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Intel previews its Alder Lake chip, promises hybrid CPUs for desktops and laptops

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Coming this fall

Intel has spent much of 2021 announcing plans for its future: a new IDM 2.0 strategy, new naming schemes for its process nodes, and new desktop GPUs. At Intel’s Architecture Day 2021, we finally got a preview of how some of those changes are coming together in new chips, starting with the upcoming Alder Lake lineup later this year.

As the company has been teasing since last year’s Architecture Day, Alder Lake will feature Intel’s latest hybrid architecture: instead of simply offering the next generation of powerful Intel CPU cores, it’ll offer a mix of both performance and efficiency x86 cores, both of which Intel previewed as part of its announcements.

Additionally, Alder Lake will be the first chip released on Intel’s newly renamed Intel 7 technology node (not to be confused with Intel 4, which was previously known as Intel’s delayed 7nm node, and will be available to consumers sometime in 2023 under the codename “Meteor Lake”). Intel 7 still uses similar technology to the company’s current 10nm tech, instead of the bigger leap in manufacturing processes planned for Intel 4.

The new x86 performance core — codenamed “Golden Cove” — is the successor to the Willow Cove cores that are currently found in the company’s 11th Gen Tiger Lake processors. Intel claims that it’s the most powerful CPU core its ever built, but the company only offered a comparison to its Cypress Cove cores (the version of its 10nm architecture that Intel ported to its 14nm process), not the more advanced Willow Cove cores.

Meanwhile, the company’s new x86 Efficient core (codenamed “Gracemont”) aims to be “the world’s most efficient x86 CPU core” while still offering higher IPC than the company’s Skylake chips. Intel claims that for single-thread cases, one of its new efficient cores hits 40 percent more performance at the same power (or similar performance while using 40 percent of the power) of a Skylake core, improvements that double when comparing four Efficient cores running four threads to two Skylake cores running four threads.

Broadly speaking, the “performance” cores are the ones that have featured in Intel’s beefier Core-class processors, while the “efficiency” cores resemble the Atom-class processors in lower power devices. And each of those new architectures would be interesting on their own, but Intel plans to combine the two in a hybrid architecture as a core product to its lineup — starting with its upcoming Alder Lake chips this fall — that makes them far more notable.

Intel’s dipped its toes into offering hybrid architectures before, with its Lakefield chips last year. Those models, though, only offered a single Sunny Cove performance core with four lower-power Tremont efficiency cores and were limited to only a handful of lower-powered devices like the ThinkPad X1 Fold. Lakefield chips were also supposed to power more dual-screen Windows 10X devices like the Surface Neo, but Microsoft backed out of those plans in favor of Windows 11.

The new Alder Lake chips, however, are aspiring to be far more ambitious. Intel teased a full range of chips from 9W to 125W that would utilize the new hybrid approach, combining multiple high-end performance cores with efficient cores for a wider range of power when users need it and efficiency when running less strenuous tasks.

Given that Intel’s announcements today largely focused on the architectures, there are no hard product announcements, but the company did tease several planned Alder Lake SoCs that would utilize the new cores. Those include a desktop SoC with eight performance cores, eight efficiency cores, and integrated memory, graphics, and I/O; a laptop SoC with six performance cores, eight efficiency cores, imaging, Thunderbolt 4 support, memory, I/O, and more powerful Xe graphics all integrated in; and an ultramobile-focused SoC with two performance cores and eight efficiency cores.

To make all that work together, Intel also showed off its new scheduling technology, Intel Thread Director, which is designed to better handle how activity is assigned to performance or efficiency cores depending on need. For example, Thread Director can automatically assign high-priority tasks to performance cores, while offsetting background threads to efficiency cores. Intel also says that it’s collaborating with Microsoft specifically to ensure that Thread Director is optimized for “the best performance on Windows 11.”

Intel, of course, isn’t the first company to use a combination of performance and efficiency cores for optimized computing; the concept has been a cornerstone of Arm’s big.LITTLE and DynamicIQ technologies for over a decade. It’s been a key part of the domination of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips for Android phones, Apple’s A-series chips in the iPhone, and — perhaps most relevant for comparison to Intel — Apple’s M1 computer chips (which feature four high-performance “Firestorm” and four energy-efficient “Icestorm” cores).

We’ll have to wait for the first Alder Lake chips to arrive in the coming months to see how Intel’s latest attempt at cracking hybrid computing holds up. But it’s clear from Architecture Day 2021 that Intel views it as not just a niche for in-between devices but as a key part of its product lineup going forward. Now all that’s left to do is see if it can deliver.