Late last year, PC processor giant Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) announced a new family of microprocessors based on a new architecture that it calls Skylake. The chips based on this architecture offer some pretty nice and noticeable improvements over the prior generation product family based on the company's Broadwell architecture.
In March 2015, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) updated its MacBook Air as well as its 13-inch MacBook Pro computers to include Intel's then-new Broadwell processor family. Apple even introduced an all-new 12-inch thin-and-light MacBook based on Intel's Broadwell-based Core m family of processors.
Although Apple has historically taken a leadership position in adopting Intel's latest chips to do really cutting-edge new MacBooks, it would seem that the iDevice maker is dragging its feet some when it comes to adoption of the chip giant's latest Skylake chips.
Is this a simple case of neglect on Apple's part? Or is there method to this madness?
Understanding the Skylake situation
Apple's MacBook Air/Pro systems generally use the best chips that Intel can produce for a given power envelope. The MacBook Air machines that are currently being sold use chips with the company's best HD6000 graphics, which stands in contrast to the many Intel-powered Windows PCs during the Broadwell life-cycle which used chips with less sophisticated graphics.
The chips that would have been appropriate for a 12-inch MacBook refresh were announced in the third quarter of 2015 and started showing up not too long afterward. Even the higher-performance Core i-series chips with Iris graphics began shipping in premium variants of the Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Surface Pro 4 in late 2015.
Apple almost could have refreshed both the 12-inch MacBook and the 13-inch class MacBook Air already, if it wanted to.
The systems that Apple wouldn't have been able to refresh yet, though, would be the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros. The high-performance quad-core Skylake chip with Iris Pro graphics -- which would presumably be used in a 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro -- won't even be available in Intel's own NUC systems until May, suggesting that they wouldn't be ready for Apple until at least that time.
Similarly, the high-wattage variants of the chips that would go into the MacBook Air (i.e. 28-watt versus 15-watt thermal design power rating) don't appear to be in the marketplace currently.
A potential explanation for what's going on
I have a reasonable hypothesis for what's going on. I think that the MacBook Air branding is likely to just go away altogether. In the place of the MacBook Air could be a refreshed 12-inch MacBook with a low-power Core m processor and a 13.3-inch model with a higher performance 15-watt Core i5/i7 processors.
Then, at the top of the product stack, would be the 13.3-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro systems, with 28-watt and 45-watt Skylake processors with Iris and Iris Pro graphics, respectively.
Apple may want to wait until all of the chips from Intel are available to refresh its product line rather than stagger it over a period of several quarters.
Indeed, this is a strategy that probably works well for Apple given that even with processors and other components that are "inferior" to what the competition is bringing, the company is still managing to gain share in the personal computer market.
Why rush it?