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What kind of heat is the future 15-inch MacBook packing?

What does Apple have planned for the new 15-inch MacBook? Oh, the possibilities.

The upcoming 15-inch MacBook is expected to pack plenty of brawny silicon despite its svelte dimensions. With speculation on its specs rife, it's time to take a crack at what may be under the hood.

Graphics: Apple's redesigned MacBook may return to Nvidia graphics, as reported by 9to5Mac.

That would be the first time Apple has opted for Nvidia in a MacBook since earlier versions of the Air. Current 15-inch MacBook Pros have ATI graphics chips, and MacBook Airs sport integrated Intel graphics processing units (GPUs).

Note that a report back in March said Nvidia wouldn't make it into new MacBooks because of 28-nanometer manufacturing issues. But chip manufacturing is typically a very fluid situation. In an interview with Nvidia I did shortly after that, the company's mobile chief, Rene Haas, said "we're in production to multiple vendors," while acknowledging manufacturing challenges.

One GPU prospect is the Nvidia GeForce GT 650M. That's one of the newest "Kepler" chips, which packs 384 "shader" cores (GPU processor cores), twice as many as the previous "Fermi" generation of Nvidia silicon, according to Notebookcheck. The 28-nanometer 650M operates at speeds of up to 850MHz.

In short, not a poky GPU for a laptop that should be skinnier than the current 0.95-inch-thick 15-inch MacBook Pro.

If Nvidia production problems persist, could Apple stick with ATI chips or even the lower-end GPU built into Intel's Ivy Bridge processor? Yeah, anything's possible, but Apple is wont to bounce back and forth between ATI and Nvidia from generation to generation of MBs. And it seems unlikely that Apple would settle for an Intel Ivy Bridge GPU in a higher-performance MacBook with a Retina display (as rumored).

Intel list of Ivy Bridge quad-core silicon now shipping.
Intel list of Ivy Bridge quad-core silicon now shipping. Intel

And in case you haven't noticed, Apple likes fast graphics. Look no further than the third-generation iPad, which went with quad-core graphics but stayed with basically the same dual-core central processing unit (CPU).

Main processor: That would be Ivy Bridge. That's pretty much a no-brainer. Intel is already shipping the quad-core variety (see graphic) that Apple could use.

Note that all of the quad-core Ivy Bridge chips shown in the graphic are fairly power-hungry 45-watt processors, with the exception of the 3612QM, which is 35 watts. The 3612QM would be considered a power-efficient quad-core processor and a candidate for the new 15-inch MacBook. Of course, Intel could come out with more power-efficient quad-core SKUs in the coming months.

The other option is even more power-frugal dual-core variants due in early June -- around the same time that Apple may announce the new MacBook (at WWDC in June). Those Intel chips will have power envelopes of only 17 watts, making them suitable for sub 0.8-inch thick designs.

Whichever Apple chooses, all Ivy Bridge chips will come with built-in support for USB 3.0, which would be a first for the MacBook.