Apple rumor check: The MacBook Air 'delay'

A theory goes that a new MacBook Air has been delayed due to an Intel chip shipment snafu. So, what's going on?

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
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.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

Apple rumors can be stubborn things. Repeated often enough, they become stubborn facts.

It's been more than a year since the last refresh of the MacBook Air. And for consumers waiting impatiently for the update, this AppleInsider report would seem to be a setback.

So, what's going on? The theory goes that the new MacBook Air--which, in the past, has used a special power-frugal version of a standard Intel processor--has been delayed due to an Intel chip shipment snafu.

It's an intriguing rumor--except that power-efficient versions of new Intel processors always ship later than standard models. And this would be the case even if Apple were to get special expedited orders of these chips from Intel. (That's not to mention the fact that there is no hard MacBook Air launch date to base a "delay" on--which I will address below).

So, let's be clear: all laptops using power-sipping versions of Intel processors always ship later than laptops with standard-power versions. Erik Reid, Intel's director of marketing for its Mobile Products Group, told me at the recent Consumer Electronics Show that this is still the case for the new Core i series of chips, including the new mobile Core i5. (However, Reid and other Intel folks at CES did say that low-power mobile Core i chips will ship a bit sooner than has been traditionally the case with this class of Intel processor.)

Of course, it goes without saying that nobody but Apple knows what will ultimately happen to the MacBook Air. Or if Apple is going to use the Core i5 processor in a new version of the MacBook Air--or, even if Apple does use the Core i5, how it may choose to implement the processor, i.e., with or without Intel graphics.

That said, we do know this about Intel's new low-voltage specifications, particularly for the low-voltage i5. (Low-voltage Intel processors, by the way, are typically referred to as ultra-low-voltage or "ULV.") To date, Intel's ULV chips were rated typically at 10 watts--which is less than a third of the 35-watt rating of standard Intel mobile processors. But Intel is rejiggering this method of rating power efficiency a bit to account for the new "Arrandale" chip design that packages the graphics silicon together with the main Intel processor, according to Reid.

So a Core i chip rated at, let's say, 18 watts will now be considered a ULV processor. Again, this is done to account for the additional power load of the graphics circuits that, before, were in a separate chip package called the chipset.

Intel processor facts aside, what does all of this say about the nonstop, round-the-clock Apple rumor factory? Because Apple rumors are so prolific, it's not a stretch to say that occasionally spurious connections are made between Apple and some industry trend or event. In this case, it seems that an established Intel tradition of staggering processor rollouts has been misinterpreted as a delay.

Of course, everyone in the media (including me) these days is guilty of trading on Mac rumors, which is often an exercise in overstimulated imagination rather than fact checking. So, rumors aside, let's just say that I hope Apple really is updating the MacBook Air, considering--as I said in a previous post--the fact that the Air has not seen a substantive redesign since it was introduced two years ago, almost to the day.