Centrino is out, but who is in?

Rumors, rumors, rumors. We seem to be hearing these about Apple on a daily basis and most recently about a possible move away from Intel’s chipset technologies on the MacBook line of products. Though we don’t often delve into the world of Apple we spent some time researching where Apple might go for a chipset replacement and the pieces came together rather easily.
UPDATE – we have an updated editorial on the subject of NVIDIA and Apple for the future of MacBooks updated on October 10th.  

The evidence has been mounting over the past weeks and now I can say with reasonable assuredness that future Apple notebooks, among other products, will likely have NVIDIA chipsets and graphics solutions in them come this fall.

I usually don’t spend much time writing about Apple, their escapades into the world of PCs and the like, but this story seems to have gripped the world of tech since the Apple earnings call on July 21st.  In that call the CFO of Apple mentioned an upcoming “product transition” but did not give any more details – and thus the speculation began.  Would this be that long-awaited tablet Mac?  What about just basic updates to the MacBook lineup?  Newer iPods coming down the line?

Since the CFO went out of his way to mention that this transition might affect margins in the second half of the year, we can be reasonably assured that this move isn’t going to be something simple like a basic product refresh. 

How NVIDIA will Invade and Change the Apple MacBook Line this Year - Mobile 5
MacBook Pro – no more Intel (chipsets) inside?

Just this week information began to seed out that the pending transition for Apple would involve the MacBook line moving away from Intel’s chipsets.  The speculation is that Intel’s recently released Montevina Centrino 2 platform was going to be passed over for the fall MacBook refresh in favor of something else: a third party chipset, custom designed chip, etc. 

Note that this does NOT mean a move away from Intel processors – the Core 2 would still be the primary CPU in a notebook using either Intel’s or another third parties chipset.

This does seem to be the most likely candidate for a change on Apple product line – the Centrino 2 launch has come and gone and Apple had plenty of opportunity to announce a line based on the new Intel technology.  They haven’t thus far and have said that the next Apple announcement wouldn’t come until the fall, likely in September, and that would make the Montevina technology a little stale and unexciting by that time.  Just doesn’t seem like Apple’s style, does it?

One of the most prevailing theories is that Apple is going to develop its own chipset and use that in the MacBook updates.  That is simply out of the question – the design process that is required for a modern day chipset that includes even decent integrated graphics is incredibly complex.  This would take much longer, and require many more resources than I think Apple has in its engineering team.  Designing their own core logic and IGP chipset just isn’t in the equation at this point.

That leaves a third party – both AMD and NVIDIA are the likely suitors.  Many readers will think of Apple’s current partnership with ATI (now part of AMD) on discrete graphics and see a logical path to using ATI’s chipset technologies in upcoming products.  However, that is unlikely to be the case simply because AMD doesn’t have a top-shelf chipset product available for Intel’s Core 2 processors.  AMD/ATI’s mobile segments have been spending all of their time on the Puma platform – a sound and competitive mobile solution but one that solely uses AMD’s processors; a move Apple is very unlikely to make. 

How NVIDIA will Invade and Change the Apple MacBook Line this Year - Mobile 6
Might you soon see NVIDIA inside this MacBook?

If we take away the honorable mention that is VIA Technologies (let’s be serious here guys), that really leaves only one company by process of elimination.  NVIDIA is a much more reasonable solution for Apple; and what do we see here, just released yesterday?  NVIDIA has announced a new line up of mobile chipsets and mobility GPUs, right on schedule: the GeForce 9800M and 9700M parts join the existing GeForce 9600M to round out a complete refresh in their lineup. 

Not all notebooks, especially those with higher battery life requirements, will have discrete mobile graphics and NVIDIA’s long-developed MCP79 chip is the likely candidate for Apple to adopt.  This mobility chipset from NVIDIA integrates a DX10 graphics core with support for HybridPower and HybridSLI technologies as well as HDMI, 1066 MHz front-side bus, both DDR2 and DDR3 memory and much more.  And though we use the term “chipset” in this instance, the MCP79 is a actually just a single chip design unlike Intel’s Centrino 2 (Montevina) that has separate north bridge and south bridge chips.

Let’s not forget that Intel’s integrated graphics on their chipset has been very poor compared to the competing parts from NVIDIA (and ATI) for years and one stigma attached to Apple’s notebooks and iMacs is the lack of any gaming support.  A transition to NVIDIA chipsets and GPUs would definitely fix that problem.

Another interesting note about NVIDIA and their mobility plans is that they have been surprisingly silent for quite some time; there have been no planned media summits or technology days on these well known mobility products and that fits in with the traditional Apple mentality of keeping their partners silent as long as possible.  If an OEM asks you to pull back on promoting a product you have had in development for this long, that OEM had better be as big a name as Apple.

The pieces just fit too well:
  1. NVIDIA has been developing an answer to Intel’s Montevina chip for a while and has not been shy about it
  2. That same MCP79 chip has the ability to scale from ultra-low power versions to small-form-factor machines fitting in with Apple’s range of products
  3. A new refresh on mobility discrete GPUs for the fall (and support for HybridPower and HybridSLI) combines with MCP79 for a very impressive mobile lineup
  4. Insiders pointing at a switch in Apple’s MacBook hardware
Some of the companies that manufacture Apple’s products also make other brands and some interesting combinations of product codenames have been floating around the web recently.  Pairs of NVIDIA technologies like a mid-range MCP79 part and the GeForce 9600M GT would be perfect for the notebooks segment offering both low power consumption and great gaming performance with NVIDIA Hybrid technologies that allow the discrete GPU to be completely shut off when not in use and turn on (without a reboot) when needed.  The MCP79U is going to be their ultra-low-voltage version and would be a most likely candidate for an ultra-mobile like the MacBook Air. 

How NVIDIA will Invade and Change the Apple MacBook Line this Year - Mobile 7
Looks tasty, doesn’t it?

I have also seen reports of the a faster version of the chipset combined with both the GeForce 9600M GT and GeForce 9800M GT (just announced yesterday) that would probably be too power hungry for a 13” or 15” machine.  These are most likely to be seen in updates for a 17” or larger MacBook Pro or iMacs. 

To me, there is no doubt that come fall you will find updated MacBooks and MacBook Pros with NVIDIA chipsets and GPUs inside.  An updated 13” MacBook and 15” MacBook Pro are the most likely initial releases according to sources – all you Apple fans should start saving now.  And if the MCP79 can run at power levels as low as I am hearing then it’s also conceivable we might see an updated MacBook Air ( though less likely due to its recent release).

How NVIDIA will Invade and Change the Apple MacBook Line this Year - Mobile 8
Is your new MacBook Air already out dated?

Obviously NVIDIA’s chipsets and GPUs scale very well the other direction, towards the high end, and thus once NVIDIA can get their foot in the door we might see the entire lineup of Apple products migrate over to NVIDIA products: iMacs, Mac Pros, etc. 

This is obviously some much needed good news for NVIDIA as well – the stock has been tanking since the problems with a previous generation of mobile chipsets has crept up.  Hopefully Apple has turned a blind-eye to those issues and is looking ahead to the two companies pending partnership.

If you have any comments or questions on this editorial, feel free to email me directly or jump into our technology forum to see what others are saying on it!

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