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Nvidia, Intel vie for lead role at Apple

Silicon from graphics chipmaker Nvidia continues to play a big role in MacBooks--sometimes at the expense of heavyweight Intel.

Nvidia is once again playing a central role in Apple's new MacBooks, curbing to some extent the immense influence of industry giant Intel.

In order to understand what Apple is--and has been--doing with its MacBook Pro design, jettison the conventional notion of an Intel-centric PC universe. Graphics oomph defines the MacBook experience. "They have affirmed the message Nvidia has been sending," said Ben Bajarin with Creative Strategies.

Apple MacBook Pros are heavy on graphics performance. Apple

That message is more reliance on the GPU, or graphics processing unit and, hence, equal standing with Intel's CPU, or central processing unit. An idea that dovetails nicely with Apple's focus on providing a premium multimedia experience centered on "photos, movies, music"--as Apple describes it.

"Incremental [processing] workloads are being driven more by video and graphics and that's where Nvidia comes into play," said Ashok Kumar, an analyst at Rodman & Renshaw. Says Bajarin: "Apple is strategically writing software that is able to harness the GPU."

Indeed, the most talked-about new feature in the MacBook Pro systems announced last week is the ability to switch on the fly from the energy-efficient, less-capable Intel graphics to more powerful Nvidia graphics, a process that Apple calls automatic graphics switching. "They absolutely don't want to make any compromise relative to high-end graphics," said Van Baker, an analyst at the Gartner Group.

Another indication of Apple's emphasis on graphics processing over the CPU is the recently updated 13-inch MacBook Pro. Apple chose to not upgrade from the older Intel Core 2 processor design, but rather to upgrade the Nvidia graphics chip. "The combination of a GPU and a lower-performance Intel CPU actually yields better benchmarks and performance and is priced more favorably," Bajarin said. Baker, meanwhile, points out that Apple also had "space constraints within that design while they wanted high-end graphics performance."

This emphasis on Nvidia graphics in laptops is not a recent trend. In the previous generation of MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air systems, Apple chose to go with Nvidia chipsets--the silicon that accompanies the main processor--not the industry-standard Intel chipset. (The MacBook Air is still sold today with that Nvidia 9400M chipset.)

But with the most recent MacBook Pro update, legal skirmishing between Intel and Nvidia made the Nvidia chipset option impossible. Intel claimed in a February 2009 legal filing that an older chipset license agreement with Nvidia does not extend to Intel's Core i series of processors. And Nvidia has countersued.

It would be rash, of course, to diminish Intel's role too much. The merits of the Core i5 and i7 processors in the new 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros are very visibly documented on Apple's Web site. "Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors boost performance up to 50 percent over the previous generation...these are the fastest dual-core processors available and they set an all-new benchmark for Mac notebooks," according to Apple.

"In general, the Mac is graphics-intensive," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at the Altimeter Group. But he added that's more of a function of striking a balance between the Intel CPU and Nvidia GPU. "You want to make the best combination of processor and GPU that allows your operating system to yield great performance and at the same time also maximize battery life."