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What's Inside The Next MacBooks?

Intel’s announcing superfast and incredibly efficient new notebook processors in a few days. They’re the biggest jump in notebook hardware since the Core 2 Duo. But we might not see them in MacBooks for a while.

Here’s the story: Starting with the unibody MacBook Pros in October 2008, Apple dumped Intel’s own chipset and integrated graphics for Nvidia’s GeForce 9400M as a combined GPU/chipset, since it wildly outperforms the Intel’s integrated garbage, which had hampered previous MacBooks. Since the 9400M is in basically every Mac now, there’s a baseline of graphics performance across every Mac – nothing has crappier graphics than the 9400M. Important, because the OpenCL tech in Snow Leopard leverages your graphics card for extra processing power.

Since October 2008, Intel’s introduced its blazing fast Core i7 and i5 processors, which use the Nehalem microarchitecture. The problem is that Nvidia can’t make compatible chipsets for it. Intel claims that Nvidia’s licence to make chipsets for its processors doesn’t apply to any current or future processor with an integrated memory controller, which all Nehalem and Westmere – the 32nm die shrink of Nehalem – processors do. Nvidia sued and is pulling out of chipsets entirely, at least at the desktop level. (Intel’s also cut them off at the Atom level, making what the Ion 2 will look like something of a mystery as well.)

Which produces a question: What are the next set of MacBook guts going to be? The Arrandale Core i5 mobile processors Intel is expected to announce at CES don’t just have integrated memory controllers, they have integrated graphics, built right onto the die, too. If the MacBooks were upgraded to off-the-shelf Arrandale processors, it can’t, on the face of it, use an Nvidia chipset or more to the point, Nvidia’s superior integrated graphics. Intel’s integrated graphics still suck. So there are a couple of possibilities from here, it looks like.

Possibility 1: Some kind of discrete or separate graphics cards for all MacBook Pros. Pre-unibody MacBook Pros, and even the 12-inch PowerBook G4, had discrete graphics cards only. The problem is that it’s more expensive, and that now-famed 6-8 hour battery life would take a hit. It’s how the latest iMac got away with using a Core i7 on with an Intel chipset, though.

Or maybe Apple will put discrete graphics cards in every MacBook Pro, but use Intel integrated graphics as a battery-saving fallback. Which is sort of the way all but the low-end MacBook Pros work now, with both integrated and discrete graphics. (Though the Nvidia integrated graphics are good enough to be the default option on current MacBooks.) It would rock the boat the least.

Possibility 2: Suffer the crappier graphics on lower end models. A problem, given that any machine using Intel integrated graphics would result in worse graphics performance than the current MacBook or MacBook Pros. Which sounds counterproductive, given Apple’s obvious bet on graphics cards for processing juice with OpenCL.

Possibility 3: A customised set of hardware of some kind from Intel, either on the processor or chipset level that would let the next MacBooks match the power consumption and graphics capabilities of current models. It wouldn’t be unprecedented: Apple asked for and received essentially custom chips from Intel before, for the MacBook Air. (Though Intel later let everybody else play ball with other chips meant for really skinny laptops.)

Possibility 4: Apple’s gonna wait on something else before upgrading from Core 2 Duos. Will people have to wait longer for blazing new silicon in MacBooks than in PC notebooks? Sometimes they do, yes, but sometimes Apple gets Intel’s latest first – Nehalem Xeons in Mac Pros, and the ultramobile chip in the MacBook Air.

Something else to consider is that for the first time in a long time, if Apple wants to push new guts soon, it could switch to ATI graphics (which it’s using in the iMac) for notebooks because of delays in Nvidia’s Fermi architecture that push their truly new graphics cards out until early 2010. ATI’s got a solid four months where it’s got the newest graphics silicon around.

Whatever happens, it’s a mystery for now. Which is kind of a fascinating point, actually, given that Macs run on PC guts now, yet it’s still trying to do something different on the hardware level.


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