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 Corp. pretty much owns the netbook market with its Atom processor, it could face a strong challenge on the smartbook front from ARM Holdings PLC 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 Inc. 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 quadcore CPUs -- the Phenom X4 9850, 9750 and 9150e and the Athlon II X4 620 -- street-priced at less than $100.
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 Inc. 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. (Update: Five days after this story was posted, AMD announced a handful of new processors that reflect this emphasis on price.)
More significantly, AMD is preparing to introduce a six-core desktop CPU -- code-named Thuban -- sometime in 2010.