2010 CPU forecast: What's coming for desktop and mobile PCs

From mighty six-core desktop chips to minuscule smartbook processors, here's a look at what's in the CPU cards this year.

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 -- code-named 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 AMD+ 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 code-named 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. Code-named 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."

Mobile processors

Intel should notch the most mobile design wins this year, thanks to its ultra-low-power Atom processor and its Arrandale series processors, the latter of which integrate both a dual-core CPU and GPU in the same package. AMD's graphics division, on the other hand, should earn a lot of business in the desktop-replacement notebook market, because it's currently the only company that has a mobile graphics processor that's capable of supporting Microsoft's DirectX 11. In the handheld and smartbook market, ARM Holdings' Cortex-A8/A9 processors should gain significant traction.

Full-size laptop CPUs

AMD will continue to trail Intel on the mobile CPU front in 2010; in fact, the company has just two new mobile processors on its public road map for this year. AMD's first quadcore mobile CPU, code-named Champlain, will have 2MB of cache (512MB for each core) and support for DDR3 memory. AMD also plans to offer Champlain in dual-core trim.

According to AMD's road map, Champlain will be the foundation for its Danube platform for mainstream desktop replacement and thin-and-light notebooks. Danube will feature DirectX 10.1 integrated graphics with an option for a DirectX 11 discrete graphics processor.

AMD's second new mobile offering, code-named Geneva, will be a dual-core processor with 2MB of cache and DDR3 memory support. Geneva will form the basis of AMD's Nile platform for ultrathin notebooks and will feature DirectX 10.1 integrated graphics, with optional support for a DirectX 11 discrete GPU. AMD hasn't released any additional details about Champlain and Geneva since briefing analysts on the new chips in November.

Intel's 2010 mobile CPU offerings include the products announced immediately prior to CES: five new Core i7 chips, four new Core i5 models and two new Core i3 offerings. Intel will continue to use its older 45nm manufacturing process to build its high-end Core i7 mobile quadcore CPUs, but the new Core i3 and Core i5 dual-core chips (previously code-named Arrandale) will all use the 32nm Westmere process. These chips will have a graphics processor integrated in the same package as the CPU.

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