An 2020, AMD rocked the PC hardware industry when they announced—and subsequently released—their Zen 3 lineup of processors. No longer was Intel the veritable king of CPUs—the title that had allowed them to release new products with minute gains in performance.
Now, though, barely a year later, Intel has reclaimed that title with their 12th Generation “Alder Lake” processors. The sheer power of these processors has caused many users to ask whether it’s worth switching platforms from AMD to Intel.
The answer? As always, it depends.
Intel Wins In Sheer Performance
Just to get it out of the way, yes, it’s true. Intel 12th Gen is strictly better than AMD’s Zen 3 lineup in nearly every performance metric that matters. If you’re looking for nothing but the pinnacle of performance (and don’t need the ludicrous core counts of Threadripper), Intel is the way to go. There’s no question about it.
But that mindset means that you’re looking at it in a vacuum. CPU vs. CPU, nothing else. And while there’s certainly some validity to such a mindset, a working computer is a combination of different parts—which means that it’s important to consider the other costs of Intel’s 12th Generation processors, particularly if there is any sort of budget that must be adhered to.
That’s especially true here, given that, while the performance difference between Zen 3 and Alder Lake is both noticeable and prevalent, it’s not so great that it’s necessary to switch platforms if it means breaking the bank.
Consider Early Adopter Headaches
First, the elephant in the room: Yes, there are some early adopter issues surrounding the Alder Lake processors. While that might be worrying to hear, it’s perfectly normal for a completely new platform launch to run into issues when it becomes available to the general public—especially considering that, anecdotally, most 12th gen users I’ve seen have also jumped to Windows 11, which has its own fair share of issues. Regardless, the early adopter issues of Alder Lake have been improving every day, and will no doubt continue to do so. As such, this particular “problem” is not something worth considering.
What is worth considering is the other hardware requirements of these new processors. By far the most compelling argument to upgrading to Zen 3 rather than switching platforms is that Alder Lake has no backwards compatibility. This means that, at the time of writing, these chips downright require a Z690 motherboard. In and of itself, this wouldn’t be an issue if these motherboards were not almost prohibitively expensive.
A normal Z690 motherboard (no built-in WiFi or Bluetooth) costs around $230 on Amazon, and the more features you add, the more expensive it gets. Boards with built-in WiFi will cost somewhere from $350-$440, and enthusiast-grade boards will cost $600-$800. Maybe even more. This means that—while the chips themselves are certainly competitively priced—the additional cost of a Z690 motherboard can easily push someone looking to upgrade well over their budget.
In comparison, the Zen 3 lineup supports the older B450 and x570 motherboards, provided that users are able and willing to update the BIOS—which, thanks to modernization, is as simple as inserting a USB drive and selecting the option from the already installed BIOS. Some motherboards even allow users to update their BIOS from the internet, eliminating the need for a flash drive entirely.
And while these B450 and x570 boards are at the end of their lifespan, seeing as they will no longer be officially supported by AMD when their next batch of CPUs drop, many users already own one of these boards, eliminating that cost entirely—at least in the short term. Even if someone looking to upgrade does not already own one of these boards, they’re substantially cheaper than the Z690 boards—often less than $100. If you’re willing to sift through the aftermarket, they can potentially be found for even lower prices. That said, if a motherboard upgrade is required either way, buying a Z690 motherboard will likely be cheaper in the long run, as they will support further generations going forwards.
Motherboard compatibility may be the largest factor, but there’s still a few other “add-on” costs associated with Alder Lake: RAM and CPU cooling solutions.
DDR5 Price Insanity
DDR5 RAM released around the same time as Intel’s Alder Lake lineup, marking the next step-up from the industry-standard DDR4 modules. While the performance gain from moving to DDR5 from DDR4 is currently minimal, if past trends are any indicator, the gap between DDR4 and DDR5 will widen as time goes on. This means that if you’re looking for a high-end processor (such as the 12900k), you’re likely better off grabbing DDR5 to set yourself up for the future.
So why is this an issue? It’s twofold.
DDR5 is already expensive to start with. The cheapest option I could find is a 32GB kit for a whopping $450, which is just as—if not more—expensive than other, more important hardware components.
And while this retail cost alone is likely enough to give most builders pause, similar to the current GPU market, stock issues compound this issue even further. Secondhand kits (AKA scalped kits) are not only more common than retail kits, but are substantially more expensive, costing anywhere from $600 to as much as $900. In a more normal market, the cost of an Alder Lake processor, a Z690 board, and DDR5 RAM could easily net you a mid-high range gaming rig. It’s something that should be considered, if nothing else.
Lastly, cooling solutions may be the easiest thing to write off as a non-issue, but in my personal opinion, it’s still something that should be considered. None of Intel’s new chips include a CPU cooler of any kind. This is not uncommon—the stock Intel cooler is utterly inefficient, and any Alder Lake processors unlucky enough to be cooled by one would end up severely thermal throttled.
Even taking this into consideration, however, 12th generation chips run rather hot: especially if you intend to perform any productivity tasks. Should you choose one of the more powerful processors from the Alder Lake series, there’s no question about it: You’re going to need some serious cooling power, which means more money spent.
Intel 12th Gen is Great—But Zen 3 Still Has Its Place
In conclusion: while Intel’s 12th generation is unquestionably home to the “best CPUs available to consumers”, there’s a few other factors that one should consider before making the leap—especially if they intend to switch from AMD to Intel.
It’s also worth noting that there are rumors of more budget-friendly motherboards compatible with 12th gen—if you’re insistent on jumping ship, it’s worth waiting to see how these rumored boards will be priced.