Intel Core i3-12100 Review: The Little Gaming Giant

Intel’s four-core eight-thread Core i3-12100 comes with an incredibly competitive $129 price tag that earns a spot on our list of best CPUs for gaming and Best Cheap CPUs as Intel finally addresses what has become the most ignored part of the PC market — the sub-$200 segment. That’s not to mention that the chip also comes as a $104 F-series Core i3-12100F that Intel ships with deactivated integrated graphics for $25 less than the full-featured model. In fact, with no clear current-gen competitor from AMD and stellar performance for its price point, the Core i3-12100 easily leads our CPU benchmark hierarchy in the $105 to $130 bracket.

Intel refreshed its Comet Lake Core i3 lineup when it released its 11th-Gen Rocket Lake chips in 2020, but those models didn’t come with a new architecture or any meaningful performance improvements. Rather, they came as refreshed 10th-Gen models with a paltry 100 MHz clock speed increase. Not that it mattered — given the realities of the chip shortages, we rarely saw those chips at retail anyway.

Speaking of chips that don’t really exist, AMD’s last budget model came as the incredibly impressive Ryzen 3 3300X that landed back in 2020. The quad-core 3300X brought an unheard-of level of performance for a $120 chip, promising new levels of gaming performance for budget builds. Unfortunately, that didn’t come to fruition as the chip was a ghost and never appeared in any meaningful volume at retail.

Things haven’t improved in the interim, either. AMD abandoned the sub-$200 market when it launched its Ryzen 5000 processors, leaving its older 3000-series processors to hold the line. However, as you’ll see in our benchmarks below, they aren’t relevant. AMD’s lowest point of entry into its Zen 3-powered Ryzen 5000 series comes in the form of the $259 Ryzen 5 5600G. At twice the price of the 12100, it’s a non-factor for lower-end gaming rigs unless you plan to use integrated graphics.  

Price Cores | Threads P-Core Base/Boost E-Core Base/Boost TDP / PBP / MTP DDR4-3200 L3 Cache
Core i9-12900K / KF $589 (K) – $564 (KF) 8P + 8E | 16 Cores / 24 Threads 3.2 / 5.2 GHz 2.4 / 3.9 GHz 125W / 241W DDR4-3200 / DDR5-4800 30MB
Core i7-12700K / KF $409 (K) – $384 (KF) 8P + 4E | 12 Cores / 20 Threads 3.6 / 5.0 GHz 2.7 / 3.8 GHz 125W / 190W DDR4-3200 / DDR5-4800 25MB
Core i5-12600K / KF $289 (K) – $264 (KF) 6P + 4E | 10 Cores / 16 Threads 3.7 / 4.9 GHz 2.8 / 3.6 GHz 125W / 150W DDR4-3200 / DDR5-4800 16MB
Core i5-12400 / F $192-$199 | $167-$174 (F) 6P + 0E | 6 Cores / 12 Threads 4.4 / 2.5 GHz n/a 65W / 117W DDR4-3200 / DDR5-4800 18MB
Core i3-12100 / F $122 – $129 | $97 – $104 4P + 0E | 4 Cores / 8 Threads 3.3 / 4.3 GHz n/a 60W / 89W DDR4-3200 / DDR5-4800 12MB

That leaves Intel unchecked in the budget segment, adding to the company’s newfound dominance with the Alder Lake chips that even outperform more expensive Ryzen 5000 chips. Intel’s advantages also extend to the motherboard ecosystem too, with B660 and H610 motherboards providing a great pairing for the Core i3-12100. So even though these boards do cost more than we’re accustomed to for the lowest-end models, they provide plenty of connectivity for budget systems.

Alder Lake’s performance advantages come even without its support for DDR5 memory and PCIe 5.0 interfaces (both of which Intel brought to market first). As such, you can use standard DDR4 memory and PCIe 4.0 devices and still have superior performance and connectivity options over AMD’s aging AM4 platform. There are also plenty of B- and H-series boards that leverage less-expensive DDR4 memory, which is a saving grace given the ongoing DDR5 shortages.

Alder Lake also brings another innovation — the hybrid x86 design. The higher-end Alder Lake chips have big and fast Performance cores (P-cores) for latency-sensitive work paired with clusters of small and powerful Efficiency cores (E-cores) that chew through background processes. The Golden Cove architecture powers the ‘big’ P-cores, while the ‘little’ E-cores come with the Gracemont architecture.

However, the Core i3-12100 doesn’t have a hybrid architecture, instead coming with a more traditional design with only four Golden Cove P-Cores active. That means this four-core eight-thread processor doesn’t need Intel’s new Windows 11-exclusive Thread Director technology to place workloads on the correct cores. As a result, unlike Intel’s hybrid models, the 12100 is just as potent in Windows 10 as it is in Windows 11.

As you’ll see in our benchmarks below, the Core i3-12100 doesn’t have a similarly-priced competitor from AMD. However, despite a total lack of competition, it still brings impressive generational performance gains to the table. In fact, in 1080p gaming, the $129 Core i3-12100 delivers 88% of the $299 Core i5-12400’s performance, but for 56% less cash. The Core i3-12100 also trails the previous-gen $262 Core i5-11600K by a mere 3% in gaming, but at half the price. 

Overall, the quad-core i3-12100’s potent combination of price, performance, and improved stock cooler dominates the $100 to $130 price range while punching up against more expensive competitors. 

Intel Alder Lake-S Core i3-12100 Specifications and Pricing

We have deep-dive coverage of the Alder Lake design and microarchitectures here, along with a broader overview in our Alder Lake all we know article. Additionally, Intel now assigns a Processor Base Power (PBP) spec instead of using the ‘TDP’ (Thermal Design Point) nomenclature. The company also added a secondary Maximum Turbo Power (MTP) value to represent the highest power level during boost activity. You can read more about that here.

Intel fabs Alder Lake on the ‘Intel 7’ process. We previously knew this ‘Intel 7’ manufacturing tech as 10nm Enhanced SuperFin, but Intel recently renamed its process nodes to match industry nomenclature. Technically, ‘Intel 7’ is the second generation of Intel’s 10nm process, but it’s a first for desktop PCs.

Intel 12th-Gen Alder Lake Core i3-12100 and Core i3-12100F Pricing and Specifications
Price Cores | Threads P-Core Base/Boost E-Core Base/Boost TDP / PBP / MTP Memory Support L3 Cache
Ryzen 5 5600X $299 6P | 12 threads 3.7 / 4.6 GHz 65W DDR4-3200 32MB
Ryzen 5 5600G $259 6 / 12 3.9 / 4.4 65W DDR4-3200 16MB
Core i5-12400 / F $192-$199 | $167-$174 (F) 6P + 0E | 6 Cores / 12 Threads 4.4 / ~2.5 GHz n/a 65W / 117W DDR4-3200 / DDR5-4800 18MB
Ryzen 5 3600X $240 6 / 12 3.8 / 4.4 95W DDR4-3200 32MB
Ryzen 5 3600 $200 6 / 12 3.6 / 4.2 65W DDR4-3200 32MB
Core i3-12100 / F $122 – $129 | $97 – $104 4P + 0E | 4 Cores / 8 Threads 3.3 / 4.3 GHz n/a 60W / 89W DDR4-3200 / DDR5-4800 12MB
Core i3-10105 $122 4 / 8 3.7 / 4.4 GHz n/a 65W DDR4-2666 6MB

All Alder Lake chips support DDR4-3200 or up to DDR5-4800 memory, but caveats apply. PCIe support will vary by motherboard, but Alder Lake chips expose up to 16 lanes of PCIe 5.0 (technically for storage and graphics only, no networking devices) and an additional four lanes of PCIe 4.0 from the chip for M.2 storage. Intel’s Alder Lake drops into Socket 1700 motherboards from the 600-series, including Z690, H670, B660, and H610.

The Core i3-12100 comes with a 60W PBP (base) and 89W MTP (peak) power rating. The chip clocks in with a 3.3 GHz base and boosts up to 4.3 GHz. It also comes with 12 MB of L3 cache.

The Core i3-12100 is a locked chip, meaning it isn’t overclockable. However, Intel supports memory overclocking on Z690, H670 and B660 motherboards (Z690 doesn’t make sense for this class of chip, though). Manipulating the power limits serves as a quasi-overclock that can eke out some additional performance in some gaming and threaded work, but you don’t get much of a benefit with chips this far down on the low end.

Intel has revamped its stock air coolers with Alder Lake. These coolers are designed to address two major deficiencies with Intel’s stock coolers: Thermal dissipation limitations and aesthetics. AMD’s stock coolers have long beat Intel in both of these departments, so this is a sorely-needed upgrade. The Core i3-1100 ships with the Laminar RM1 cooler that comes without RGB lighting but has a decorative blue plastic ring lining the fin stack. Intel rates this cooler for ‘quiet performance’ at 3.9 BA. 

(Image credit: Intel)

We tested with both the stock heatsink and a Corsair H115i watercooler to gauge the strength of the air cooler. We didn’t measure any meaningful difference between the two, so as long as you’re not experiencing severe chip bowing issues, you can use the stock cooler without worry.

The standard Core i3-12100 comes with the UHD Graphics 730 engine with 24 EUs. The engine runs at 300/1400 MHz base/boost frequencies. If you’re looking to save some coin, the graphics-less Core i3-12100 comes with a $25 price reduction and has the same specs as the 12100, which is incredibly attractive if you plan on using a discrete graphics card. The only difference between the standard 12100 and the 12100F is that the latter has a 58W PBP rating, so performance is identical with both models. Notably, going with the 12100F means you will lose Quick Sync capabilities and the iGPU fallback that you can use for troubleshooting in the event of an issue with a discrete GPU.