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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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 diagram of a Bulldozer chip.
A diagram of a Bulldozer chip.

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 sixteen 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 it has already announced that 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's been widely reported in the enthusiast press and on tech-rumor 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 licensees announced new products based on its existing CPU architectures. Marvell Technology Group Ltd. announced the first quadcore CPU based on the ARM instruction set, for example, and Nvidia Corp. announced that its next-generation Tegra system-on-a-chip (SoC) 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 Inc. in early 2009. And that leaves ARM in a very strong position for at least the next year or so.

Michael Brown, a freelance journalist living in northern California, has been writing about computers and technology since 1987. He can be reached at brownmdj@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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