It's finally here: Intel's Alder Lake family of chips, the company's first serious strike back at AMD in years -- and some of the best processors Intel has released in a very long time. But I'm not quite ready to give a full review on our performance tests, thanks in large part to a perfect storm of issues that have delayed my review for about a week.
I have definitely been using these processors, both on my own test bench and in a PC that Alienware sent in for review. And thanks to some incredibly high temperatures on both platforms that I'm still working on troubleshooting, I'm not comfortable making any definitive statements about the new chips or the current winner in the long-running Intel vs. AMD fight.
But that didn't stop me from playing around and trying to get around the problems. Because at the end of the day, messing around with hardware and trying to get it to work is just kind of a thing I like to do.
This is my story.
A small difference with a big effect
One of the biggest delays for my testing has been cooler compatibility. I wasn't able to get my hands on a compatible cooler in time, but we tried testing with a last-generation cooler anyway just to get some preliminary results, especially since the backplate still fits. And, that's probably one of the most important things to keep an eye out for when you're upgrading to Alder Lake.
Basically, don't try that at home. And, yes, I know you shouldn't do that, but I just wanted to see what would happen.
I made the choice to go with mounting screws designed for the LGA 1200 socket instead of the LGA 1700 socket out of interest of time, but I can attest first hand that you, uh, don't want to do that. Even with a 360mm Corsair H150i Capellix, I saw temperatures jump up to the mid 90°C range within a minute of Cinebench R23 running - and that's not good.
Then, in Blender, I just ended up throttling the chip, which means those results simply aren't reliable. So, yeah, if you're buying an Alder Lake chip and you notice that your cooler mount happens to already fit on the motherboard you're using. Trust me, it's not worth it. Especially since so many cooler manufacturers are offering free upgrades for their hardware.
Which leads to a fairly obvious question: Jackie, why didn't you just get in touch with one of these CPU cooler makers to get an upgrade kit?
Yeah, that is a really good question, Jackie
that's a totally fair question. Thanks for asking. And that's exactly what I would have done if I was able to start my testing more than a couple days before the processors hit the market. Unfortunately, that wasn't quite possible, and it has nothing to do with Intel.
Right now, TechRadar's US team is in the process of moving to a new office, which meant all my testing hardware was in storage until the morning of November 1. And even that day, I ended up having to unpack all of that hardware and build our new test lab from scratch, a process that took an entire day. I was able to get my test bench built with the Alder Lake chips that day, which is when I realized I didn't have the right mounting kit.
It was a really fun day!
Welp time to build a testing lab pic.twitter.com/hmiWh68KpMNovember 1, 2021
By the time I realized that I didn't have the right upgrade kit already, it was basically a race against time to get one in. And, well, I didn't. Which is where the new Alienware Aurora R13 comes in!
Don't tell me you're running CPU tests on a prebuilt
Usually I wouldn't run CPU tests on an Alienware rig. It's using a proprietary board and I couldn't match the configuration enough to reasonably compare it to other CPUs. However, I wanted to run the benchmarks to get a sort of baseline of what to expect from these processors.
To make one thing clear, Alienware configured its gaming PC with a 120mm cooler, so I was already expecting high temps. But, that's usually totally fine with a prebuilt PC because you're not going to overclock it, so it's generally fine to just let it sit at a high temp, especially these days.
That's because there are so many safeguards built into modern CPUs that stop them from actually being damaged by high temperatures. Those safeguards are actually what I ran into.
Temperatures went up to 100°C in Blender, which of course made the processor start to thermal throttle. thing is, I don't know whether that means Alienware's cooler is insufficient or the processor is just way too hot to be in a mainstream gaming rig like that.
Or did I just get a faulty cooler?
That's something I'm still trying to figure out. I've reached out to Dell for help, and I'm actively working with the company to figure out what the source of this issue is. And I will update this article as soon as I learn more - whether it's through my own testing or through guidance from Dell itself.
One of the things I want to do is get that CPU cooler upgrade kit in, so that I can run the tests on my test bench as well. Is it really just that the CPU runs extremely hot? or is this just the result of the cavalcade of bad luck that I've run into?
Too early to make any judgement
From everything I've seen from lightly skimming reviews out there, Alder Lake, and specifically the Intel Core i9-12900K, seems great. And even though I have run into some thermal issues - again mostly through a bunch of factors totally independent of the chip itself - the performance I've seen has been incredible. Intel has obviously done a fantastic job with these processors, and none of this should dissuade you from picking up this processor.
PC Gamer (opens in new tab) experienced peak temperatures of around 84°C, which is totally reasonable for a chip of this caliber. Tom's Hardware (opens in new tab) mentioned that the cooling requirements were less stringent than the Core i9-11900K, but didn't mention any specific cooling numbers.
It's obvious that my issues with cooling were due in large part to using the wrong mounting screws, but it also helps to illustrate why cooling is so centrally important. This processor is simply too powerful to cut corners, even to get preliminary numbers.
I'll restart testing as soon as I get the right hardware kit - hopefully soon, because I'm still excited to see everything these chips can do under better circumstances. My advice right now, for both Alder Lake processors and the Alienware PC that I'm having problems with, is to check out the other talented reviewers who were able to spend more time with these processors with the right hardware.
Anyways, back to the lab. Hopefully I'll have something for y'all soon.