Earlier this week, some people were waiting to take the bar exam receive a message from ExamSoft, the company that makes the Examplify software that many states use to administer the exam: PCs with Intel’s latest 12th Gen Core processors are “not currently supported” because they “do not support automatic verification of the virtual machine of triggered Examplify”. The company’s proposed solution was for people to find another device to take the test on, a frustrating and unhelpful “workaround” for anyone with a new computer.
As pointed out by The Verge, Examsoft’s system requirements page for its software does not provide any additional details, it merely reiterates that 12th generation CPUs are not currently supported and that you are not allowed to run the Examplify software in a virtual machine. But it’s not the first time such a problem has cropped up, and the culprit is almost certainly the hybrid CPU architecture that Intel uses in most of its 12th Gen chips.
In previous generations, all cores in a given Intel CPU were identical: same design, same performance, same features. Clock speed and power consumption would ramp up and down depending on what the computer was doing at any given time, but the cores themselves were all the same and could be treated that way by the operating system. In 12th-gen chips, CPUs come with a mix of wildly different processing cores: big, fast, high-performance cores (or P-cores) do the heavy lifting, while smaller, less-power-efficient cores (or E-cores) handle lighter tasks. However, since operating systems and most apps assume that all CPU cores are the same in a given system, the software had to be modified to tell the difference between the two.
Apps that haven’t been updated sometimes see the two different types of CPU cores available to them and assume they are actually seeing two completely separate PCs. This was the reason why some DRM and anti-cheat software packages for video games needed updates or workarounds to run on 12th Gen CPUs. Intel said at the time that the affected software sees the E-Cores “as another system,” which may also explain why the Examplify software thinks it’s running in a virtual machine — it sees that there’s a layer of abstraction between it and the CPU gives and it refuses to run.
It also means that there is a potential workaround that could make 12th Gen laptops compatible with Examplify software in the short term: disable the E-Cores. Not all PCs support this, but most custom built desktop motherboards allow it, sometimes by manually adjusting the core count and sometimes by enabling a “legacy game compatibility mode”.
The option is rarer on laptops, but at least some of the 12th-gen laptops we’ve tested so far also have a switch for it in the BIOS, usually somewhere in the performance or power settings – we’ve included screenshots of a Dell XPS 15 BIOS , which allows users to customize the number of E-Cores, and a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon BIOS that doesn’t allow it. There’s no guarantee that disabling the E-Cores will fix the problem, but it works for these older games, and there’s a good chance it will work for the Examplify software as well (as long as you can even do it).
The move to a hybrid architecture has created other issues aside from those with Examplify and older games. Windows 10 and older Linux kernel versions can’t take full advantage of 12th generation processors because they don’t support the “thread director” technology that Intel developed to ensure tasks are dispatched to the CPU cores that process them can do best and forces users with 12th generation PCs to use Windows 11 for the best possible performance and battery life. Disabling the E-cores was also the only way for some users to take advantage of Intel’s AVX-512 instructions with early revision Alder Lake processors. Since these P-Cores support AVX-512 and the E-Cores don’t, AVX-512 support is usually disabled Everyone Cores by default, but some motherboards allow you to turn AVX-512 back on once the E-Cores are off (newer Alder Lake chips have had their AVX-512 capabilities physically secured, making the situation moot).