The next MacBook Pro?
Apple made some incredible design changes to its new MacBook, but will they and other tech developments pave the way for a new kind of pro notebook from Cupertino?
Skylake isn’t just about more performance: the new processors should be around 20% faster and 30% more energy efficient than before
MacBook Pro: will hell freeze over again? One of the more interesting predictions about the mobile Macs of the future is that they’ll be powered by Apple processors, not Intel ones: after all, the Applepowered iPhone 6s is faster than the Intel Core M processor in the new MacBook in single-core benchmarks, and analysts agree that Apple is making significant progress with each new generation. As we’ve already discussed, surely it’s just a matter of time before Apple switches to its own silicon.
As you might expect, it’s a bit more complex than that – especially in the MacBook Pro, where performance is everything. While an Applepowered MacBook looks like a case of “when” rather than “if”, expect the MacBook Pro to stick with Intel for the foreseeable future.
The current MacBook Pro range is built around two Intel processor families: the more affordable models use a dual-core Intel Core i5 running at 2.7 to 3.1GHz, and the top models have quadcore Intel Core i7s running at 2.2 to 2.8GHz. Those processors are from the Broadwell and Crystalwell/Broadwell architectures respectively, and while there may be another Broadwellbased minor spec bump in the short term, the MacBook Pro’s next major upgrade will be to Intel’s Skylake family. That’s the sixth-generation of the Core iX processor; Broadwell was the fifth.
There are two flavours of Skylake suitable for MacBooks: the U series and the H series (the even more powerful S Series Skylake processors are designed for desktops). The U series is likely to appear in the smaller MacBook Pros and include Iris 550 graphics, the newer version of Intel’s Iris 6100 graphics processor, while the higher performance H series is likely to power the 2016 15-inch MacBook Pro.
Skylake isn’t just about more performance, although of course that’s part of the appeal: the new processors should be around 20% faster and 30% more energy efficient than before. They also support a wide range of technologies including fast DDR4 memory, wireless charging and 40Gbps Thunderbolt 3 via USB-C. Skylake is currently a 14nm architecture, but in 2017 it’ll transition to 10nm for better energy efficiency.
Thinner and thinner
We know what to expect inside the MacBook Pro, but what about the outside? The MacBook’s combination of USB-C and a thinner, lighter case in a range of colour options is likely to make its way to the Pro models, albeit without the MacBook’s sacrifice of multiple ports in the pursuit of razor thinness: we’d expect multiple USB-C ports, not just one, possibly at the expense of one of the existing Thunderbolt ports.
The rise of USB-C means that while Thunderbolt compatibility won’t be removed completely in the short term – the howls of angry Mac owners who’ve paid for pricey Thunderbolt peripherals would be heard around the world - it’s likely to be deprecated in much the same way that Apple slowly removed FireWire in favour of Thunderbolt, especially since it’ll be possible to connect Thunderbolt 3 devices to a USB-C port. USB-C is doing to the Mac’s Thunderbolt ports what Thunderbolt did to the FireWire ones.
As far as the MacBook’s display goes, the non-Retina MacBook Pro is clearly living on borrowed time – but the prospect of a 5K MacBook Pro at the other end of the line-up looks rather unlikely. The current compromise, where the Retina MacBook Pro can drive a 5K display, is a perfectly sensible solution, and the arrival of Skylake processors with built-in DisplayPort 1.3 support means Apple will no longer have to use its own custom solution to drive external 5K displays.
There’s another relevant standard here: Embedded DisplayPort 1.4a, which allows for 8K displays on desktops and for thinner, more energy-efficient panels in notebooks. You can imagine Jony Ive’s delight at the thought of everthinner components, and we’d also expect the MacBook Pro’s bezel to start shrinking too until the display appears to run from edge to edge.
The MacBook’s butterfly keyboard mechanism is likely to cross over to the Pro line, but with some changes: the one in the current 12-inch
MacBook is rather cramped compared to the keyboard in the 15-inch MacBook Pro, so we’d expect Apple to take advantage of the larger canvas to make the butterfly spread its wings a little more widely. And while MacBook Pros already have Force Touch, we think a larger trackpad is coming, possibly in conjunction with the Apple Pencil we’ve already seen on the iPad Pro. As we’ve learnt from the clever Inklet app, a Force Touch trackpad can deliver pretty good stylus support – and as we’ve seen in the Apple Pencil, Apple makes a pretty good stylus.
The most recent MacBook Pros have 802.11ac wireless networking, but there’s a new standard heading our way: 60GHz 802.11ad, or WiGig. This is faster than current standards but much more prone to interference and obstruction, so it’s best suited to short-range, intensive data transmission such as local, uncompressed 4K video streaming rather than, say, public access
points. Recognising this, chipset firm Qualcomm is pushing tri-band chipsets for routers that would offer 60GHz 802.11ad plus 5GHz 802.11ac, as well as 2.4GHz to enable backwards compatibility with older Wi-Fi devices. With speeds of 7Gbps, 802.11ad could help deliver that cable-free future we’ve been hearing about for so long.
On the subject of wireless charging, does Skylake mean wirelessly charging MacBook Pros? We suspect the short answer is “no”: as we’ve discovered in our iSpy investigation later in this issue, while Apple is very interested in wireless charging there are a few obstacles that it needs to overcome first. A wirelessly charging, 802.11ad WiGig MacBook Pro would be thin enough to shave with, but don’t expect to see it in the short term. What’s more likely is more of the battery magic we’ve seen in the new MacBook, where the logic board is a tiny island in a sea of cleverly shaped batteries: the more ports and moving parts Apple can remove, the more svelte the MacBook Pro can become without losing that all‑important battery life.
A near edge-to-edge display and USB-C could be
on a new MacBook Pro range as early as next year.