Intel Core i9-12900K: Intel. Is. Back..
PCWorld|December 2021
Clash of the titans: Core i9-12900K versus Ryzen 9 5950X
GORDON UNG

Everyone likes redemption stories, and Intel’s 12th-gen Core i9-12900K is a comeback story for the ages. The once mighty and complacent champ was defeated years ago, forced through one humiliating loss after another at the hands of AMD’s resurgent Ryzen processors, until finally somehow finding a way back to fighting form and claiming victory once again. Fade to black and cue the credits.

Life (and technology) never has that Hollywood ending, but Intel’s Core i9-12900K gets pretty damned close. After years of being pummeled by AMD processors, the 12900K’s performance makes it the far better CPU for most people than its bitter rival, the Ryzen 9 5950X (fave.co/3caTZfh). No, it’s not a knock-out victory by any means, but considering where it excels and the features it packs, Intel’s 12th-gen Alder Lake processor is the CPU to buy today if you’re in the market for a high-end desktop processor.

WHAT IS 12TH-GEN ALDER LAKE?

You’ll want to read our coverage of Intel’s 12th-gen Alder Lake reveal (fave.co/3cbahF5) for the full nitty-gritty details of the radical new architecture, but it’s essentially a hybrid CPU design built on the Intel 7 process. That alone is a huge deal; after spending over half a decade mired on 14nm transistor technology, Alder Lake finally leaps up a node. (Intel 7 used to be called 10nm [fave.co/3FBpHzl] before a rebrand.) It mixes newly designed high-performance CPU cores with smaller, more efficient cores to achieve an optimal balance of performance-to-power ratios. Ever since rumors of Alder Lake first leaked, people (including ourselves) have wondered just what Intel was thinking by mixing its long-anticipated upgraded cores with “Atom-like” efficiency cores. But a better way to think of Alder Lake is that it’s Intel’s first “Intel 7” process desktop CPU with a completely redesigned big core, and for good measure, a bunch of extra efficiency cores that can perform as well as its previous 10th-gen cores thrown in too. 12th-gen Alder Lake also ushers in a new era of features, including PCIe 5.0, DDR5 memory (fave.co/3ot8wJ6), and a new LGA1700 socket.

HOW WE TESTED

For this review, we’ll be focusing on the main event, dialing in on the performance of Intel’s Core i9-12900K. Our review of the Core i5-12600K will soon follow. With the introduction of Windows 11 (fave. co/3cdEtj3) and its associated teething issues (fave.co/3wQfsUo), it’s been a bit of a messy review cycle. In the end, though, a new patch and drivers that have corrected Ryzen 5000’s issues on the new OS meant we conducted our tests only in Windows 11 today.

While we were testing, popular Youtube channel Hardware Unboxed reported that it had run into an issue where AMD’s Windows 11 L3 cache bug returned (fave.co/3CnTlpz) if a processor swap was conducted with Ryzen. We fortunately didn’t run into it, but it felt worth mentioning. And for those who would scream, “Testing should only be done on Windows 10 for Ryzen!” Hardware Unboxed also noted that Windows 11 performance is generally 5 percent better for Ryzen (fave.co/3cfT3Gu) than Windows 10’s.

For the AMD Ryzen system, we used an MSI MEG X570 Godlike board updated with latest BIOS and 64GB of DDR4/3600 Corsair Dominator dual-rank RAM. AMD’s Precision Boost Overdrive feature was set to auto and we selected the AMP memory overclocking profile.

For the Intel Core system, we used an Asus ROG Maximus Z690 Hero board outfitted with 64GB of DDR5/4800 Corsair Dominator dual-rank RAM. As it is DDR5, the RAM is technically quad-channel. The board was set to its default state, with the Multi-Core Enhancement feature on auto and the XMP memory profile (fave.co/3oQzLh9) selected.

Both systems were cooled with Corsair H150i Pro Elite Capellix 360mm coolers (fave. co/3ciFvu8) with fan profiles manually set to 1,800 RPM. LEDs were turned off on both systems during power consumption tests. For storage, 1TB PCIe 4.0 Corsair MP600 Core SSDs (fave.co/3FfNLY0) were used. Both systems were powered with Corsair HX1000 Platinum power supplies (fave.co/3Hlicy5).

For graphics, Nvidia GeForce RTX 3090 Founders Edition cards (fave.co/3wPpJAn) were used.

Intel’s 12th lineup is pretty sparse, but fast nonetheless. To see the image above (or any benchmark charts in this article) at full resolution, right-click on them and select “open image in new tab.”

CPU RENDERING PERFORMANCE

We’ll kick this off in an area that Intel rarely likes to talk about: 3D rendering and modeling. Intel’s rationale has long been that so few people actually use these applications on a PC, it’s silly to consider them as a meaningful measurement of performance for users. Many will note that Intel made this pivot away from rendering performance only when eclipsed by AMD’s stellar Ryzen CPUs. With that said, we’ll start with Maxon’s Cinebench R23, which is a free test based on the rendering engine used in the company’s Cinema4D application, also embedded in some Adobe applications.

The newest version adopts a 10-minute throttling test as its default. We’re not fans of it, but many reviewers will publish this result. Although we don’t have a Windows 11 result for Intel’s 10th-gen and 11th-gen chips, we do know that under Windows 10, the 10-core Core i9-10900K (fave.co/3cetUMw) scores 14,336, while the 8-core Core i9-11900K (fave.co/3kGPopZ) scores 16,264. Both, in fact, are easily knocked out of the ring by AMD’s 12-core Ryzen 9 5900X, which is in the 22,168 range. It’s why we didn’t even bother to wake up the 16-core Ryzen 9 5950X for that fight, since it wasn’t needed.

The eye-opener here, though, is that long bar for the Core i9-12900K. A lot has been said about whether it even made sense for Intel to pursue a hybrid design on Alder Lake, but for those who have been pounding the table for the last four years over Cinebench performance, the 12900K makes no apologizes by slightly edging AMD’s best and brightest CPU in a benchmark where Ryzen has long held a home-field advantage.

Intel is right, though. Most PC users don’t run applications that can use every CPU core and thread available, so it’s important to look at single-threaded performance using Cinebench too. While multi-core performance in Cinebench may give you an idea of how an all-core video encode or photo export in Lightroom Classic might end up, the Cinebench R23 single-threaded performance gets you closer to what you might see in Office or Photoshop runs. Again, we don’t have Windows 11 results for the Core i9-10900K or the Core i9-11900K, but we can tell you the 10th-gen part pulls down a (relatively) dismal 1,325, while the 11th-gen matches Ryzen at 1,640.

Intel’s latest performance cores, however, offer up an impressive as hell 19 percent increase in performance over the Ryzen 9 5950X and embarrass the older 10th-gen chip to the tune of 31 percent. For Mac fans wondering how much the MacBook Pro’s M1 Max beats Alder Lake—it doesn’t. In single-threaded performance, which is a fairer way to compare mobile chips with desktop chips, the 12th-gen Alder Lake CPU is roughly 20 percent faster than Apple’s newest M1 chips. Sure, Intel’s new chips aren’t built for laptops, but when Intel’s 12th-gen–based laptops come out, the MacBook Pro (fave.co/ 30CQkEV) will have a fight on its hands too.

Moving on from Cinebench R23, our next test is the venerable POV-Ray benchmark that’s as old as the Amiga. The test has obviously been updated over the years, but it’s a neat ray-tracing technology that creates amazing images from simple text-based files. This leans a little more into the “who actually does this?’ argument that Intel makes, but it’s still a useful benchmark comparison of raw CPU performance. Up first is the all-core benchmark between the chips. We again see these two monstrous CPUs battling it to a standstill.

Like Cinebench, POV-Ray also offers a single-threaded mode, which we run. The results mostly mirror the performance of Cinebench R23, but the 12th-gen Core i9 advantage is cut down to roughly 14 percent instead of 19 percent. It’s still a rock-solid win for the newest Intel CPU, though, and again, probably a little more important to what most people do on their PC most of the time.

You might be wondering why Intel isn’t plastering the world with its performance lead over Ryzen 5000 in Cinebench. Well, first, that would pretty much invalidate what Intel has been preaching about using “real-world” applications for the last few years and would be blatantly hypocritical. But multi-threaded performance isn’t the total lock for the Core i9-12900K either. For example, up next you see the result of using the open-source Blender 2.93 to render the Barbershop Interior Benchmark scene. The results are in seconds, and we can see the Ryzen 9 5950X has the lead here by finishing the render in 20 percent less time than the 12th-gen Core i9. Some of this may be from the design of the Ryzen chip and Blender itself, as well as the particulars of this benchmark scene—but some of it may simply be that 32 threads of all-big-core performance matters too. The Ryzen ultimately has 25 percent more threads to process the render versus the 12900K’s 24 threads, eight of which come from the smaller higher-efficiency cores without Hyper-Threading.

Up next is the Corona benchmark that, like Agent Johnson and Agent Johnson (fave. co/30sJ8uy), bears no relation to the beer or the virus. Instead, it’s an unbiased photorealistic renderer. That doesn’t mean it’s a fair benchmark to chips; it just means when it renders a scene, it takes no visual shortcuts. We again see the Ryzen 9 chip get some payback on the 12th-gen Core i9 by rendering the scene 21 percent faster. The good news for Intel’s 12900K is that despite being unable to win this battle with the Ryzen 9, it’s still offering a significant performance increase over the previous generation. Again, we didn’t have Windows 11–based results handy for the Core i9-11900K, but that 11th-gen chip scores 5,937,670 in Windows 10, which gives the new Core i9-12900K a hefty 48 percent improvement over it.

Our final 3D rendering test uses Chaosgroup’s V-Ray 5 benchmark, which is a professional rendering engine that has garnered enough Emmy and Academy awards that it’s practically on the way to an EGOT (fave.co/3oBjBYy). The benchmark features GPU and CPU tests, but we’re obviously only interested in the CPU results here. The 32 threads of the Ryzen 9 still put it ahead, but the margin closes to 11 percent.

COMPRESSION PERFORMANCE

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