2010: CPU Market Outlook

Posted Feb 4, 2010
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A full month of 2010 has passed before I decided to start publishing my market prediction series for five major components of the computer market. They reason I held back on this series was because I wanted to let the major manufacturers play out their cards first which, just according to my expectations did around the Consumer Electronics Show at the start of January.

Now having a clear vision of where the industry is going, I can now put together a series of articles detailing what the average consumer can expect from twenty-ten in terms of processor, graphics, memory, and storage – the four main components of a system.

I would also follow up this series with buying guides in all these categories for the first quarter of 2010 to help out the readers who are out in market with a fixed budget but just don’t know what to get. So, without further delay lets jump into the year of the CPU.

There is a pretty good reason why I called 2010 the year of the CPU (in the regular computer world at least, otherwise it seems like the year of Tablets and 3D). Two things primarily changed my outlook for 2010. The first and most obvious reason was the emergence of a number of new ‘niche’ markets in computing – like the Smart-books and slate Tablets for example. These two virtually didn’t exist over an year ago, and are now responsible for an interesting shift in the market trends.

The second reason is Intel’s cancellation of its Larrabee GPU chip – at least for the time being. Had Intel been able to produce any good x86 based next generation GPU, 2010 would have been the battle ground for graphics with AMD/ATI’s clear DirectX 11 lead and NVIDIA’s powerhouse Fermi processor. Sadly, we wont be getting a taste of this battle for a couple of years at least.

Interestingly, new form factors are also gaining popularity in the desktop market as well like Nettops, Small Form Factor (SFF), Home Theater (HTPC) and All-in-One computers. So the simple categorization of Desktop, Mobile and Handheld devices has been expanded into many new dimensions. Now the new market segments include (in order of decreasing size and increasing mobility):

The thermal dissipation and power requirements also decrease while moving down on the above list. The traditional desktop machines don’t really emphasize on low power and low thermal designs because the have larger cases with abundant cooling options as well as beefier power supplies.

The smaller categories of desktops, which include SFF, AIOs, HTPCs and Nettops however do carry strict power and thermal ceiling requirements. As such, the processors deemed ideal for larger machines feel rather uncomfortable when stuffed inside these form factors. This is the prime reason we see a lot of low power chips in the market.

As compared to Notebooks, the desktop replacement laptops don’t have a strong demand for long battery life. Instead, they focus more on computational power comparable to desktops. In contrast, Netbooks demand extra long battery lives, usually over 8 hours at least. The trade off of course is in terms of performance but no one would really want to play Crysis on a 8.9” screen now would they?

The two new additions to the mobile market – the Smartbooks and the Tablets have different needs too. Smartbooks are essentially a mash-up of Smartphones and Netbooks, providing features like full day battery life with always on 3G and GPS along with a conventional Netbook form-factor. Since they have a high power efficiency requirement, they would be running on ARM based processors rather than the traditional x86 architectures.

Tablets on the other hand are being shown to run both traditional desktop operating systems, like Windows 7 or Smartphone OS like Android or the iPhone OS. This class of device would therefore require an energy efficient design and would be running both ARM and x86 architectures. Note that by Tablets, I mean the newer devices and not the Tablet PCs that have been around for about a decade now.

Lastly, for true mobility and pocket friendly form-factors, Smartphones and Mobile Internet Devices require the longest battery life and are usually not afraid to sacrifice performance. Still we have seen even seen this market venture into the gigahertz territory.

Traditional Desktops

This is the most exciting segment of the market for enthusiasts. Almost all the latest innovations in the technology are first introduced in the desktop market. The desktop class has almost always been dominated by Intel – apart from the first half of the past decade which saw AMD’s rise to fame thanks to its x64 extensions. But Intel did spring back with Core 2 and now Nehalem has left AMD’s K10 in the dust when it comes to sheer performance.

But price/performance ratios tell a far different story. While AMD doesn’t have the highest performance parts, it now has four Quad-Core processors priced below $100, and its flagship chip costs under $200.

AMD has no plans to introduce a new micro-architecture in 2010, and would therefore rely on its K10 series of processors. What this essentially means is that we would continue to see price drops on AMD’s front.

There are plans to introduce new platforms however. Leo, the successor to “Dragon” platform would be based on a new RD890 chipset with the SB850 Southbridge, and would be powered by a 6-core Thuban processor, which would slip into the existing AM3 sockets. An interesting feat here would be to keep the power requirements of the chip at a minimum because the original Phenom II X4 965 had a TDP of 140W. AMD would have to clock this chip under 3GHz at least.

On the more mainstream front, AMD plans to introduce a new Dorado platform based on the Athlon II processors and the RS880P chipset with the SB810 Southbridge.

Intel’s plans for the desktop market in 2010 are pretty colorful as they stick to their Tick-Tock strategy. Nehalem was the Tick in 2008, marking the introduction of a new micro-architecture, while Westmere was the Tock in 2009 marking a process shrink to 32nm. This obviously implies that the next Tick would be in late 2010, which would bring the Sandy Bridge architecture at a 32nm fabrication node.

Of course there’s lots of time till the end of the year and Intel doesn’t plan to sit quietly. The current plans are to introduce the new 32nm quad-core and dual-core Clarkdale chips already unveiled at CES for the mainstream market, while keeping the older 45nm Lynnfield based chips for the performance segment and the 45nm based Bloomfield for the enthusiasts. And to add further confusion to the lineup, Penryn based Core 2 and Pentiums would still be around for a while at least.

While the new Clarkdale chips have supposedly DirectX 10 level integrated graphics, the most interesting chip coming off Intel’s fabs would be the 6-core 32nm Gulftown chip, prototypes of which already went on sale. It would fit into the existing x58 chipset and would carry a large price tag, probably north of $1000.

All-in-Ones

For 2010, most of the AIO market would revolve around both Intel’s and AMD’s low powering offerings, particularly the mobile processors. While AIOs don’t have to run on batteries like laptops, the reason to use processors built for the mobile market is because of their low thermal envelop.

The trend would continue in 2010 as well, and we would see Mobile Core i3/i5 processors being stuffed into these chassis along with a couple of energy efficient Athlon IIs. Interestingly, the new Atom platform might venture into these parks as well specially when bundled with an Ion based platform.

Home Theater PCs

Even though temperature is a prime concern for HTPCs (you wouldn’t want a loud machine in your living room), they also tend to go for a broader feature set which requires some computational muscle.

Surprisingly, this is one market where AMD still has a strong foothold and looks like it isn’t easily going to budge in 2010 either. The reason is that AMD can easily throw a quad-core chip under $100 and still keep the TDP under 65W. There is a bit of new competition here though from the new Clarkdale based Pentium G6950 and the lower end Core i3 processors which can also decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD audio.

Small Form Factor PCs

While much smaller in size compared to All-in-Ones, SFF PCs don’t really have major differences in design requirements. Their small – usually cramped – chassis also call for low power and low thermal chips.

This is a market which would see being dominated by Ultra Low Voltage chips and the new Atom Pinetrail platform. Again NVIDIA Ion 2 is likely to make an appearance here as well, along with VIA’s new Nano 3000 lineup – both of which can post some solid multimedia numbers including support for Full HD content and Blu-Ray decoding.

Unfortunately, this is one market which AMD still needs to penetrate and its power hungry K10 architecture is definitely not the way to go.

Nettops

Nettops, like their mobile counterparts are characteristically defined by their extremely small form factor and that ever-so-present Atom chip powering them. This year wouldn’t make a big difference in the segment either because AMD doesn’t have any plans for an Ultra Low Voltage chip, and VIA’s Nano 3000 lineup would simply be overshadowed by giants like Intel.

There is always the question of which Atom platform would dominate of course – which I believe would be Intel’s Pinetrail compared to NVIDIA’s Ion or Ion 2. Now only if NVIDIA release the Ion platform which supports VIA’s new chips we would have some interesting competition here.

Laptops (Desktop Replacements)

There isn’t a lot of new things being planned for the Desktop Replacement market which represents the high end of the mobile segment. The reason is most probably because everything north of 15” in screen size is loosing its popularity – partly due to their weight and part due to the economic situation.

In fact, the only thing new that would be introduced for this segment would be AMD’s new mainstream processor codenamed Champlain which would be the basis of its Danube platform. This would be AMD’s first ever quad-core offering in the mobile segment, and is expected to hit the market in Q2 of 2010. The new platform is based on a 45nm process and promises a 7 hour battery life along with DirectX 10.1 integrated graphics. There’s also the option of having a discrete DirectX 11 based GPU as well.

Intel already has all its cards out for this segment in 2009 and doesn’t plan to introduce anything new. Its high end lineup is based on the five Core i7 mobile chips it has around already, three based on the 45nm Clarksfield platform and two on the 32nm Arrandale, which also feature the integrated GPU on the CPU package.

Notebooks

The more mainstream category for mobile computers would still be an easy battlefield for Intel in 2010 as well, thanks to its strong lineup of Core 2 based processors along with the newly introduced Core i5 and Core i3 chips based on the 32nm Arrandale chips which come in both Quad-Core and Dual-Core variants. The good thing about these chips is that they can apply Turbo Boost to the integrated graphics chip as well. Intel still plans to keep the older 45nm Penryn chips around as well branding them as Core 2, Pentium and Celeron.

AMD’s 2010 offering for mainstream includes a dual-core version of Champlain as well as its third generation Ultrathin processor codenamed Geneva. Together they make up the Nile platform which also boasts DirectX 10.1 integrated graphics and DirectX 11 discrete chips. AMD’s strategy for 2010 is pretty much clear here. They want to win the battle on the graphics front.

Netbooks

Netbooks are clearly Intel’s turf. No body wants to stake a claim here. VIA tried last year with its Nano series and was clearly blown away. Even Intel is so sure of its success that it has only announced one version of its Atom Pineview processor for the Netbooks, which is quite underpowered by today’s standards even though it has an integrated graphics chip on the same die as the processor along with an integrated DDR2 memory controller.

There are rumors of a DDR3 upgrade but they are pretty much in the air. The only interesting thing which could happen in this segment is NVIDIA introducing its Ion 2 platform, but even that isn’t confirmed.

Smartbooks

The new ‘niche’ category is going to be one of the most interesting segments of the market this year, should it gain popularity. The strict demands of a full day battery life and always on 3G connection along with the usual trend of having a Smartphone OS have made ARM a dominant force in the game.

This category would see the likes of Qualcomm, Samsung, Texas Instruments, NVIDIA, Marvel, Freescale, and maybe even Apple battle for the crown. While there would be many manufacturers, the clear winner here would ARM Holdings who would license the rights to its Cortex A8 and A9 architecture.

As for the architectures themselves, A8 and A9 are both 32-bit RISC architectures which are known to scale as high as 1.5GHz while keeping power well under 1W. And that value is for the entire System-on-a-Chip. There’s also a Cortex-A9 MPCore variant which can go as high as 4 cache coherent symmetric cores each clocked at 1GHz consuming only 250mW of power.

Tablets

The ridiculous tablet craze has also  put ARM in direct competition with the likes of Intel and AMD. Devices which would be running full desktop class operating systems would tend to use processors from either Intel’s or AMD’s camp (more likely Intel’s Atom or a ULV processor). This would include devices such as the upcoming HP Slate which is going to be running Windows 7.

In contrast tablets like the Archos series or Apple iPad run a modified Smartphone OS and therefore would be based on an ARM Cortex A8 or A9 processor. In fact, if iPad proves to be a market success, Apple’s A4 chip just might end up being the most popular tabled platform around. In any case, the actual winner here again would be ARM Holdings.

Smartphones and MIDs

Our last category would actually be the one in which most chips are shipped in. ARM is the undisputed leader here – a market where Intel has tried and failed a number of times with XScale and Atom.

The major players here this year would be Qualcomm with their Snapdragon, Texas Instruments with their OMAP3, NVIDIA with Tegra and Tegra 2 and most probably Apple with A4 – which may end up inside the iPhone and the iPod Touch.

In terms of numbers shipped, Texas Instruments since its chips are used in almost every Nokia device, though Qualcomm’s Snapdragon is also gaining popularity as being the platform of choice for manufacturers like HTC, Acer, LG and Toshiba. We’ll have to wait and see how many deals NVIDIA inks or if Apple would ever release its chips to other device manufacturers.

Final Thoughts

As we step into the new decade, one thing is clear – its the era of intelligent devices. Everything from your televisions to dryers to cars now have processing engines inside which have more sophisticated technology than the Lunar Lander in the 60s. No matter what company ships how many units, at the end of the day, what really matter is the user experience, and looks like its not going to change that much in 2010 either.

As for next year, both Intel and AMD have big plans, with Intel rolling out Sandy Bridge, and AMD would finally bring out its Bulldozer core along with its Fusion CPU+GPU solution (collectively called APU). Until then, the battle ground is on the smaller form factors including Tablets, Smartphones and Smartbooks – the area clearly dominated by ARM.

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