Will skinny MacBooks get beefy graphics?

New MacBook Airs in the pipeline may stick with Intel graphics silicon and not get more powerful "discrete" graphics, says a report.

Back in the day: the older MacBook Air design that used an Nvidia graphics chipset.
Back in the day: the older MacBook Air design that used an Nvidia graphics chipset. Apple

Will Apple put brawny graphics in its upcoming lean laptops? One chip site claims it's not looking good.

A chip-centric site is dropping not-so-subtle hints that some of Apple's upcoming thin laptops may be bereft of a separate graphics chip.

Today, Apple's thinnest laptop line, the MacBook Air, comes with stock Intel graphics silicon, built right into the processor. But that hasn't always been the case. First, a little history.

  • Gen 1 (early 2008): Intel Core 2 Duo with Intel X3100 graphics. Despite a stunning design, the first Air ran hot, didn't have great battery life, and had subpar graphics. Way back then Intel's graphics silicon really was not very good. (I know, I used one day in a day out for more than a year).
  • Gen 2 (late 2008): Updated Intel Core 2 Duo with Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics chipset. This was better. Still ran hot (though not as hot as Gen 1) and still didn't have great battery life but the graphics improved.
  • Gen 3 (late 2010) : Intel Core 2 Duo with Nvidia GeForce 320M chipset. Vastly improved. Didn't run hot, got good battery life, and graphics got another boost. The Nvidia 320M has 48 graphics processor cores compared to 16 in the previous-generation 9400M.
  • Gen 4 (mid 2011): Intel Sandy Bridge 2nd generation Intel Core processors and stock Intel HD 3000 graphics. Needless to say, better performance, good battery life, runs cool for the most part. Intel graphics delivered for most users, though some review sites said it was a step back.
  • Gen 5?: Intel Ivy Bridge processors with stock Intel HD 4000 graphics? Or Nvidia standalone (discrete) graphics? Or Advanced Micro Devices graphics? Semiaccurate claims that Nvidia could be kicked out (but that supposes that they were in to begin with). No word on Advanced Micro Devices' graphics.

    About the last bullet point, Semiaccurate said that Apple "changed their orders" and speculates that next-gen low and mid-range MacBooks are going to get Intel's Ivy Bridge graphics silicon.

    The report continues. "Our analysis indicates that the lower end MacBooks will simply do without a [discrete] GPU, the higher end parts will remain unchanged, and the middle ground will have some models with and some without a GPU instead of almost all with a discrete Nvidia GPU."

    The report goes on to make more claims about the fate of Nvidia, but I'll let the reader go to the source for those details.

    Speculation aside, is it necessary for Apple to integrate a separate Nvidia or AMD graphics chip into lower-end models? In light of the expected boost in Ivy Bridge's performance and the fact that Apple can squeeze just so much silicon into a thin design, plus the potential hit to battery life that a separate GPU incurs.

    Nvidia declined to comment.

  • 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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