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Future MacBook chips will look like this

Low-power versions of Intel's "Sandy Bridge" processors are showing up in the chipmaker's database--a preview of future MacBook processors.

Low-power versions of Intel's latest and greatest "Sandy Bridge" processors are populating the chipmaker's database, giving a pretty clear view of the chips small MacBooks will use in the future.

MacBook Air
MacBook Air Apple

Small, in this case, could be anything from a future 13-inch MacBook Pro (currently 4.5 pounds, 0.95 inches thick) to an updated MacBook Air (currently no more than 2.9 pounds and 0.11 to 0.68 inches thick)--the latter expected in the summer timeframe.

The "launch date" for the low-power chips highlighted in the graphic below is listed in Intel's database as "02/20/2011."

It bears repeating that Sandy Bridge combines the graphics function (previously a separate slice of silicon) with the main processor--a first for Intel in its Core series of products. So, a power-efficient Sandy Bridge processor rated at 17 watts is comparable to older, less-integrated Core 2 Duo 10-watt chips.

Which leads to a sore point for some prospective 2010 MacBook Air buyers (or current users). The 11.6-inch Airs use the old 10-watt Core 2 Duo combined with Nvidia's GeForce 320M graphics-based chipset, as I've pointed out before. (In Intel nomenclature, the wattage rating is called TDP, or thermal design power--see graphic). The 13.3-inch Airs use slightly less power-efficient Core 2 Duo processors with Nvidia's chipset.

The use of older Core 2 Duo chips is probably not an issue for the vast majority of people who buy the new Airs but for some (like me) it is a bit vexing that Apple essentially uses the same Intel processor technology as the original MacBook Air introduced three years ago.

Low-power Sandy Bridge chips highlighted in black
Low-power Sandy Bridge chips highlighted in black Intel

But on a more positive note, these upcoming MacBooks are certainly something to look forward to. And Intel is just now getting ready to push these power-efficient versions of Sandy Bridge out the door in volume, packing goodies like Turbo Boost 2.0 and Hyper-Threading.

And on another optimistic note, we may see new MacBook Pros before the Air updates. Chips going into Pros would also include--in addition to the Core i7 Sandy Bridge chips listed above--Core i5 versions with the same launch date of 02/20/2011. These include the 2.6GHz i5-2540M (35 watts), the 1.4GHz i5-2537M (17 watts), and the 2.5GHz i5-2520M (35 watts).

And let me end with some wishful thinking: the sooner, the better--though I'm pretty sure Apple isn't listening.