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Inside coming MacBooks: Oh, the possibilities

Chipmaker's "Nehalem" Core i architecture is finally coming to the mainstream mobile space. New MacBook Pros will follow.

Intel is about to roll out some pretty impressive mobile processors, finally bringing its "Nehalem" Core i architecture to the mainstream mobile space. So, what can we expect from Apple?

First, a little recent history. Apple, so far, has elected not to use the Core i7 quad-core mobile processors announced back in September in its MacBook Pro line. Which isn't that surprising. The first crop of laptop i7s barely qualify as mobile processors: they have a desktop-like TDP (thermal design power) of 45 watts that wreaks havoc on battery life.

That said, as an example of what an Apple rival has chosen to do, the Hewlett-Packard Envy 15 now offers both the i7-720QM (1.6GHz, 6MB cache) and i7-820QM (1.73GHz, 8MB Cache)--both quad-core Core i7 processors.

A big imponderable is whether Apple will adopt a future 32-nanometer version of the quad-core mobile i series for the 17-inch MacBook Pro. Presumably, this would have a lower TDP and be more amenable to Apple.

Now, for some armchair analysis. Arrandale: One of the burning questions (at least among some in the tech media) is whether new MacBooks will use Intel's "Arrandale" mobile Core i series of processors. Arrandale is significant for two reasons: it is part of Intel's 32-nanometer chip roll-out and is the first instance of Intel combining the graphics function with the main "CPU" processor. This results in better overall power efficiency and integrated graphics performance that "doesn't suck" anymore, as some observers have put it.

One school of thought is that Apple will not use the processor. If there is any truth to that rumor, that makes for a head-scratching scenario since Arrandale will be the pillar of the mobile Core i3 and i5 lineups. A likely scenario is that Apple--one way or another--chooses to attach Nvidia or ATI discrete graphics processors to Arrandale, or a facsimile thereof.

Nvidia or ATI: And speaking of Nvidia and ATI, instead of trying to second-guess Apple on all of the possible graphics chip permutations, the easier question to ask is: which graphics chip supplier will prevail this time around? Nvidia--despite defects in some of its past offerings--has been dominant over the last year or so across the MacBook lineup. Will this continue? Or will Apple strike more of a balance between Nvidia and ATI?

Remember, that Apple is touting the general compute function of the graphics processing unit, or GPU, in OS X Snow Leopard. "Now a new technology in Mac OS X Snow Leopard called OpenCL takes the power of graphics processors and makes it available for general-purpose computing," according to Apple ad copy. (Translation: using the GPU more like general-purpose CPU.) Are Nvidia and ATI OpenCL equals?

MacBook Air: And what, pray tell, will happen to the MacBook Air? Which is coming up on its second anniversary in January. I won't venture a guess (not yet at least), though I have a personal interest in this subject since I have been using an Air since February 2008.

Blu-ray: And finally, next-generation optical drives. Will MacBook Pros finally get Blu-ray? Maybe. There seems to be some pessimism about Apple adopting Blu-ray, as reader comments (and threads on other forums) suggest.

Apple, in all of its wisdom, will provide the answers to these questions soon enough.

Updated at 6:05 p.m. PST: adding Blu-ray discussion.