The next MacBook Pro could sport Intel's new 3D XPoint SSD

But it's unclear how the laptop would benefit from an even faster SSD than it already has

If Apple sticks with its typical 12-to 18-month refresh for the MacBook Pro line, Intel's Optane solid state drives (SSDs) stand a good chance of being used in the next generation computers.

Why is that noteworthy? Because Optane SSDs are purported to have 1,000 times the performance of typical flash drives.

When Intel's new storage technology does arrive, it will be compatible with the newest PCIe SSDs that use the NVM Express (NVMe) or Non-Volatile Memory Host Controller Interface Specification -- a logical device interface for accessing flash storage via the PCIe bus.

Intel MacBook Pro PCIe/NVMe SSD iFixit

The PCIe/NVMe SSD in Apple's new 2016 MacBook Pro lineup.

"Apple has been a pioneer when it comes to PCIe/NVMe storage. They were the first PC company to broadly adopt it across its laptop portfolio while other companies today are still just using it in a very limited portion of their PC lineup," Jeff Janukowicz, an IDC research vice president, said in an email reply to Computerworld. "By doing so, Apple has been able to deliver higher performance in terms of read/write speed and latency when compared to traditional SATA-based PC designs -- thus, making the new MacBook pro more responsive and faster."

The best consumer SATA III SSDs today become saturated at about 500MBps, according to Jim Handy, an analyst with Objective Analysis. In the future, other PC manufacturers will adopt SSDs using the PCIe/NVMe specification, but they aren't expected to be broadly available until later in 2017, Janukowicz said.

Apple's newest MacBook Pro already sports a hyperfast PCIe/NVMe SSD.

sandisk ssd iFixit

The SanDisk SSD in the newest MacBook Pro allows that laptop to achieve superfast read/write speeds.

Apple's specifications show the SSD in the 2016 13-in. MacBook Pro has sequential read/write speeds of 3.1Gbps and 2.1Gbps per second, respectively. The new 15-in. MacBook Pro ups the write speeds to 2.2Gbps, while the reads remain the same as the 13-in.

Computerworld tested a 13-in 2016 MacBook Pro and it pinned the needle for sequential reads at 2Gbps in a benchmark test using Blackmagic Disk Speed Test. The benchmark test showed a maximum write rate of just over 1.3Gbps.

The MacBook Pro's SSD uses SanDisk flash memory, DRAM cache from Micron and Apple's own 338S00199 SSD controller, according to a teardown of the machine by Fixit.

"This marks the first time we've seen Apple's super-custom SSD controller in a removable PCIe SSD," Fixit said in its review.

The flash drive nearly doubled its read performance over the previous MacBook Pro model, a feat that was likely the result of Apple's proprietary controller. That controller likely uses technology from Anobit, an Israeli start-up whose expertise is signal processing technology for NAND flash devices. Apple acquired Anobit in 2011.

Before being acquired, Anobit showed off some downright barn-burning performance hikes on consumer-grade SSDs using its Memory Signal Processing (MSP) controllers.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment from Computerworld.

In June, Intel and development partner Micron let slip their plans for releasing several product lines based on the new 3D XPoint memory, which Intel will sell under the name Optane and release alongside its Kaby Lake processor platform.

3D Xpoint schedule

Micron will sell 3D XPoint under the brand name QuantX SSDs, but it is aiming them at data center applications beginning in the second quarter of 2017. Before then, Intel will likely have its own Optane data center SSDs out, but the company also plans to market the technology to the consumer product sector.

optane 3d xpoint 100673752 orig 1 Intel/Micron

Intel senior vice president Rob Cooke shows off a 1.5mm thick M.2 card that he said can hold more than 1TB of data using Optane technology.

Gregory Wong, an analyst with Forward Insights, said there will be two versions of Optane -- one will be used as a low-capacity accelerator in systems with an existing, high-capacity hard disk drive, the other will be a stand-alone SSD.

"The accelerator could be used in a system with a HDD, so the claim is you could get a system with high capacity storage with a performance similar to an SSD at a lower price point," Wong said in an email reply to Computerworld. "The SSD version could be attractive to gamers or high-end PCs, but the price would be a multiple of an SSD price."

As Apple's Mac line already has for the most part moved to SSDs, it's not clear what the benefit would be to them, Wong said. In addition, Intel would be the sole source of an 3D Xpoint-class SSD, so Apple's less likely to choose it.

"I think they would want components where they could have more than one source," Wong added.

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Lucas Mearian

Computerworld (US)
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