No one should be surprised that the big action in the CPU market this year will be in the mobile and low-power processor segments. Rapid growth in the power-saving all-in-one and small-form-factor desktop PC markets, continued strong demand for portable computers, and new usage models (digital photo and video editing, casual gaming, watching high definition movies and so on) will all ignite demand for powerful new processors that consume less energy than previous generations did.
What's more, a new category of small portable computer is springing up between smartphones and netbooks: the smartbook. Smartbooks are designed to maintain 3G connections to the Internet and deliver a full day's use on a single battery charge, like smartphones, but they're also designed to run productivity applications (usually via the cloud) and feature much larger screens and keyboards, like netbooks. And while Intel pretty much owns the netbook market with its Atom processor, it could face a strong challenge on the smartbook front from ARM with its extremely low-power Cortex-A8 and Cortex-A9 processors and their successors.
All this emphasis on mobile devices is not to say the desktop processor market will stagnate; in fact, Intel announced no fewer than seven new desktop CPUs at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, and Advanced Micro Devices and Intel are expected to introduce their first six-core desktop CPUs this year.
Here's a broad look at the road maps from the major chip makers, including their overall strategies and promised technologies for the coming year, as well as a peek what they might offer in 2011.
Quadcore processors will enter the mainstream this year as AMD and Intel whack down prices to gain market share. You can already find four AMD quad-core CPUs, the Phenom X4 9850, 9750 and 9150e and the Athlon II X4 620, street priced at less than £70.
At CES, Intel introduced an entirely new series of dual-core processors that were produced using its new 32-nanometer manufacturing process. Moreover, the first six-core desktop CPUs will be introduced this year, perhaps as early as the second quarter, but they will be aimed squarely at the enthusiast market.
At the other end of the spectrum, Intel will continue to dominate the market for ultra-low-power desktop CPUs. AMD is completely out of the picture there, but Via Technologies has some interesting products to offer.
Standard desktop CPUs
AMD will continue to rely on its K10 microarchitecture and won't ship any 32nm processors in bulk until 2011. As a result, the company's official desktop road map reveals very few CPU introductions this year. That will force it to compete with Intel largely on price in most market segments, since it can't challenge its rival on performance. AMD is, however, preparing to introduce a six-core desktop CPU, codenamed Thuban, sometime in 2010.
Thuban is derived from the company's existing six-core Opteron server CPU and will have an integrated DDR3 memory controller. AMD says the chip will be backward compatible with existing AM3 and AM2+ motherboards. Rumor has it that the CPU will be outfitted with 3MB of L2 cache and 6MB of L3 cache, but clock speeds will likely be slower than current AMD quadcores because of the thermal output of the two additional cores.
"Thuban is coming," said AMD spokesman Damon Muzny, "but we haven't disclosed specifications on the six-core desktop processors yet."
Intel continues to execute its "tick-tock" strategy, introducing a new microarchitecture (last year's Nehalem being the tick), followed by a new manufacturing process (the new 32nm Westmere process being the tock). At CES, Intel introduced seven new dual-core desktop processors (four Core i5 CPUs, two members of the new entry-level Core i3 series, and a new Pentium) manufactured using the 32nm process. Previously codenamed Clarkdale, the new chips support hyperthreading, so that multithreaded applications are presented with two physical and two virtual cores.
The Pentium G6950, the Core i3-530 and 540, and the Core i5-650, 660, 661 and 670 all feature integrated Intel HD Graphics in the same chip package (but not on the same die). Intel maintains that its new integrated graphics offering is good enough for both mainstream gaming (with support for DirectX 10) and Blu-ray video decoding. It supports DVI, dual simultaneous HDMI 1.3a and DisplayPort. It's also capable of streaming encrypted Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks.
Intel's existing quadcore desktop processors, everything in the Core i7 series and the upper end of the Core i5 series, will continue to be manufactured using the older 45nm process. Intel does, however, have a six-core Westmere chip on its official road map. Codenamed Gulftown, the chip will supposedly reach the market sometime in the first quarter, well in advance of AMD's six-core offering, as part of Intel's Extreme Edition family. Intel has not yet disclosed branding, but rumor has it the chip will be officially labeled the Core i7-980X
Low power desktop CPUs
At the other end of the power spectrum, Intel in late December announced two new low power 45nm processors for entry-level desktop PCs: the single-core Atom D410 and dual-core Atom D510. Intel expects to see these chips used in all-in-one and small-form-factor PCs. The big news here is that Intel has moved the memory controller into the CPU, as it has done with its Nehalem architecture. This design change reduces the overall chip count from three to two, which lowers design and manufacturing costs as well as power and cooling requirements.
The Atom D410 has 512KB of L2 cache and the D510 has 1MB of L2 cache. Both processors run at 1.66 GHz, have a 667-MHz front-side bus (FSB), and support hyperthreading.
Unlike Intel, AMD won't have any ultra low power offerings this year. "AMD needs to enter this low-power market, but it has been too preoccupied," says Tom Halfhill, senior analyst at In-Stat's "Microprocessor Report" newsletter. "With any luck, AMD will be ready for a rebound in 2010."
Via Technologies, which, according to Halfhill, pioneered the concept of simplified, low-power x86 processors, does have a promising alternative to Intel's Atom. The company began mass-producing its Nano 3000 series of CPUs in December 2009. The Nano 3300 runs at 1.2 GHz with an 800-MHz FSB, while the Nano 3200 runs at 1.4 GHz, also with an 800-MHz FSB. Both chips are manufactured using a 65nm process, but they offer a number of features that Intel's Atom-series processors do not, including full support for Blu-ray video.
In addition, the processors in the Nano 3000 series support either 800-MHz dual-channel DDR2 memory or 1,066-MHz dual-channel DDR3 memory, while the Atom is limited to 800-MHz single-channel DDR2. And where the Nano 3000 series supports a full range of video interfaces (including LVDS, DisplayPort and HDMI), the Atom D410 and D510 are limited to LVDS and VGA.
For all that, Halfhill predicts, "Via will be lucky to nibble a few crumbs of market share. It's too bad, because Via makes some good x86 processors."