Analysis: why Apple won’t drop Intel chipsets any time soon

A recent rumor making the rounds suggests that Apple will be switching from Intel chipsets for its products to using chipsets made by one of Intel's competitor, either AMD or VIA. I'm skeptical, but the rumor has gotten enough traction that it's worth taking a closer look at it. HangZhou Night Net

If Apple will use non-Intel chipsets, then the first question that must be answered is, where? In desktops, laptops, or both? Let's take the desktop chipset possibility first.

The only desktop chipset replacement for Intel that I realistically could see Apple using, given what I know of the company and its current preference for all things CUDA (look for some GrandCentral coverage before long) is an NVIDIA part, and the only reason I could see them using NVIDIA is to roll out a tower with dual-GPU capabilities. (Intel's Bloomfield will do SLI with NVIDIA GPUs, but probably not as well as comparable NVIDIA products.)

The NVIDIA SLI scenario is mildly plausible, given how seriously Apple takes data parallelism. The company has long had internal "GPGPU" efforts aimed at providing internal developers with ways to use the GPU to speed up their apps, and Snow Leopard will represent a leap forward in Apple's OS-level support for multicore and data-parallel coprocessors. So a Snow Leopard plus NVIDIA SLI combo could be a match made in media processing heaven.

The problem with this theory, however, is that Snow Leopard is scheduled to arrive sometime in the summer of 2009, which is also when Intel's Larrabee is set to launch. And I've heard from a source that I trust that Apple will use Larrabee; this makes sense, because Larrabee, as a many-core x86 multiprocessor, can be exploited directly by GrandCentral's cooperative multitasking capabilities.

But the real development that makes this chipset rumor implausible to me is Nehalem. Intel's Nehalem is due out at the end of this year, and if NVIDIA (or any other chipset maker) has a license for Intel's new QuickPath interconnect I'm not aware of it. So Apple would have to switch right back to Intel chipsets for their upcoming Nehalem towers. And indeed, those towers could very well be the mysterious margin-reducing products that Apple referred to on their conference call.

To turn our attention to mobiles, I can't think of a good reason for Apple to move away from Intel's mobile platform. The only possible exception here would be the MacBook Air, where Apple might like to pair Intel's custom-packaged Core 2 Duo with a more capable integrated graphics processor than what Intel's chipsets provide. I'm not sure if this is feasible, though, given that both the CPU and the chipset in the Air have special, reduced-footprint packages. NVIDIA would have to match this packaging effort, and that's unlikely.

Ultimately, I remain unconvinced by this latest round of speculation. Given what I know of Apple and Intel, and the two companies' software and hardware roadmaps, I'd expect them to get even cozier over the next year or two, not grow further apart.