On Oct. 27, Apple (AAPL 0.11%) introduced its long-awaited refresh to the MacBook Pro lineup. The company released three new models, including two 13-inch models and a 15-inch model. These machines have seen substantial improvements across the board, ranging from much better displays to faster processors, and a lot more.
Although Apple managed to deliver some nice generation-over-generation improvements, it is very likely that the company's next MacBook Pro refreshes -- which I expect to come in the first half of 2018 --- will include some very substantial upgrades in one critical area: processor performance.
Get ready for a large leap in performance
Apple delivered solid improvements in the performance levels of its latest MacBook Pro systems relative to the prior-generation models. The 13-inch MacBook Pro saw a move from Intel's (INTC 1.33%) older Broadwell architecture with vanilla Intel HD graphics to its newer Skylake processors with its more sophisticated Iris graphics.
The 15-inch MacBook Pro enjoyed a bump from Intel's 2013 Haswell architecture to its much more modern Skylake architecture. That's a two-generation leap. However, even though the underlying processor architectures in the newer MacBook Pro systems are improved relative to those found in the prior-generation models, one thing has remained constant across the board: processor core count.
Both the old and new 13-inch MacBook Pro systems come with dual-core processors, and both the old and new 15-inch MacBook Pro systems come with quad-core processors. These are currently among the fastest notebook processors available today, and certainly the highest core count Intel laptop processors available in their respective segments. However, those core counts are set to go much higher in Intel's early 2018 mobile processor lineup, which I believe Apple's next MacBook Pro systems are likely to use.
More cores for the Mac
Intel's next-next generation processor lineup, code-named Coffee Lake, is expected to come in a couple of new configurations that should be quite interesting to Apple.
According to a leak of an Intel mobile processor road map that has made its way across the Web, the company's 28-watt processor lineup, used in the 13-inch MacBook Pro, is expected to get a variant with four processor cores paired with the company's Iris graphics technology. The 45-watt processor lineup, used in the 15-inch MacBook Pro, is expected to come in a configuration with six processor cores and Intel HD graphics, according to the leak.
Those additional cores should enable a large boost in performance, particularly in applications that can take advantage of those additional cores -- think video editing.
Apple's tight control of the hardware and software could better position it to find compelling use cases for the additional performance, and should Apple market the increase correctly, it could help to fuel a robust MacBook Pro upgrade cycle. We could see one even stronger than what we'll witness with Apple's recently released MacBook Pro systems -- though the strength of that remains to be seen.
Not a game changer for Apple stock, but...
The Mac product line isn't the major driver of Apple's revenue or profit. The iPhone is. Nevertheless, it's important for Apple's non-iPhone businesses, such as its Mac business, to perform as well as possible to provide something of a cushion in case the company's iPhone business has a bum year, as it did during fiscal 2016. Apple credited Mac with 12% of revenue in the fourth quarter.
As long as Apple makes sure it delivers compelling new Mac systems at a regular and predictable cadence through a combination of delivering its own hardware and software innovations and leveraging innovations from key component suppliers, it stands a pretty good chance of keeping its Mac business healthy.