Apple to tap Intel's graphics for future MacBooks

Apple will move its MacBook line to Intel's Sandy Bridge processors in 2011, possibly squeezing out rival graphics chips, sources tell CNET.

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
4 min read

Apple has decided to use Intel's upcoming Sandy Bridge processors in its MacBook line, a transition that will occur in 2011, squeezing out Nvidia's graphics processors in at least some models of the popular laptops, sources have told CNET.

Future lower-end MacBooks are expected to use Intel's graphics chip tech.
Future lower-end MacBooks are expected to use Intel's graphics chip tech. Apple

Intel's newest processor, to be formally announced January 5 at the Consumer Electronics Show, will find its way into new MacBooks that will supersede current models, according to industry sources familiar with Apple's plans. Current MacBooks use Nvidia graphics chips along with Intel Core i series and Core 2 Duo processors. But due to the enhanced graphics capabilities of Sandy Bridge, Apple--at least for now--has determined that it will not continue using Nvidia's graphics processing units (GPUs) in some models.

MacBook models with screen sizes of 13 inches and below are expected to switch to Sandy Bridge-only graphics, while higher-end MacBook Pros are expected to use graphics from Advanced Micro Devices, according to sources. Whether Nvidia will still be present in higher-end models is unclear.

Sandy Bridge is a watershed processor for Intel because, for the first time in a mainstream product, the graphics chip is grafted directly onto the main processor, boosting performance, while essentially providing the graphics function for free. And the step up in performance may be enough for Apple to rely on Intel's graphics in some lower-end MacBooks.

"Historically, if you look at those low-end devices, the 13-inch class products, there's not a lot of room for a discrete GPU. So, going forward, if [Apple was] going to use Sandy Bridge in a low-end product, I think they would have to rely exclusively on the Sandy Bridge integrated graphics," according to Nathan Brookwood, the principal analyst at Insight64.

"I'd say...we can expect (about) 2x the performance of [that latest] graphics," said Anand Shimpi, CEO of tech Web site Anandtech, which has done a preview of Sandy Bridge's graphics performance. "At that level of performance, I don't see a need for discrete [standalone Nvidia or Advanced Micro Devices] graphics at the very low end," he said.

Apple already uses Intel graphics to some degree in MacBooks, which can switch between the Nvidia processor and more power-efficient integrated Intel graphics silicon. And the original MacBook Air used Intel graphics exclusively. But generally Apple has eschewed Intel's graphics technology in the past due to its inferior performance vis-a-vis Nvidia and AMD.

Adoption of Sandy Bridge in popular small MacBook designs would constitute one of the strongest endorsements of Intel technology since Apple made the seminal transition from IBM-Motorola PowerPC chips to Intel back in 2005. And a recognition that Intel's graphics technology, while maybe not the best, now offers the best price-performance for lower-end MacBooks.

Other considerations for Apple
One of the key underlying questions revolves around OpenCL, a software framework that can exploit a GPU's inherent ability to run certain applications much faster than a standard central processing unit, or CPU. OpenCL has been touted as enabling "developers to tap the vast gigaflops of computing power" in graphics processors, according to Apple's Web page highlighting features of the OS X "Snow Leopard" operating system. OpenCL, for example, can be used in Apple' iLife titles, such as iPhoto for scene parsing and face recognition.

And OpenCL has been somewhat of a trump card for graphics chip supplier Nvidia, which already has support for the technology in its chips. Though Intel plans to support Open CL natively in its processors and has released Alpha drivers and a software development kit for Open CL, that support, as stated publicly, is CPU-centric and still at a nascent stage of development. However, Intel is also working on OpenCL for the graphics part of Sandy Bridge, according to sources.

Intel declined to comment directly on Apple's plans, but regarding OpenCL it would only tell CNET: "In terms of full product support, we continue to evaluate when and where OpenCL will intercept our various products."

Another factor impacting future processor decisions by Apple is the legal wrangling between Intel and Nvidia. In February 2009, Intel filed suit against Nvidia in an attempt to enjoin Nvidia from stating it has license rights to future Intel data bus (data channel) technology. If Intel prevails, Nvidia would be unable to sell its chipsets for use with Intel processors beyond the Core 2 Duo generation of technology. In effect, precluding Nvidia from making chipsets for current Core i series processors and upcoming Sandy Bridge chips. This, in fact, is one of the reasons that Apple is using old Core 2 Duo Intel processors in its new MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pros. Nvidia's rights to the Core 2 Duo bus allows Apple to use high-performance Nvidia graphics chipsets in thin MacBook designs.

Apple could sidestep these legal minefields--and the expected complaints from some consumers about the use of old chip technology--in the future by using Sandy Bridge graphics in 13-inch and smaller MacBooks, while continuing with its strategy of using discrete GPUs from Nvidia or AMD in the higher-end MacBook Pros.

Maybe just as importantly, Apple's intentions and needs can change quickly. With Apple ranked as the No. 3 maker of personal computers in the U.S--and growing--this could simply be hinting at intense negotiations. As of now, Nvidia appears to have the most to lose and Intel the most to gain. Though Nvidia doesn't provide a breakdown of the percentage of business it does with Apple, it states in its Form 10-K that its "GPU business is focused on Microsoft Windows and Apple PC platforms."

AMD is still a wild card on the CPU side, though its graphics processors are offered on Mac Pros. But Brookwood believes low-end MacBooks are also future candidates--possibly further down the road--for AMD's "Fusion" technology, which combines AMD's Intel-compatible processors with its high-performance ATI graphics chips. "Those lower-end MacBooks are sitting ducks for AMD Fusion processors," he said.

Both Apple and Nvidia declined to comment for this story.