How fast will Apple move MacBooks to latest chips?

Following Intel's announcement that it will resume shipments of its newest silicon, will Apple move MacBooks posthaste to new Intel chips?

So, here's the question: In the wake of Intel's disclosure that it will resume regular shipments of its "Sandy Bridge" silicon, how fast will Apple move the MacBook to the latest Intel chips?

The 17-inch MacBook Pro adopted Intel's Core i5 and i7 mobile chips relatively soon after their introduction.
The 17-inch MacBook Pro adopted Intel's Core i5 and i7 mobile chips relatively soon after their introduction. Apple

MacBook Pros: It's a pretty safe bet that Apple will upgrade 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros to Sandy Bridge--announced in January--sooner rather than later. Last year, Apple adopted the Core i5 and i7 processors for the 15-inch and 17-inch Pros in April: amounting to little more than a three month wait after the chips were introduced in early 2010. The Sandy Bridge chipset glitch notwithstanding, timing should be similar--or earlier. (Remember this was a minor glitch, causing only a small hiccup in Intel's shipment schedule.)

MacBook Air: But that's only half the story. The company has been displaying some counterintuitive thinking recently. I'm speaking, of course, about the 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air (which, regular readers of this blog know, I've devoted more than a little ink to.) The Intel internals--essentially the brain of the system--of the smaller Pros and Air have remained relatively static for years (three in the case of the Air).

And an intriguing aspect of this strategy is that it doesn't seem to be impacting 2010 Air sales materially. The 2010 MBA is proving to be even more popular than its predecessors in spite of the processor inertia.

But is three years too long?

"That's a long time," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight64, a chip consulting firm. "The Core 2 Duo (the chip Apple uses now in the Air) is a decent product. But you're going to see a lot of thin-and-light Sandy Bridge products from Apple competitors--the Dells of the world--that are attractively styled. And the Air is going to start to look a little dated. So, I think they do need to move to Sandy Bridge."

A review by Anand Shimpi, at Anandtech states more or less the same thing, but in a different way. "The 13-inch MacBook Air performs as well as last year's 13-inch MacBook Pro. But if you plan on doing real work, you'll be hampered by the performance of these systems. Apple really needs to find a way to get an Arrandale or Sandy Bridge into this chassis," he wrote. Arrandale is Intel's previous generation of Core i series processors (what Apple currently uses), which predates Sandy Bridge.

What comes after Sandy Bridge? The next major change to Intel silicon will come with a chip code-named Ivy Bridge. But a power-efficient Ivy Bridge chip that Apple could use in the Air wouldn't likely be available until mid-2012, according to Brookwood.

But there's hope yet. Apple is expected to move the Air to Sandy Bridge this summer--and boldly go where no Air has gone before.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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