What Will Be in Apple's Next Laptops?

You can never be sure what advances will find their way into the next round of Apple hardware updates until practically the moment Cupertino makes the big announcement. But that doesn't mean it's not fun to guess a little bit.

Soon after Intel's recent announcement of its new Centrino 2 mobile platform, rumors began to circulate about what would be inside Apple's next round of MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops (which are, themselves, rumored to be refreshed in the near future). Since Apple's current laptop line is based on Intel's earlier Centrino (aka Santa Rosa) platform, most observers assumed that Apple would adopt Intel's new platform--despite some uncertainty caused by Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer's veiled reference to a "product transition" during the company's July 21 earnings conference call.

However, on Monday AppleInsider said, in effect, not so fast. According to its sources, the upcoming Apple laptops would have "something special under the hood." Computerworld, CNET, and others quickly chimed in with their opinions. PC Perspective's Ryan Shrout even said that there was no doubt that the surprise inside the new laptops would come from Nvidia. As usual, Apple has said nothing. Neither has Intel.

The "something special" that all the excitement is about is what computer engineers call a chipset. A chipset can be any group of chips designed to work together, but in this case it refers to the chips through which the processor communicates with RAM and the graphics controller (the northbridge) and with slower components such as hard drives, the USB bus, and the like (the southbridge). A chipset and its support circuitry all add up to a platform, such as Centrino 2.

So what can you expect in the next round of Apple laptops?

Five dueling scenarios

The rumorosphere has come up with five competing scenarios for the new Apple laptops:

Apple may, as Shrout contends, switch to an Nvidia chipset and keep the Intel processor.

Apple may dump Intel entirely, and adopt an AMD processor and a chipset from AMD's 2006 acquisition, ATI.

Apple may stick with an Intel processor, but switch to an ATI chipset.

Apple may stick with Intel for both processor and chipset, embarrassing all the rumormongers.

Apple may stick with Intel processors, but design its own chipset, much as the company did in the pre-Intel days.

Let's take these scenarios in reverse order, and immediately dismiss the Apple-designs-its-own-chipset notion. Not going to happen. Modern chipsets are devilishly complex beasts that require large, dedicated teams of engineers, resources that Apple simply doesn't have. Sure, the company recently acquired chipmaker P.A. Semi, and by doing so brought a passel of smart engineers on board, but those folks haven't had time to whip together a laptop chipset. Besides, Steve Jobs told the New York Times back in June that the P.A. Semi braintrust would be set to work on system-on-chips for iPhones and iPods. Not that Jobs hasn't been known to indulge in a bit of misdirection every now and then, but this time I believe we can take him at his word.

This brings us to the scenario in which Apple simply adopts Intel's Centrino 2 platform. After all, even though Centrino 2 is no quantum leap over its predecessor, it does include notable improvements such as a faster frontside bus and memory, low-power Ethernet, improved video performance with customizable color controls, theoretical Wi-Fi speeds of up to 450Mbps, plus optional or soon-to-be-released features such as an improved hybrid solid-state/hard-drive storage system, high-speed WiMAX capabilities, hard-core enterprise-level management capabilities called vPro, and the ability to switch between power-miserly integrated graphics and power-hungry dedicated graphics chips on the fly.

It's this last item that provides a hint as to why Apple may shun Centrino 2. Why would Intel offer users the ability to switch from its own integrated graphics system to a third-party system? Simple. Because even with the graphics improvements in Centrino 2's Mobile Intel 45 Express Chipset, Intel's pixel-pushing performance still can't hold a candle to that of ATI or Nvidia--and graphic capabilities will become much more important when Snow Leopard introduces OpenCL next year.

Steve Jobs has told the New York Times, "Basically [OpenCL] lets you use graphics processors to do computation." Software developers such as Adobe are already deep into OpenCL investigation'think accelerated Photoshop. To live up to OpenGL's promise, Apple needs to supply its machines with potent GPUs (graphics processing units)--such as those from ATI or Nvidia.

So will Apple stick with an Intel processor but adopt an AMD/ATI chipset? Nope. Can't happen--at least today. For one thing, you can't simply plug an Intel processor into a system that's running an ATI chipset. As an Intel spokesperson told us, ATI chipsets are designed for AMD processors, which "have different architectures, pin-outs, and mechanical, electrical, and thermal characteristics." What's more, AMD's mobile processors have memory controllers on-chip; Intel's don't. Finally, even if AMD wanted to make an Intel-compatible chipset, the company no longer has a license to produce chipsets based on Intel's specs. That pretty well kills that scenario--unless AMD manages to regain an Intel license, at which point all bets are off.

So how about a fully AMD/ATI laptop, and goodbye to Intel? Not likely. AMD's new Puma mobile platform is not getting good press; it's power hungry and its Turion Ultra processor is no Core 2 Duo-beater. Intel may not be at the top of the graphics heap, but the company certainly knows how to make cool-running, powerful, power-sipping processors and chipsets. AMD's processor and platform skills appear to be slipping.

And so we're left with one final scenario: Apple sticks with an Intel processor, but switches to an Nvidia chipset to improve OpenCL and general graphics performance. Let's run down Nvidia's advantages: Great graphics expertise? Check. A license to produce Intel-compatible chipsets? Check. An available, top-notch chipset family? Check (MCP79). High-speed chip-interconnect technology? Check (SLI). Good GPU power-management technology? Check (HybridPower).

But there's one final element of this puzzle that swings my vote to Nvidia: it's a hungry company. Nvidia has had little success in the mobile market, despite a chipset that's both Intel-compatible and closely matched, feature-by-feature, with Centrino 2. A hungry company cuts favorable deals with its partners--and Steve Jobs is one hell of a deal-cutter.

Look for an Nvidia MCP79 chipset--and killer graphics power--in your next Apple laptop.

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