UPDATE 4/3/10 2:30PM Eastern: Added mention of IPS display panels to specs page.
For about 3 months now, Intel’s new “Arrandale” mobile Core i3/i5/i7 processors have been on the market — offered by many of the major PC makers in their latest laptops — but have not yet been integrated into Apple’s products. These CPUs are part of Intel’s “Nehalem” family, a major generational leap from previous Core 2 technology. Nehalem-class chips have been at the heart of the Mac Pro and quad-core iMacs for some time, and offer numerous advantages.
Arrandale, though only a two-core design versus the quads in current Core i5/i7 desktops, is ahead of those desktop chips in a few areas. Notably, it is one of Intel’s first Nehalem chips built on a 32-nanometer manufacturing process; each step in shrinking silicon chip manufacturing processes brings about greater energy efficiency, better price/performance, and allows more transistors to be packed onto a smaller chip footprint.
These new mobile processors are actually two chips on a single package: one, the two-core CPU, is manufactured at 32nm. The other, manufactured with a 45nm process, contains a memory controller, integrated graphics processor (GMA HD), PCI Express controller and “DMI” interconnect (Direct Media Interface, similar to that used in the quad-core iMacs) controller. This unique two-process, two-chip package allows Intel to ramp up manufacturing yields more rapidly, reduce cost, and deliver an overall superior mobile hardware solution.
Like other Nehalem processors, Arrandale’s integration of the memory controller (and other elements like the PCIe controller) make it very difficult for third parties — such as Nvidia, supplier of chipsets for all of Apple’s recent-model Core 2 laptops — to bring their own chipsets to market for use with these CPUs. The technical issues are challenging but surmountable…it’s the legal ones that have Apple most concerned. Intel has not condoned or been friendly to the creation of third party Nehalem chipsets; there is a lot of legal maneuvering going on between them and Nvidia which has deterred Apple from utilizing Nvidia’s “Optimus” chipset designed for use with Arrandale.
Earlier this year, sources reported to Rumors that engineers at Infinite Loop had been prototyping both of its major options: either an all-Intel chipset (coupled with discrete graphics by ATi or Nvidia in high-end models), or Nvidia’s Optimus. But for the aforementioned reasons and several others, our analysis began to lean heavily in favor of the all-Intel solution. Notably, Apple and ATI/AMD have been working closely together on a software technology similar to the way Optimus works: switching automatically between integrated and discrete graphics processors to optimize battery life and performance, while also offering the capability of running both GPUs in parallel for even greater performance than the discrete GPU alone.
Another factor working against Optimus is the questionable value of having two integrated GPUs (one on the Arrandale CPU package, a second in the Optimus chipset) in a single laptop. This hasn’t deterred some PC makers from going this route, but Apple has very high standards for its designs. That’s one of the main reasons — along with some hiccups in Intel’s Arrandale chip/chipset supplies — that Infinite Loop is so late….even in comparison to its own roadmaps, which always indicated that they would not be first to market with these new chips and anticipated an announcement in February or early March.
It is still possible that Apple could bring Nvidia’s Optimus chipset to at least some models of the Macbook/Air/Pro families, but as we have said, there are many factors suggesting otherwise. For one thing, the software end of the Optimus technology is designed primarily for Microsoft Windows. Basic support for Linux may eventually be created by the open source community, but Nvidia doesn’t appear to be putting much work into anything other than Windows themselves. Whereas ATI has been devoting considerable resources to their own alternative technology specifically for pairing their discrete GPUs with Arrandale and are working closely with Apple on a version of this software for Mac OS X.
Given Nvidia’s recent problems in other areas (see our previous Roadmap 2010 article on the Mac Pro), Apple has been moving away from its previously very close relationship with them and toward a more balanced relationship with the two companies. The precise shape of that balance will play an instrumental role in the specs for the 2010 Macbook Pro lineup, and we’ve been following this moving target very closely.
Continue on to the next page for detailed specification predictions. (scroll past the ad)