Intel's Broadwell chip lets Apple go Retina with MacBook Air

Unlikely to wait until Skylake, Intel's next iteration, due later this year

macbook air 2014 window

The new Core processors and graphics chipsets that Intel launched on Monday will allow Apple to build a MacBook Air with a higher-resolution Retina screen without sacrificing battery life, analysts said today.

"Apple represents the customers that Intel most wants to serve," said Shane Rau, PC chip analyst with IDC. "Even on the lower end, [Broadwell] could run a high-resolution screen."

Broadwell is Intel's code name for its fifth-generation Core processors, which it officially released Monday at the International CES, the massive trade show in Las Vegas that runs through Friday. Several name-brand personal computer makers, including Asus, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo, have said they will use the new chips.

The dual-core Core i3, i5 and i7 Broadwell chips are designed for notebooks, desktops and mini-PCs, and are paired with either Intel's premium Iris 6100 graphics core, or its HD 5500 or HD 6000 graphics core; the latter two draw less power.

Current MacBook Airs rely on a fourth-generation 1.4GHz Core i5 and Intel's HD 5000 graphics core. A comparable fifth-generation chipset would be the 1.6GHz Core i5 and the HD 6000 graphics core.

Overall, Intel touted the new Broadwell chips and accompanying graphics cores as faster, smaller -- they're based on the 14-nanometer manufacturing process, a reduction from the previous generation's 22-nanometer -- and more power efficient.

The performance and power improvements would make possible a Retina-equipped MacBook Air -- Apple's lightest, thinnest notebook -- without sacrificing battery life or changing the laptop's external design, experts said.

"Broadwell is largely about power consumption and density," said Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research. "If you're being held back by the battery lifespan, you might make a tradeoff with Broadwell," Gottheil said, adding that Apple could equip the Air with a power-hungry Retina display while maintaining the notebook's streamlined profile.

Rumors have circulated for months that Apple has been working on a new MacBook Air that would feature a high-resolution display like those that now populate the pricier MacBook Pro line. Much of that chatter has focused on a 12-in. screen, which would fall between the current 11-in. and 13-in. models, possibly replacing one or both.

Traditionally tight-lipped, Apple does not pre-announce systems or support for specific Intel chip generations, so the timing of a revamped MacBook Air is unknown.

Analysts differed on when to expect Broadwell-based notebooks. Mark Hung, a chip analyst with Gartner Research, said that OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) will start selling laptops with the Broadwell Core processors this quarter, while Rau of IDC said a March or April timeline was more likely.

But in the past, Apple has almost immediately jumped on Intel's newest. In June 2013, Apple unveiled new MacBook Air models that used Intel's fourth-generation chips, dubbed Haswell, just a week after the chip maker released them at a trade show in Taiwan.

That kind of turnaround may be difficult with Broadwell, since unlike Haswell, which was a size match for its predecessor, Ivy Bridge, the fifth-generation chip will require a motherboard redesign, said both Rau and Hung. That, in turn, will necessitate modifications to other components.

"Broadwell will require major changes to the motherboard, which means everything inside will be changing, including the battery's shape," Rau said.

There's one potential fly in the ointment. Because of Broadwell's long delay and the impending arrival of its successor, code named Skylake, by the end of the year, it's possible that Apple skips the former and waits for the latter, which is supposed to boost performance even more.

Not likely, but possible: OEMs rarely skip an Intel upgrade. "Apple is a halo over Intel," said Rau, referring to Apple's dominant share of the premium market and its use of state-of-the-art components. "Apple and Intel would want Broadwell, and Intel doesn't want to leave any money on the table."

Because Skylake will rely on the same die size as Broadwell, transitioning to the former from the latter will be less taxing than moving from Haswell to Broadwell.

Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, also thought Apple would not skip Broadwell. "Apple would probably be fine with waiting until Intel's SkyLake, but I don't think they will," Moorhead said in an email. "I believe they will take a few of the platforms to Broadwell where they could enable thinner designs with better graphics, improved video transcoding, and a little better battery life."

One of Skylake's most touted new features -- wireless charging, docking and data transfer -- may not be in Apple's plans, either. "I think Apple will opt instead to enable a wireless docking solution on their own that spans iPhone, iPad and Mac," said Moorhead.

Intel's wireless docking, which relies on a technology called Rezence for wire-free charging, will work only with devices powered by Skylake chips; Apple's iPhone and iPad use Apple's own system-on-a-chip, or SoC, based on the ARM architecture.

Current MacBook Air prices range from $899 for the 11-in. model to a high of $1,199 for the 13-in. notebook. When Apple has introduced a Retina-equipped model in a line that formerly was exclusively lower resolution, it has priced the former several hundred dollars higher while retaining the existing models and their prices as it transitions to an all-Retina portfolio.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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