Will this tantalizing tech make it into the new MacBook?

It's part no-brainer, part wishful thinking when speculating about the upcoming MacBook.

A MacBook Pro-class design as thin as an Air?
A MacBook Pro-class design as thin as an Air? Apple

What's in the next spin of the MacBook Pro? 0ne answer is obvious, others are guesswork.

The obvious? Intel's newest Ivy Bridge chip. The guesswork? A thinner MBP made possible by ripping out the optical drive, a la the MacBook Air. And here's some more wishful thinking:

Retina display: A Pro (or maybe a new Air at some point?) with a 2,560x1,600 resolution display? That's the resolution that Intel's Kirk Skaugen mentioned this week at an Intel conference in Beijing in connection with the upcoming Ivy Bridge chip. And he specifically used the word "Retina," referencing Apple's marketing term for a screen where the resolution is high enough that you cannot see the actual pixels. (Note that he said Sandy Bridge was also "Retina Display capable" so the part about support for Retina-class displays wasn't exactly news.)

Sharp announced this week that it has started production of IGZO (indium gallium zinc oxide) LCDs with a resolution of 2,560x1,600. At the moment, however, Sharp is specifying 2,560x1,600 for 10-inch class displays, not a 15-inch size. Samsung has made noise about these displays too -- not to mention the fact that it makes the new iPad's Retina display.

Intel-only or Nvidia/AMD graphics?: "With larger screen sizes, you want more pixels, and when you want more pixels you need more graphics hardware behind it," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight64. "Look at what Apple did when they came out with the new iPad (which has a Retina display). They doubled the number of GPU cores because they had so many more pixels. Whether Ivy Bridge can handle all those extra pixels that comfortably, remains to be seen," Brookwood said.

15-inch ultrabooks (or facsimiles thereof) are already sporting new Nvidia chips. The just-released Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 packs Nvidia's latest mobile GPU, the "Kepler" GT 640M graphics processing unit (GPU). Is this the direction Apple will go?

Maybe the better question is, can it? The Acer M3 is thin (20mm) but not the kind of thin we've come to expect in ultrabooks, so it's not clear if Nvidia graphics can be squeezed into sub 0.7-inch designs. And the M3 has anything but a Retina-class display at a mere 1,366x768 pixels.

But Ivy Bridge packs a bigger punch: "There's two flavors of Ivy Bridge depending on the chip and the number of [graphics-specific processors]," said Brookwood. "There's one -- which has 16 (processing units) -- where Intel is devoting an awful lot of chip real estate to the graphics components. Obviously, to make the graphics go faster." And Brookwood added that by devoting roughly half of the chip real estate to graphics, Intel chip design is trending more toward that of AMD, which allocates as much as two-thirds of the chip to graphics on some processors.

Thunderbolt and USB 3.0: USB 3.0 finally on a MacBook? Well, it would seem to be a no-brainer as Intel supports USB 3.0 in its Ivy Bridge chipset . And Thunderbolt-equipped MacBooks could get updated Thunderbolt chips with improved power efficiency, among other tweaks.

Less-expensive SSDs: The MacBook Pro is already offered with solid-state drives up to 512GB in capacity. That adds a tidy $1,100 to the price. The 128GB SSD adds $100. Could Apple go SSD-only like the Air and offer models at the same price of current MBPs with a 750GB 7200RPM hard disk drive?

OpenCL via Intel: This means Intel-based OpenCL support in even the thinnest Apple laptops. GPU-based OpenCL falls into the more generic category of "GPU Compute," which taps into the parallel processing capability of the GPU for everyday compute tasks. Support for OpenCL is not present in Sandy Bridge-based (2011) Airs (though it is supported in discrete GPUs from Nvidia and AMD). But it will be supported on Ivy Bridge.

"Clearly Apple has been a big booster of OpenCL. If you look at all of the browsers out there today -- Explorer, Firefox, Chrome -- they use the GPU to tap into the graphics elements of HTML. And I'd be amazed if Apple hadn't followed a similar path with Safari." Even Microsoft Office uses GPU compute, Brookwood said. OpenCL is also used in more obscure apps like face recognition.

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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