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.

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.

Desktop processors

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 quad-core CPUs -- the Phenom X4 9850, 9750 and 9150e and the Athlon II X4 620 -- street-priced at less than $US100.

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.

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