Intel releases Ivy Bridge: New Mac models coming soon?

Third-generation Core processors to power next Apple products

Intel on Monday unveiled the Ivy Bridge processor family, the third generation in the company's line of Core processors.

The set of quad-core processors released Monday are made for desktops, all-in-ones, and high-end laptops. Intel has eight Core i7 processor models: two for the desktop, two designated as Desktop Low-Power, and four mobile models. Intel also has five Core i5 processor models: three for the desktop, and two designated as Desktop Low-Power. Intel also has a new Core i7 Extreme Edition processor, which is a mobile processor.

The Ivy Bridge processors are the first processors that are created using Intel's 22 nanometer (nm) process technology, which means that the processors are smaller than the previous 32 nm processors, called Sandy Bridge. The smaller design will contribute to a speed improvement, but it may not be a dramatic one.

According to Intel, the dramatic improvement, as a result of the 22 nm process, will be with power consumption. Ivy Bridge is much more efficient than Sandy Bridge; at the Intel Developers Forum last September, Intel said that Ivy Bridge supports DDR3L, the low voltage (1.35v) DDR3 standard, as well as configurable TDP (thermal design power), DDR I/O power gating, and power-aware interrupt pairing.

Another major change is with the built-in graphics-processing unit (GPU). Previous Core processors had built-in GPUs, so the fact that Ivy Bridge has a GPU isn't new. But the built-in GPU isn't usually considered a GPU that's ideal for games or graphically demanding work. Macworld Lab's experience is that the Sandy Bridge GPU (the Intel Graphics 3000) is enough to meet the minimum requirements of some games and graphics apps, and not enough for the most demanding of software.

Intel in its Ivy Bridge press release says that the Ivy Bridge built-in GPU, the Intel Graphics 4000, is capable of "two times better 3-D graphics performance" than the Graphics 3000.

New Macs coming soon?

The release of Ivy Bridge brings hope to Mac users yearning for Mac hardware news. The ideal candidate for the Ivy Bridge processor is the iMac; the current iMac model was released last May--almost a year ago. Because of the iMac's all-in-one design, we could see new iMacs with Ivy Bridge's Desktop Low Power processors. It's possible that the Core i7 Extreme Edition processor could be featured as a build-to-order (BTO) option for the top-of-the-line 27-inch iMac.

It'll be interesting to see what Apple decides to do with the graphics processor in the iMac. The current iMac uses discrete GPUs, but older iMac models have used integrated graphics in the most-affordable 21.5-inch models--for example, the $1199 21.5-inch 2009 iMac had an integrated Nvidia GeForce 9400M GPU. If Apple decided to rely on the Ivy Bridge's Intel Graphics 4000 for some iMac models, it's an indication that the company feels that it can provide at least the minimum performance needed for some games and graphics apps.

The Mac mini, which was updated last July, will probably see an upgrade after the release of an Ivy Bridge iMac.

What about new laptops? If the MacBook Pro is considered a high-end laptop, then it's easy to conclude that the mobile versions of the Ivy Bridge processors released Monday could make their way into the new MacBook Pro. However, rumors of a 15-inch MacBook Air and a revamp of Apple's laptop lineup persist. If Apple does have plans for such a laptop, it may not use any of the just-released Ivy Bridge processors. Intel plans to release the Ivy Bridge processors for ultrabooks "later this year," according to Intel's Ivy Bridge press release, through some reports say as early as June. The ultraportable model of the Ivy Bridge processor seem like the kind that would be used by the MacBook Air.

And finally, there's the poor, neglected Mac Pro. In recent history, the Mac Pro has used Xeon processors, and Intel released new Xeon processors in March. But there are no signs from Apple that new Mac Pros are imminent, even though there seems to be user demand. Macworld Lab found that a 27-inch 3.4GHz Core i7 iMac with an SSD is faster than a BTO 3.33GHz Xeon Westmere six-core Mac Pro, and if a new Ivy Bridge iMac is released before a new Mac Pro, the performance gap between the iMac and the Mac Pro will only widen. Perhaps that's Apple's plan all along.

Roman Loyola is a Macworld senior editor.

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