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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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.

Enlarged 32nm Westmere die
A 32nm Westmere die. Click to view larger image.

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, and Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks.

Intel's mobile CPU road map

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

Netbook CPUs

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 itself 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. (Computerworld will be comparing four N450-based netbooks in an upcoming review.)

Smartbook CPUs

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 cell-phone 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 it licenses 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.

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