips harder, for faster clocks, so it’ll be interesting to see if this all goes smoothly.
Intel has recently released its Rocket Lake CPUs on the Desktop, and Tiger Lake-H for laptops, so it doesn’t feel like Intel needs to rush Alder Lake out. With a brand new way of working, getting the performance and efficiency right is hopefully more important.