In early May, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) announced a modest refresh of its high-end 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro computer. The updated machine improved upon its predecessor with a number of features such as a speedier discrete graphics option, a slightly larger battery, and a Force Touch track-pad. Unfortunately, the device carried over the same Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) Haswell processor from the prior generation, so general purpose processing performance didn't improve.
Apple has seemingly been holding off on doing a more substantial refresh of the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro until it could update the machine with an Intel processor based on Intel's newest Skylake architecture paired with its Iris Pro graphics.
What's the scoop?
Over on Intel's Technology Blog page, the company announced that it will "soon be launching" its first Xeon E3-1500M v5 processors aimed at high performance notebook PCs (referred to as "mobile workstations"). Per an Intel slide deck that's been making the rounds on the Web, the Xeon E3-1500 v5 family of processors will indeed feature Iris Pro graphics.
Apple probably won't use a mobile Xeon processor (it will probably use the Core i7 version of the same silicon), but the fact that Intel says that the launch of a Skylake processor with Iris Pro will be "soon" suggests that the chips could be ready for a MacBook Pro update in October.
These chips could be suitable for refreshed iMacs, too
Apple is also expected to refresh its iMac product lineup sometime in the third quarter, according to respected KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo. If the formal launch of Skylake parts with Iris Pro really is imminent, then it would seem that Apple is poised to update its entire iMac lineup with Skylake processors.
Will this mean the removal of discrete GPUs in the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro?
Intel has steadily improved the performance and efficiency of its integrated graphics technology in its notebook processors. This has allowed Apple to transition away from discrete graphics options in all of its notebooks toward integrated solutions, with discrete graphics offered as part of a higher-end configuration.
I think there's a chance that once Apple transitions to Skylake, it may remove the discrete graphics option with the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro. The Skylake processors with Iris Pro graphics should deliver a solid performance improvement over the now two-generation old Haswell processors found inside of the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro.
We won't know if Skylake with Iris Pro will offer better graphics performance than the Radeon M370X discrete graphics chip that today's 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro can be configured with until Skylake parts are out in the wild. However, if Skylake with Iris Pro can deliver performance similar to the Radeon M370X, then it might make sense for Apple to ditch the discrete chip.
It won't be long now
I suspect that Intel will talk about the launch schedule of its Skylake processors at the upcoming Intel Developer Forum, which begins on August 18 (the Intel blog post referenced earlier was categorized under "IDF").
It shouldn't be too long now before we know when the various Skylake parts will hit the market. If Skylake with Iris Pro actually launches in mid-August, then I expect a much-improved 15-inch MacBook Pro to be part of what could be a very interesting refresh of Apple's entire MacBook and iMac lineup.