Intel (INTC) began aggressively focusing on integrated graphics performance, starting in earnest with 2011's "Sandy Bridge". In a few short weeks, Intel will launch its next generation, high performance "Haswell" parts for the premium/high end laptop and All-In-One markets. While there are substantial improvements to the "Haswell" core, the real magic at the high end is the dramatically improved on-die graphics. It seems that Apple's (AAPL) 13" "Retina" displays are about to be paired with "Iris" and "Iris Pro" graphics processors. Is it any coincidence that Intel's high end integrated graphics offering is named to go perfectly with Apple's highly regarded "Retina" displays?
The Product Stack
For reference, here is Intel's graphics product stack for convenience as you read this article:
15" Retina MacBook Pro Likely To Stay With Nvidia
While Intel's performance claims for its "Iris" graphics are bold and probably truthful in most cases, the high end 15" Retina MacBook Pro will still very likely feature discrete graphics. Not only does the 15" form factor have more than enough room for a real graphics chip, but consumers generally equate a discrete card, with probably more mind share geared towards Nvidia (NVDA), as "premium". Mac users would likely be none too happy to know that there are laptops out there sporting a better visual user experience, especially given the price tag (which once again, affords a high end GPU).
That being said, there is a chance that Apple tries to cut costs (discrete GPU + GDDR) and simply goes with an Iris Pro based Intel chip for this device. Maybe making the form factor even thinner would be another consideration. This could possibly be an unacceptable step or two down in performance, however.
13" Retina MacBook Pro: Hello, Iris!
Intel has designed an Ultrabook chip with high end "Iris" graphics. This is the same graphics engine that underlies the "Iris Pro", but doesn't come with embedded DRAM, so it's less power hungry (and also probably comes with 2 cores instead of 4) but at the same time is slower.
I would wager that Apple's retina MacBook Pro 13" comes with a dual core/four thread 28W Ultrabook chip with "Iris" graphics. This should much better address the rather demanding performance requirements of the 2560x1600 display on such devices without the need to pop in a discrete graphics chip.
13" MacBook Air: Intel HD Graphics, It Is...
I'm somewhat surprised that Intel didn't name all of its "GT3" parts with some sort of "Iris" name. I know that the "Iris Pro" is the top tier, and "Iris" is the standard, but this means that only larger Ultrabooks - as well as only the higher end MacBooks - get the benefit of higher end naming. Perhaps Intel knows it's not trying to win any mind-share in the Ultrabook space against Nvidia since discrete cards rarely appear in these devices, so the branding is only reserved for parts that could potentially go head to head with a discrete solution.
In any case, the Air 13" actually gets not only a substantial graphics boost, but it benefits from all of the power saving goodness and integration of the PCH (traditionally a separate chip) onto the same package. This means that the Ultrabook Haswell not only lowers TDP from 17W to 15W, but it also means that this TDP now includes a platform controller hub which usually accounted for a good 2-4W of power on top of the 17W maximum of the CPU. This is a pretty big deal.
11" MacBook Air: Somewhat Of A Weird Situation...
This one is actually tough to call. History would suggest that it just use the same type of low power "Core" chip from Intel, but I'm thinking this such a device could actually use one of the upcoming notebook/convertible oriented "Baytrail" Atom parts. Not only would Apple be able to reduce costs significantly because even the best Atom part is likely to be cheaper than the cheapest Ultrabook part, but it would enable a fanless MacBook Air (ironic as the name would now become - perhaps "Airless" is a better name?), and it would help to more clearly drive up-sell to the 13" Air should the user desire more performance. Also, the cheaper chip would enable more room in the BoM for a higher resolution screen at a pretty affordable price - which could drive significantly more volume and drive more market share for Apple.
Apple Will Win With Its New Refresh, Intel Proves It's Apple's Friend
Apple's new Mac refresh should be quite good. The Retina MacBook Pro is already a best-in-class high end notebook, and the MacBook Air should get a much needed kick in the pants. But the real takeaway here is that Intel essentially will bend to Apple's will. The "Iris" graphics were clearly motivated by Apple, which as seen in its own "A" series chips, places graphics above all else in its systems. Higher resolutions are excellent, and Apple's MacOS is still quite a ways ahead of Windows at supporting such resolutions, so it seems only natural that Apple would be giving Intel the graphical kick in the pants that the majority of the mainstream PC ecosystem never did.
For those of you confident that Apple will be moving away from Intel's processors for its Macs, think again - Intel will do anything and everything to make its chips so desirable that Apple would feel silly moving to an in-house design.