CES 2013 was the exact point where processors became more than just geekdom. For decades, Intel's ruled the roost with a near-monopoly on processors. With the advent of smartphones and tablets, though, the field was blown wide open, and now there's a whole bunch of companies competing to put a slice of their finest silicon into your lucky hands. Here's what's going to be powering 2013's most lustworthy devices.
What We Know
Qualcomm used the opportunity of the CES keynote speech to both confuse and patronise people with some terrible actors, and launch its two latest and greatest mobile processors: the Snapdragon 800 and Snapdragon 600.
The Snapdragon 800 is the latest in a line of quad-core beasts, with specs to match: 2.3GHz speeds per core, a new Adreno 330 GPU with claimed 2x performance bump over the old GPU (Adreno 320), support for the next generation of low-power RAM, and a veritable plethora of wireless connectivity options -- 4G LTE and 802.11ac Wi-Fi.
The Snapdragon 600 is also quad-core, but aimed more at middle-spec phones. Its cores clock up to 1.9GHz, with an Adreno 320 GPU (as found currently in the Snapdragon S4 Pro), and support for LPDDR3 RAM.
Overall for the Snapdragon 800, Qualcomm is promising a 75 per cent improvement in general performance over the current generation Snapdragon S4 Pro. Specifically, you'll be able to playback and record UltraHD (a.k.a. 4K) video, and it's also capable of handling 7.1 surround sound, 3D image capture, and sewing photos together into one stonking 55-megapixel image.
For the Snapdragon 600, Qualcomm is promising 40 per cent better performance over the Snapdragon S4, with "great" battery life also assured (because when has any company ever actually admitted that their new processor will burn through battery like a blowtorch through room-temperature butter?).
As ever, the concern over more powerful processors is the amount of battery they'll madly chew through on their way to decoding that 4K video. There's also concern that sticking a socking great quad-core processor (now with added GPU!) into a smartphone will heat it up to egg-frying temperatures and spark a new game called "pass the burning hot smartphone".
When and Where Will We See These?
The 600 is said to be "sampling now", and Qualcomm have promised that the first commercial devices sporting it will be available in Q2 2013. Hopefully, we might see the first phones and tablets using it at Mobile World Congress in late February. As for the 800 powerhouse? Qualcomm is being slightly more cagey, saying only that it should be hitting devices in "summer 2013", so slightly behind the 600.
What We Know
Intel is the big daddy of x86 processors, but while it dominates in the PC market, it's lagging sorely behind in the mobile space. Therefore, the first products Intel's CEO proudly showed (in true Simba-in-Lion King-style) to the world were shiny new Atom mobile processors, codenamed "Lexington". These processors aren't something you're likely to see in the Western world -- rather, it's Intel's play into the smartphone market in emerging countries, so think Africa and Latin America. Acer, Safaricom, and Lava have all signed up to release budget smartphones powered by Lexington into these areas in the next few months.
Intel also promised a replacement for the current generation of Clover Trail processors, which are just making their way into smartphones and tablets now. Codenamed Bay Trail, the quad-core 'ARM-killing' processors should double Clover Trail's performance whilst maintaining the same battery life.
The final big announcement was new low-power parts for existing processors. Both Ivy Bridge and Haswell -- better known to you and me as the Core iSomething range -- are getting new low-voltage parts, clocking in at 7v, starting with new low-power parts for Ivy Bridge, and continuing when Haswell chips ship later this year.
With the launch of Lexington, Intel is committing itself even more firmly to the mobile space; while Lexington isn't going to be the next OMG SO POWERFUL number-crunching superprocessor of doom, it's still a pretty sweet little chip, packing in a 1.2GHz core, HSPA+ radio, and 7fps burst shooting.
Bay Trail is what we would expect; an iterative upgrade to Clover Trail, allowing it (and, in turn, Windows 8 tablets) to remain competitive against the Android-based and ARM-powered competition.
The voltage drops to Ivy Bridge and Haswell, geeky and dull as they might sound, are actually the most exciting developments from Intel. Between 2011 and 2012, the ultra low-wattage computing base grew by five times. An insane drop in power consumption like this is a huge deal, and shows just how seriously Intel is taking low-power computing. What it means for you and me is much better battery life for Windows 8 devices, something that should really help make them actually take off, especially since one of the big concerns about the Surface Pro is battery life shorter than a sugar-high toddler's attention span.
Although Lexington looks like a good competitor for budget smartphones, it most likely won't ever make its way to the Western world. For anyone who was hoping that CES 2013 might see Intel make a big attack on the high-end smartphone market, you'll be sorely disappointed.
Ditto the Bay Trail upgrade; while I'm sure we'll see a boost in performance for Windows 8 tablets using Atom processors, the upgrade from Clover Trail to Bay Trail is iterative, not the sort of revolutionary change Intel's pulled off with its low-power Ivy Bridge and Haswell processors.
When and Where We'll See It
Lexington-powered devices from Acer, Safariland and Lava were promised, with announcements set for later this quarter; we'll probably see actual shipping devices (though you probably won't ever see them in the UK) sometime later this year.
Bay Trail will be popping up across Windows 8 tablets and convertibles late this year, most likely in time for Christmas. As for the low-voltage chips, Ivy Bridge is shipping today(!), with Haswell to follow on later this year. Look for them in the latest crop of Ultrabooks.
What We Know
Samsung's big announcement for CES was a new Exynos mobile processor. When we say big, we mean big: eight-whole-shagging-cores, to be exact, split between two sets of quad-core processors. In a phone. That's insane. The Samsung CEO said that the Exynos 5 Octa will offer a "level of pure processing power never before seen in a mobile device." You know what? I don't think he's lying.
The processor features 8 cores -- 4 ARM Cortex A7s and 4 ARM Cortex A15s, leveraging ARM's big.LITTLE architecture (more on that below). The GPU is rumoured by AnandTech to be a PowerVR SGX 544MP3 at 533MHz, very similar to the GPU found in Apple's A5X chip, but with the minor addition of DirectX 10 hardware. Given all that, the graphical performance of the Exynos Octa should be somewhere between the A5X and Apple's current-gen A6X.
The big.LITTLE architecture in the Exynos allows the phone to select which processor to use for a certain task -- for example, something like mapping data would be handled by the "little" processor, while graphically-intensive gaming would be handed over to the "big" guys. This would be like having two engines in a car -- one for pootling around town, and one for ripping up a racetrack. The beauty is, both don't have to be running at once, so in theory this should deliver the holy grail of mobile processors -- a metric tonne of power, but actually decent battery life.
While the Exynos 5 is promised to keep decent battery life, if used intensively -- Samsung's CEO was proposing heavy-duty multitasking like simultaneously reading restaurant reviews, downloading apps and using maps -- there's a good chance that the battery drain will still be pretty terrible. We'll have to wait and see.
When Will We See It and Where?
Samsung kept radio silence on the ship date of the Exynos 5, but it'd be a safe bet that it'll pitch up in the Galaxy S4. That particular device is rumoured for a release in the not-too-distant future, possibly at MWC in February, or possibly after. Until then, we're just gonna have to learn to live with quad-core phone processors. The horror.
What We Know
NVIDIA chose CES to unleash its latest Tegra 4 System on a Chip on the world. The Tegra 4 is, of course, the upgrade to the venerable Tegra 3, which you'll recognise from such blockbusting hits as the Microsoft Surface RT and HTC One X+. Good breeding stock then.
The Tegra 4 features a quad-core ARM Cortex A15, with seventy-two GPU cores. Yeah, you read that right -- 72 actual cores. There's also a power-saving core for low power usage, and an optional additional chipset that allows worldwide LTE support, a nod to the fact that 4G frequencies around the globe are now all sorts of fragmented.
With all its processing power, NVIDIA is claiming that the Tegra 4 has six times the processing power of its predecessor, while consuming 45 per cent less lower than the Tegra 3. Like other manufacturers, NVIDIA's also paid special attention to image processing and photography, allowing phones to combine the power of the CPU, GPU, and image processor to allow HDR photos and videos with supposed ease.
With all that power under the hood, you can probably feel your poor unloved battery crying from here. Yes, NVIDIA's promising better battery life than the Tegra 3, but every single manufacturer has claimed that their new chip has the best battery life and fastest performance. C'mon guys, you can't all be right.
When Will You See It And Where?
Expect to see Tegra 4 powering high-end smartphones, tablets, and gaming rigs, including NVIDIA's Project Shield. Availability details are a bit thin on the ground at the moment, but Vizio is expecting to ship a Tegra 4 tablet (not that we'll get that here anyway) sometime in the second half of 2013.
What We Know
AMD trotted out a bunch of new stuff at CES; us lucky people get new desktop, notebook and mobile processors. The most exciting things were the new ultrabook and tablet processors, called "Kabini" and "Temash" respectively.
Starting with Kabini: it's a new line of x86 processors for "ultra-thin notebooks" (ssh, don't say ultrabooks, since ultrabooks are Intel's machines); coming in dual-core and quad-core versions, they promise "improved battery life" and a 50 per cent performance bump over the current-range Brazos 2.0 processors. Temash, on the other hand, is an Atom rival, aimed at Windows 8 tablet/hybrid things, and promising a whole 100 per cent improvement on AMD's previous Hondo chips.
Until we get them in hand, there's no way of knowing whether or not AMD's claims of better battery life and super-duper awesome performance are true or not. Regardless, it'll still be nice to see some competition to Intel's Atom and iSeries chips.
When Will We See Them?
Both Kabini and Temash are expected to hit the consumer market in Q2 2013. AMD's really banking on these new chips to prop up its business, which has been hit hard by declining PC sales. Whether or not they'll be able to break Intel's stranglehold on the ultrabook market remains to be seen.
Image credit: Processor from Shutterstock