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 computing 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, the company could face a strong challenge on the smartbook front from ARM Holdings with its 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 (CES) in Las Vegas in January, and AMD 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 push 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 US$100.
At the CES trade-show, 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.
Intel is also expected 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.
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. Industry speculation 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," says 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 it is thought the chip will be officially labelled the Core i7-980X.
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 1066-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."
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 capable of supporting Microsoft's DirectX . In the handheld and smartbook market, ARM Holdings' Cortex-A8/A9 processors should gain significant traction.
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.
Each of the new chips features Intel's Turbo Boost technology (a feature inherent in the Nehalem microarchitecture), which enables them to dynamically vary their core operating frequency based on demand as long as they're running below their power, current and temperature limits. The Core i3 and Core i5 processors can dynamically vary the frequency of their integrated graphics cores in a similar fashion.
What's more, the new mobile processors can dynamically trade thermal budgets between the CPU core and the graphics core (a feature not supported on their desktop counterparts). If the computer is running a CPU-intensive application, for example, the processor will dial back the GPU to let the CPU run faster and hotter; likewise, if the computer is running a graphics-intensive application, the processor will dial back the CPU to give the GPU more thermal headroom.
Intel's new mobile processors will use the same graphics core as their desktop counterparts, so they'll offer all the same features, including support for DVI, dual simultaneous HDMI 1.3a, and DisplayPort interfaces, Blu-ray video decoding, along with Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks.
No vendor seems prepared to challenge Intel on the netbook front this year — AMD has nothing to offer, and Via's new Nano 3300-series CPUs are aimed at the desktop and thin-and-light markets. And even Intel has announced only one new Atom processor for this market segment.
The Atom N450 is a single-core processor with 512KB of L2 cache. It runs at 1.66 GHz with a 667-MHz front-side bus and it supports hyperthreading. Like desktop-oriented Atom processors, the big news with the N450 is the integration of the memory controller into the CPU, which reduces the platform chip count from three to two.
The outlook is quite different for smartbooks — but offering any predictions about the smartbook market is nothing more than rank speculation, because this class of machine barely exists today. Smartbooks are expected to be smaller, lighter and cheaper than netbooks, and subsidies from cellphone providers could even render them "free" — provided you sign a long-term data-plan contract, of course.
It's widely speculated that ARM's Cortex-A8 and Cortex-A9 processors will become the CPUs of choice for the first generation of smartbooks. ARM doesn't build its own processors; instead the company licences its designs to other manufacturers who incorporate the designs into their own platforms. Cortex chips can currently be found in Freescale's i.MX515, Nvidia's Tegra series, Qualcomm's Snapdragon series and Texas Instruments' OMAP 3 series.
Designing a smartbook based on an ARM processor will entail trade-offs, according to some industry analysts. "ARM-based smartbooks can't run the desktop version of Windows," says Halfhill. "Instead, they will run Windows Mobile or GNU/Linux. My opinion is that most users will prefer a netbook that runs standard Windows apps, but others disagree. Apple could nudge the market in the ARM direction by introducing an iPhone-compatible smartbook."
Looking further out
AMD hopes to begin sampling its first 32nm CPUs later this year and to start shipping in bulk in 2011. The company expects to offer both a new high-end desktop microarchitecture, code-named Bulldozer, and a new low-power mobile microarchitecture, code-named Bobcat.
A single Bulldozer core will appear to the operating system as two cores, similar to Intel's hyperthreading scheme. The difference is that Bulldozer's two cores are based almost entirely in hardware.
AMD's first Bulldozer CPU, code-named Zambezi, will feature four to eight cores, which will appear to the operating system as eight to 16 cores. Zambezi will be paired with an upcoming discrete graphics chip to form AMD's Scorpius platform for the enthusiast desktop market.
AMD also expects to finally ship its much-touted Fusion processor, which will be the first chip to combine a CPU and a GPU on a single die. (Intel's Arrandale and Clarkdale CPUs feature two dies in a single package.)
AMD calls its Fusion product an "accelerated processing unit" (APU). The first, code-named Llano, will combine up to four CPU cores with a DirectX 11-compatible graphics processor. Llano will be aimed at both the mainstream desktop market (as a component in AMD's Lynx platform) and the desktop-replacement and thin-and-light notebook markets (as a component in AMD's Sabine platform).
AMD's Bobcat microarchitecture will finally give the company products that can compete with Intel's Atom processor in the netbook market. Not much is known about Bobcat at this time, but AMD has revealed that two Bobcat cores will be used in its low-power APU, code-named Ontario. Ontario will be aimed at the ultrathin and netbook markets (as a component in AMD's Brazos platform).
Intel won't be standing still either and has already announced it intends to introduce a new microarchitecture (the next "tick" in its ongoing execution strategy), code-named Sandy Bridge, later this year. Intel has not released much official information about Sandy Bridge, other than to say that it will use the 32nm manufacturing process introduced with Westmere and that it will feature a graphics core on the same die as the processor core — which makes it sound a lot like AMD's Fusion. It has been widely reported in the enthusiast press and on tech web sites, however, that Sandy Bridge will include four CPU cores.
Via Technologies declined to provide a longer-term road map for its CPU business, but the company is likely to continue to plug along in its niche markets. ARM Holdings also declined to comment on future products, but at CES, several of the company's licencees announced new products based on its existing CPU architectures. Marvell Technology Group announced the first quadcore CPU based on the ARM instruction set, for example, and Nvidia announced its next-generation Tegra system-on-a-chip would feature a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU with a clock speed as high as 1 GHz.
AMD won't pose much of a threat to Intel's dominance in either the desktop or notebook CPU markets in 2010, but neither company has a strong portfolio when it comes to smartbooks and other ultramobile devices. Intel sold its handheld mobile CPU division to Marvell in 2006 and AMD sold its handheld business to Qualcomm in early 2009. This leaves ARM in a strong position for at least the next year or so.