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Intel Core i3-12100 Review: The Little Gaming Giant
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Lowly quad-core serves up big gaming performance.

Tom's Hardware Verdict

The quad-core Intel Core i3-12100 is the fastest budget gaming CPU on the market. The chip's potent combination of price, performance, and improved stock cooler dominates its price range while punching up against more expensive competitors.

Pros
  • +Superb price/performance
  • +Leading gaming and single-thread performance
  • +Capable bundled cooler
  • +Supports DDR4 and DDR5
  • +PCIe 5.0
  • +Low power consumption
  • +Supports memory overclocking
Cons
  • -No Turbo Boost 3.0 (only 2.0)
  • -Core frequency not overclockable
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.  

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. 
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