What is a Hybrid Computer Chip?
Not only are our cars going hybrid, but our computers as well.
If you’re just learning about the world of computers and electronics, the terminology used to refer to different parts can often be confusing. One term you may have encountered is "CPU" an acronym for “central processing unit”. They reside in almost all devices you own, from smartwatches, phones, laptops, or even a thermostat. They are responsible for processing and executing instructions and act as the brains of your devices—essentially, they are the brain of your electronic devices.
And like your brain is powered by billions of neurons, the performance of a CPU is (well, partially) determined by how many transistors it has. These are devices that are concatenated to transform 1s and 0s into useful information for us to use in our applications. Modern CPUs are composed of clusters of these transistors, called "cores". Different cores can execute different tasks in parallel, so increasing core count boosts multitasking capability of a CPU.
These are the basics of CPUs, so if you don't care about what's going on in the tech world, feel free to stop reading.
Intel Alder Lake Processors
Efficiency Cores (E-Cores)
Intel's 12th generation processors are part of a paradigm shift in the computer industry. Since the introduction of Apple's M1 chips in November 2020, the entire industry has been moving towards hybrid CPU architectures, made up of Performance cores and Efficiency Cores.
These are similar to ARM based processors (common in mobile devices), which use a mix of slow and fast cores for greater performance and longer battery life.
In Intel's chip, its E-Cores will not only be 40%-80% quicker at managing background processes and multitasking, but will do so with the same power draw as a regular Performance Core from its Skylake predecessor. This will help relieve the load off from the Performance Cores, thus leading to a more efficient computational machine overall. The smaller 10nm manufacturing process (that's 1/100 of the width of a hair!!!) also allows more E-Cores to fit in the same space, hence the performance jump from previous generations will be massive.
Performance Cores (P-Cores)
For more demanding tasks, Alder Lake chips can tap into its Performance Cores. The new cores have an average performance improvement of 19% when running at the same frequency as its 11th-generation "Rocket Lake" predecessor.
The Alder Lake chips will also scale from ultra-thin laptops to high-end desktops, providing upto 16 core chips. This mix of E and P cores brings greater battery life and improved thermal outputs for the whole spectrum of devices, really setting forward the trend towards hybrid chips. Other major features include greater bandwidth (16 lanes of PCIe 5.0), support both the current generation DDR4 and the new DDR5, and more consistent/quicker wireless internet reception with Wi-Fi 6E (provided the network itself supports it).
The Magic Behind It
Logically, one of the challenges with a hybrid architecture is to ensure that both E and P cores are working seamlessly and executing their correct tasks. Afterall, it's pointless to have all of this clever separation of labour if the instructions don't get to their intended location. To account for this, Intel has introduced a new hardware technology they've coined "Thread Director". It crunches data of the ongoing processes and state of the computer to direct the workload to the appropriate core.
Intel Client Architect Rajshree Chabukswar said:
“Thread Director technology allows us to provide smarter assistance to the OS by monitoring instruction mix, current state of each core, and the relevant microarchitecture telemetry at a granular level.”
Note: If you're interested, here is a video of her explaining the technology.
The only catch is that Thread Director is optimized for Windows 11, meaning that Alder Lake's performance will vary on Windows 10 to direct the appropriate workload to the right core.
Intel's hybrid approach is its biggest architectural shift in a decade. That said, its competitive performance against its AMD opposition remains questionable due to its high, albeit less egregious, thermal output.
Furthermore, the high cost of the new Z690 chipset is not being helped by the current chip shortage, meaning that an upgrade will be a hefty hit to your wallet. Nonetheless, Alder Lake provides many features such as PCIe 5.0 and WiFi 6E will be increasingly useful in the coming years.