Intel Core i9-12900K vs. i5-12600K: Which is the better CPU for your PC?

Intel 12th Gen Core I9 Hero Boxes
Intel 12th Gen Core I9 Hero Boxes (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

The question as to whether the Core i9-12900K or Core i5-12600K is the best CPU for you will be answered by what you plan to do with the PC. If all you want to do is play games and enjoy some content, the Core i5 will be more than enough. If you fancy yourself some streaming, a little video editing, or other intensive tasks, the Core i9 will open up even more doors ... for a price.

Intel Core i9-12900K vs. i5-12600K: Specs

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CategoryIntel Core i9-12900KIntel Core i6-12600K
Base frequencyP: 3.2GHz
E: 2.4GHz
P: 3.7GHz
E: 2.8GHz
BoostP: 5.1GHz
E: 3.9GHz
P: 4.9GHz
E: 3.96GHz
Turbo Boost Max 3.05.2GHz4.9GHz
Up to 128GB
Up to 128GB
L3 cache30MB20MB
Integrated graphicsIntel UHD Graphics 770Intel UHD Graphics 770
PCIePCIe Gen 5.0 x 20PCIe Gen 5.0 x 20
(251W peak)
(150W peak)
Manufacturing node10nm10nm

Alder Lake

Msi Mpg Z690 Carbon Wifi

Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

Just how to pick the right 12th Gen Intel CPU? It largely boils down to how much you're willing to spend on the processor. Both the Intel Core i9-12900K and Core i5-12600K are part of Intel's 12th Gen family of CPUs, codenamed Alder Lake, and are built on the new 10nm (Intel 7) manufacturing process.

They both rock the same hybrid core design approach, following the "big.LITTLE" principle we've seen from ARM and its partners, including Apple with the impressive M1 processor. Instead of loading the processor with all performance cores, Intel is using a few efficient cores that use less power for small, less important background tasks.

This mix of high-performance Golden Cove and more power-efficient Gracemont cores brings together very power-efficient single-threaded cores that handle low-priority tasks with more traditional PC-grade multi-thread, high-performance cores that can handle everything else.

Golden Cove cores will handle everything in the foreground like games, apps, and other tasks, while lower-priority tasks get pushed to Gracemont cores, freeing up valuable resources. The end result is a core and thread configuration that seems a little out of place in 2021.

It's all in the cores

Looking at the specifications above, it's easy to see just how similar the Core i5 and Core i9 are, aside from clock speeds, cores, and the overall thermal design power (TDP) rating. The Core i9-12900K is the processor with more power, rocking eight performance and eight efficiency cores. The Core i5 only has six performance and four efficiency cores.

By default, the Core i9 will be able to boost far higher for longer when matched with adequate cooling (and I recommend an AIO liquid cooler for the 12900K) than the i5-12600K. This is backed up by the increase in cache and physical core count, allowing the CPU to process many more calculations per second.

In synthetic benchmarks, the Core i5-12600K struggles to get anywhere close to the Core i9-12900K, but it's not slow when compared to previous generation Intel CPUs or those from competitors. In fact, the Core i5-12600K bests the outgoing Core i9-11900K in some tests, an eight-core hyper-threaded processor.

The Core i9 is yours for best performance

If all you need is the most power available, look no further than the Core i9-12900K. It's Intel's most powerful 12th Gen processor and can easily handle the most demanding games or software applications. This is the right choice for anyone who finds themselves running out of available cores for tasks.

Go with the Core i5 to save money

Just because the Core i5-12600K may be the entry-level processor for Intel's 12th Gen family, it doesn't mean it's a slouch. This CPU is far from it, boasting 10 cores and 16 threads. This is a fantastic gaming processor and one that will provide unmatched value.

Rich Edmonds
Senior Editor, PC Build

Rich Edmonds was formerly a Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.