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Apple tests Sandy Bridge, returns to Intel video in MacBooks

updated 08:40 am EST, Thu December 9, 2010

Apple to use Sandy Bridge video in low-end MacBook

Apple has been testing Intel's Sandy Bridge processors for months and will in some cases use Intel's graphics for low-end MacBooks and the MacBook Air, according to multiple sources. Contacts close to Apple have told Electronista that Apple has been testing the new Core iX processors for months. It's unclear which models would get the chips first, but Apple's timing is likely to see it update its full-size MacBooks and MacBook Pros first with iMacs and Mac Pros to come later.

The initial wave of processors is being unveiled at CES in January and will focus on the processors that would most likely apply to its larger notebooks and the iMac. Among mobile processors, Apple would still have to turn to dual-core but would get its pick of 2.5GHz through to 2.7GHz Core i5 and i7 processors. Desktop processors would start with dual 2.5GHz Core i3 parts and scale up to quad-core, 3.4GHz Core i7s.

Apple won't necessarily ship new computers in January, since it often takes time to integrate new components. However, the early testing suggests Apple has been hoping to keep a short interval between Intel's CES showing and an actual release.

Along with the processor upgrade, a new leak has argued that Apple is breaking away from its recent dependence on NVIDIA graphics in at least its notebooks. Lower-end models that today use NVIDIA's GeForce 320M chipset, such as the MacBook Air, plastic MacBook and possibly the 13-inch MacBook Pro, would use the new Sandy Bridge graphics core instead, CNET heard. Despite Intel's reputation, the swap wouldn't necessarily be a step backwards; early benchmarks have shown it competing with dedicated graphics and thus as fast or faster than NVIDIA's current option.

Higher-end MacBook Pro models would also shift away from NVIDIA hardware and would use AMD's dedicated video. The parts weren't named but would likely be part of the new Radeon HD 6000M series, which have already been made public and should get a full showing at CES. The 6500M is the most likely candidate since it's a direct parallel to the Mobility Radeon HD 5650 used in thin-and-light Windows notebooks like the HP Envy 14.

If accurate, the graphics leak could suggest Apple is making a deliberate tradeoff in relative performance, much as it did when choosing to keep using Core 2 Duos in some systems to get acceptable graphics speed. Sandy Bridge graphics aren't expected to support OpenCL and could suffer should Apple lean on the general-purpose acceleration more heavily in its apps or in Mac OS X Lion, but Apple would likely count on the major increase in CPU performance from Core i3 and faster chips to make up for the difference.

Intel wouldn't comment directly on the rumor but said it was still determining when and where to start using OpenCL.

The performance exchange could lead to the greatest leap on the MacBook Air whenever Intel launches its low-power Sandy bridge chips. Particularly on the 11-inch MacBook Air, Apple has been CPU-constrained and could use an ultra-low voltage Core i5 even in the smallest system, giving it Hyperthreading, Turbo Boost and other features unavailable to a Core 2 Duo.

Apple has mostly been locked out of using NVIDIA chipsets in smaller MacBooks due to the graphics firm's legal dispute with Intel over chipset licenses. Without NVIDIA integrated chipsets as an option for Core i3, i5 and i7 processors, Apple hasn't had the option of using modern processors in systems where space was an issue. A rumored upcoming settlement could bring NVIDIA back, but not in time for Apple to use it in an early 2011 notebook refresh.


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By Electronista Staff
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