Another Reason Why Apple Won’t Dump Intel in the Mac Anytime Soon

Apple's MacBook Pro with Retina Display, powered by Intel. Source: Apple. 

There's a lot of speculation these days that Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) is going to dump Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) in its highly popular line of Mac products. The argument is that Apple's chip design teams will eventually build a line of processors that will offer similar performance and power as Intel's parts, but will be able to do so more economically. Here's yet another counterargument. 

The Intel/Apple relationship seems good
In case you haven't noticed, Apple has been driving Intel's integrated graphics efforts hard. Since the introduction of Sandy Bridge in 2011, Intel has been much more serious about bringing competitive integrated graphics solutions to the market. To find an excellent example of just how Apple-driven Intel's chips are, look no further than Intel's Iris Pro graphics, first introduced in the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro.

Intel's highest end, Iris Pro-powered notebook chip. Source: PC Gamer.

What Intel did here was develop a special chip that dedicated a substantial amount of area to a large graphics block. On top of that, Intel designed a special, fast-embedded memory chip in order to overcome memory bandwidth -- that's how much data the chip can haul back and forth from memory per second -- limitations of traditional notebook memory configurations. Going forward, Intel is likely to continue to be aggressive in pushing its graphics architectures in order to satisfy Apple's needs.

Where will Apple get a big, fat graphics processor?
For Apple's A-series chips, it licenses graphics IP from a company known as Imagination Technologies (LSE: IMG  ) . There are plenty of low-power/mobile focused graphics IP vendors out there, but very few are willing to license higher-performance GPUs required for notebooks. Now, in this case, Apple would have a few options for beefy, high-end Mac-class graphics:

  • License from NVIDIA or AMD. Both NVIDIA (NASDAQ: NVDA  ) and Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD  ) have high-performance graphics IP. NVIDIA has publicly announced its intentions to license such IP (and this would be a big win for that program), but it is not inconceivable that AMD would be willing to license its GPU technology to Apple for integration into a "big" A-series chip. It has done so in the past for game console chips designed by others.
  • Roll its own. Apple has been hiring quite a few graphics processor designers, and several job listings have suggested that Apple is building a "world class" graphics IP team. Apple could simply develop its own.
  • Pay Imagination to do it. Apple could simply pay Imagination, its current GPU IP partner, to build a "special" large GPU IP block for Apple's needs.
  • License Intel's, fab at Intel. The final option would be to simply license the GPU IP from Intel, and then build that chip at Intel's Custom Foundry. If Apple really wanted to use its own designs in the Mac, Intel would probably vie for that foundry business anyway -- it's better than nothing.

However, all of this seems like a pretty big hassle for what amounts to about 20 million units per year of Mac shipments. Indeed, a CPU core that spans the iPad and Mac is possible, or a CPU core that spans iPad and iPhone is possible; but a core that spans high-end Mac, iPad, and iPhone would probably be very difficult to cost-effectively achieve, as these are all fundamentally different design targets.

Foolish bottom line
Make no mistake -- if Apple wanted to run far, far away from Intel, it could find a way to do so. Apple is a very rich, technically capable company; so where there's a will, there's a way -- even if it involves compromises. However, given the sheer amount of work that Intel seems to be willing to do in order to service Apple's needs, and given the very real structural advantages Intel has in developing high performance, PC-class processors, this still seems highly unlikely in the near-to-medium term. 

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Read/Post Comments (17) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2014, at 9:28 PM, ToxyFool wrote:

    Christ, this guy again? Ever pumping his own shares in Intel. Here's an idea: get someone unbiased to cover there companies.

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2014, at 10:41 PM, TMFAeassa wrote:

    ToxyFool

    Do you have any particular criticism of the content?

    Cheers,

    AE

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2014, at 10:46 PM, TEBuddy wrote:

    How about the nonsense titles you keep using? This manner of so matter of fact you believe of your opinions.

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2014, at 10:54 PM, TMFAeassa wrote:

    TEBuddy

    I'm not sure I understand your criticism. The purpose of this article is to explain why I believe it could be more trouble than it's worth for Apple to design its own chips for the Mac. I feel the content lines up pretty well with what the title promised.

    If you have any suggestions on how I could have made the title more useful to readers it would be very much appreciated.

    Cheers,

    AE

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2014, at 11:00 PM, GarySchuster wrote:

    In rhetoric you learn that one way to criticize a message is to attack the messenger. This strategy works best with readers that don't think critically. Ashraf's article is well written. He makes clear and reasonable assertions and draws from them logical conclusions. The article is very good. I hope no one sees anything useful in ToxyFool's comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2014, at 11:05 PM, TMFAeassa wrote:

    GarySchuster

    Thanks for the comment. I am thrilled that you enjoyed the article!

    Regards,

    AE

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2014, at 11:14 PM, masterwallstreet wrote:

    In my opinion only, I think Apple will dump Intel. not only is Apple going to dump Intel, but I think you will have a lot of insider selling before June 12. Intel is losing billions because they are selling their product at such a very low cost even taking a loss on their product in an attempt to take customers away from AMD. One question why are you trashing AMD and promoting Intel? Is it because you own shares of Intel? Maybe you should consider selling Intel and buying AMD. You might want to do this before the news hits on June 12. I have shares in AMD. I believe in AMD. They are the new frontier of cutting edge technology. On june 12 I will have a field day on Intel message board and I will post every five minutes on it until Intel drops down to about 30%. I will keep an eye on insider selling and as soon as I receive data I will do a lot of typing and let everybody know that they are dumping this fallen giant.

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2014, at 11:27 PM, masterwallstreet wrote:

    In my opinion only, there are several insider transactions on June 3 let the selling begin. How low will Intel go? big question.

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2014, at 11:35 PM, bleachingshills wrote:

    masterwallstreet

    Oh please, are you trying to armchair quarterback the upcoming June 12 ruling of the EU court on INTC's challenge to the fine its "commission" imposed on INTC?

    30% share drop?

    LMAO

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2014, at 11:36 PM, bleachingshills wrote:

    AMD pumpers from the YHOO message boards like "masterwallstreet" now loitering here?

    LMAO

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2014, at 11:47 PM, raghu78 wrote:

    Ashraf

    That bit about Apple licensing Intel GPU IP was horrible. Intel is the worst company for graphics IP. Apple has 3 options -

    1.) license from Nvidia or AMD

    2.) Pay Imagination to build GPU

    3.) Build own GPU

    Of these the first is the better option atleast in the short term till Apple can build their own world class GPUs.Almost everybody sees Apple transitioning to custom ARMv8 because Apple can control its chips and customize it the way they want. They can build custom accelerators into their chips for various tasks. Thats not possible with Intel which gives standard PC chips to Apple.

    Apple can go aggressive on chip sizes and core counts too. Apple can go for eight (or even more) ARMv8 Cyclone+ cores at 3.5 Ghz base clocks / 4 Ghz boost for the desktop at TSMC 16FF+. Intel is not going to transition to 8 cores for the high volume processors like core i5 even with Skylake. For tablets and phones they can go with 4 Cyclone+ cores at 1.5 Ghz base / 2.5 Ghz boost. For Mac Pro workstations 16 - 24 cores is easy.

    Apple's transition is one of the correct timing or "when" more than 'if" . Apple is readying the software infrastructure to run on ARMv8 which is the bigger challenge.

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2014, at 11:49 PM, raghu78 wrote:

    Ashraf

    That bit about Apple licensing Intel GPU IP was horrible. Intel is the worst company for graphics IP. Apple has 3 options -

    1.) license from Nvidia or AMD

    2.) Pay Imagination to build GPU

    3.) Build own GPU

    Of these the first is the better option atleast in the short term till Apple can build their own world class GPUs.Almost everybody sees Apple transitioning to custom ARMv8 because Apple can control its chips and customize it the way they want. They can build custom accelerators into their chips for various tasks. Thats not possible with Intel which gives standard PC chips to Apple.

    Apple can go aggressive on chip sizes and core counts too. Apple can go for eight (or even more) ARMv8 Cyclone+ cores at 3.5 Ghz base clocks / 4 Ghz boost for the desktop at TSMC 16FF+. Intel is not going to transition to 8 cores for the high volume processors like core i5 even with Skylake. For tablets and phones they can go with 4 Cyclone+ cores at 1.5 Ghz base / 2.5 Ghz boost. For Mac Pro workstations 16 - 24 cores is easy.

    Apple's transition is one of the correct timing or "when" more than 'if" . Apple is readying the software infrastructure to run on ARMv8 which is the bigger challenge.

  • Report this Comment On June 06, 2014, at 12:01 AM, ta152h wrote:

    Ashraf,

    You're probably right it's not going to happen in the near term, but it's probably inevitable.

    The way you're looking at it is too narrow. You're perspective, I believe, is that the money Apple would save on the Mac processors wouldn't make it worthwhile. But, there's a lot more to it.

    x86 is a bad instruction set. Try it and you'll want to bang your head against the wall, or because you already are. It's always been bad too, even when IBM chose it in 1981, everyone was hoping for the much more elegant 68000 processor.

    It's also different from what they use on most of their products. That's the big issue. They could save development costs, because a lot more code would be reusable. You'd also have better reliability, because you'd be able to test the code more extensively, and build more libraries that could be used cross-platform. Again, ARM is elegant, x86 grotesque. Those areas where performance is needed, you still have to do assembly, and you'll get better productivity with ARM.

    We already see Apple moving some of the iOS visuals to 10.10, so this cross-plaftorm work is real.

    Also keep in mind, a Mac is just a PC running a bad OS right now. The hardware is essentially the same. It's a lot easier to accept their higher cost when it's on a different platform. This is obviously a minor point, since most Mac users don't know this, and only some would care anyway.

    As far as getting GPU IP, I find it strangely amusing you think they'd consider licensing Intel GPU technology. It's extremely poor and inefficient, so why would they consider it? That is not Intel's strength, it's their glaring weakness. Certainly, AMD would make a good choice, as they are obviously willing to make offers that are easy for their partners. Intel doesn't have the technology, NVIDIA is a bit on the arrogant side. Nor does their technology do compute as well. Even so, either would work fine, but I think AMD would make a more aggressive offer.

    I do think it has to happen. The development costs of their platforms and software would benefit too much, and they don't want to be stuck with a low performance instruction set as ARM moves further upstream.

    I do agree that it would be very difficult to make one processor that covers the whole of phones and Macs, but a lot of the IP is reusable, and they could probably cover the entire line with two. Because they aren't paying the x86 penalty, it's a lot easier to make this happen.

    But, it's not near term. It's at least two years away, very possibly more.

  • Report this Comment On June 06, 2014, at 12:51 AM, TMFAeassa wrote:

    ta152h

    Thanks for the comment. I appreciate your viewpoint and thank you for keeping the discussion civil.

    Regards,

    AE

  • Report this Comment On June 06, 2014, at 1:58 AM, ToxyFool wrote:

    Aessa,

    Yes, I do take issue with content from someone who clearly has a vested interest in the subject matter. It is quite unfortunate TMF allows individuals to write about companies they have a stake in. Despite what you may claim you will never be objective.

  • Report this Comment On June 06, 2014, at 6:59 AM, melegross wrote:

    The way I see it is that while Intel may be upgrading graphics, it's not exclusive to Apple, and so they may get several months advantage, but after that, nada. Intel knows that as well. Would they do something exclusive for Apple? No, there aren't enough sales.

    But there are ways Apple could do this. It has to be remembered that graphics is only one thing holding this back. The other is CPU power. I recently saw a comparison between the A7 in the iPad to the i5 low power chip in the Surface Pro 3.

    The i5 was about twice as powerful. Now, that seems to be a major advantage for Intel there, but it's not. We're talking the newest i5 against last year's A7. A 22nm product against a 32nm product using much less power.

    Intel speeds their chips between 10-15% a year, so etimes even less. Apple is moving vastly faster, about 100% a year! though that will slow down in the future.

    What will Apple do this year? We know that they will be going to 20nm. That's a process cycle and a third ahead of the current design. This gives them options. The first is what everyone seems to expect, a four core A8. So we may get some core improvement, but not nearly as much as before, plus twice the improvement in multiprocessing performance. Pretty good overall.

    Also, of course, a big jump in graphics.

    But what if Apple didn't do this? What if, instead, they still use two cores, but about doubled core performance again? This has advantages for more ARM apps. But, Apple could do more. They have a lot of experience with dual chips going back to the G4.

    What if they added circuits to bond two chips as done in the Xeon? They could then use two chips for four times the performance while still having a substantially cheaper solution using no more power than the i5. Would this work for a Macbook Air?

    Remember that replacing an x86 with an ARM isn't that direct. Even though Apple no doubt has OS X running on ARM in the labs, the software for OS X will still be for x86, and we run into that pesky thing called emulation again. With emulation, you need a chip five times as powerful as the one being emulated in order to run software at about the same speed. Oops!

    I don't see anyone else mentioning this. They just assume Apple would force another change in development upon software producers, which I don't believe is viable.

    But wait! With Apple designing its own chips, something they didn't do previously for the Mac, they have options. They know what chip operations slow emulation down the most. It is mostly a handful of operations. They can build those into the ARM. When the OS sees the need, it will switch to those, rather than those from ARM. Emulation won't be so onerous. Apple could get decent performance without needing software developers to rewrite their software.

    This can work very well, if Apple was interested. Are they? Maybe we'll find out later this year when the new iPhone, or iPad comes,out.

    It's an interesting possibility, that isn't too difficult to do.

  • Report this Comment On June 06, 2014, at 10:57 AM, 4aapl wrote:

    Thanks for the article. Personally I think Apple learned long ago that it's worthwhile to have a backup plan or insurance policy. When they were unhappy with the 68xxx line, they switched to PPC's, but around then they also had at least one other solution they were looking at such as Xponential. I remember seeing the Mac OS run on that chip at a MWSF long ago.

    And then with with switch to Intel, they had had a few people working on it for a while, so it wasn't a completely new thing started from scratch when they decided that it was time to switch processors.

    If Intel flubs development, or starts charging much more, or the Ax series just starts completely outperforming the current Intel chips in one form or another (processing power, energy/heat, cost, etc) then they have options. And that could mean just moving one device over, like a low end MacBook Air, where some of those considerations might matter more than others.

    BTW, personally I like to see articles by people that own the stock they are talking about, especially if they have owned it for at least a bit. I even wish it were a requirement for people to own a position, long or short, in the stock they are writing about. As long as they state it, I don't see a conflict of interest.

    I know drastically more about a company that I own shares of than one that I don't own shares in. Why would I want someone who owns and is knowledgable about the oil industry to write something about the tech industry? I might have a few feelings about the auto industry, but someone who has followed it for years would likely know quite a bit more. And "money in the game" often helps keep your interest in an area, so that you stay up to date on an area.

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