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.

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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 Clarkdale processor
Intel's new Clarkdale processor. Click to view larger image.

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.

Intel's desktop CPU road map

Intel's early 2010 desktop CPU road map. Click to view larger image.

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.

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