Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

Summary: My pet theory is that Apple's choice of the Core 2 Duo for the MBA has something to do with the graphics, although it's more likely that it simply couldn't source the Core i3 in enough quantity.

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I've been critical of Apple's choice of the Intel's Core 2 Duo processor for the new MacBook Air (and MacBook and Mac mini). I'm at a loss as to why Apple would ship a computer with two-year-old silicon at its heart.

It just seems silly to me that Apple would ship an “updated” MacBook Air with a processor that was released in Q3 2008. Plus the C2D is bigger, slower and hotter than the current generation Intel Core i3-530 processor.

Ranting aside, the mystery of exactly which Core 2 Duo chip is in the new MacBook Air may finally be solved. After running into a dead end with Apple PR (they don't return emails) I've determined that Apple's using the Intel SU9400and SL9400 processors in the MacBook Air 11.6 and 13.3-inch models, respectively.

Here are the MBA processor specs from Apple:

Notice how they mesh exactly with the Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 and SL9400 specifications:

Mystery solved. Apple's most likely using the Intel SU9400 in the 11.6-inch MacBook Air and the SL9400 in the 13.3-incher. (You can compare the two C2D processors here).

My pet theory is that Apple's choice of the Core 2 Duo processor for the MBA has something to do with the graphics. The newer Core i3 processor includes Intel HD graphics architecture on the chip -- technology that Apple didn't plan to use.

Apple ships the 2010 MacBook Air with a discrete graphics processor (GPU) -- an NVIDIA GeForce 320M with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM -- rather than using the integrated graphics that comes on the Intel chips. Perhaps Apple didn't want to pay more for the newer chip, only to get better graphics that it wasn't going to use? Again, just a theory.

My problem with Apple's chip selection it that even though the performance bump from the Core 2 Duo to the Core i3 is marginal, the Core i3 has several other advantages.

The i3 processor is better at multi-tasking.

Whereas each individual processor (or core) on models in the Core 2 Duo range could handle just one processing thread at a time, Hyper-Threading allows the Core i3 to run two processing threads simultaneously on each core -- allowing it to perform four things at once, instead of the usual two.

Some of the other key differences between the Core i3 and Core 2 Duo:

  1. The Core i3 is based on the 32 nm version of the Nehalem architecture. The Core 2 Duo is based on the Core architecture, which is a derivative of the P6 architecture used all the way back in the Pentium Pro, Pentium II, and Pentium III.
  2. The Core i3 has HyperThreading technology.
  3. The Core i3 contains the SSE4 and AEX instruction set.
  4. The Core i3 has a graphics core on the processor.
  5. The Core i3 has a built-in memory controller.
  6. The Core i3 has a built-in PCI controller.
  7. The Core i3 uses a Direct Media Interface bus while the Core 2 Duo uses the aging Front Side Bus.

Conspiracy theories aside, it's more likely that Apple simply couldn't source the Core i3 in enough quantity to ship in the MacBook Air's timetable.

What's your pet theory? Should Apple have held up the new MBA until the Core i3 was available?

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility, Processors

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21 comments
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  • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

    I agree with your assumptions about the graphics, but I also have to guess that the Core2Duo is cheaper than the Core i3. Apple wanted to hit that $999 price and I think they made the compromise on CPU to afford the benefit of the Flash storage.
    They were also able to keep the top end (13", 2.13 GHz, 4GB RAM, 256 GB Flash) at the same $1799 price as the previous high end which had half as much RAM and Flash.
    alexwt
    • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

      I have to agree... I think the decision to go with the old Core 2 Duo has nothing to do with availability or supply and everything to do with money. The Core 2 Duo is cheaper and that's why I believe Apple went with it.

      That's too bad because between the processor and the lack of matte screen I'm passing on the MacBook Air (gorgeous as it may be).
      Masari.Jones
  • my theories

    1. My understanding is that Nvidia created the 320M exclusively for Apple. If that's the case, there were probably minimum volume requirements from Nvidia to make it worth their while. That could have played a role in Apple's cpu / chipset decision.

    2. Another factor could be power dissipation, especially regarding the 11" air. The SU series of processors has a TDP (thermal design power) of only 10W, and there is no core i3 with a power rating that low.

    3. If it really has to do with apple's dislike for Intel's integrated graphics, eventually Apple will just have to deal with it...as with the current core i series, there won't be any Nvidia chipset for the next-gen sandy bridge either, and apple can't keep using core2duo forever.

    4. Price. Intel has an incentive to keep their 45nm fabs busy, so the 45nm processors are probably cheaper.
    ruraloregon
  • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

    Can someone please help me out here? Cuz I'm not getting it.<br><br>"Ive been critical of Apples choice of the Intels Core 2 Duo processor for the new MacBook Air (and MacBook and Mac mini)."<br><br>And in the 13" MacBook Pro, too, right? It's what my new MacBook Pro self-reports. It's what apple says on their store. But I've seen several sites report that what this article imples: that the MacBook Pro is i3, i5, etc. What is up? Is my brand new shiny MacBook Pro running the same old processor my wifes Black MacBook is running?
    jimmyxjimmy
    • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

      @jimmyxjimmy 13" MBPs still sport Core 2 Duos. So probably the Core 2 Duo was a volume/price decision; since Apple is still buying C2Ds for its Minis, MacBooks, and low-end MBPs, jumping up a generation on its MBAs would put them out of line with the product line. I'd wait to see the MBPs all go to Core i3 or higher before seeing an MBA (or MacMini) leave the C2D stable. Too bad, as it's what is currently keeping me from buying another MacMini to replace my old G4 Mini as my home server.
      ssaha
    • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

      @jimmyxjimmy says !-> their
      ​
  • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

    The nVidia 320M chipset includes southbridge, northbridge and GPU in one package<br>nVidia isn't allowed to make chipsets for the i series. The IGP in the i series doesn't support OpenCL (which is required for OS X eye-candy). In order to support the eye-candy in OS X they would need to have the CPU, southbridge and GPU (no northbridge needed since it's included in the CPU), 3 chips. That would take significantly more space than the C2D solution. That is why they use the i series in larger Macs but not in the smaller ones.<br><br>@ jimmy<br><br>The 13" MBP still uses the C2D, 15" and larger uses Core i.
    fredgiblet
    • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

      @fredgiblet Actually, all of the graphical effects in OS X, can be run on the integrated GPU on the intel CPU's. The 15" MacBook Pro along with the 17" model have the newer chips, and when not needed the discrete graphics turn off and the integrated take over. The graphical effects won't be enough to trigger the graphics switching.
      runner7775
  • How interesting...

    I feel more informed by the posters than I do by the blogger.
    zkiwi
    • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

      @zkiwi +1. I feel the same way.
      nix_hed
  • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

    Fredgiblet is spot on. Steve Jobs said as much earlier this year when asked why the base MacBook and 13" Pro still use the Core 2 Duo instead of the Core i3. In the case of the 15" and 17" Pro models, Apple has more room to work with, so they were able to add a separate NVidia discrete graphics adapter in addition to the clunky integrated graphics that ship with the Core i-Series. I recall Jobs saying a 10% boost in CPU power wasn't worth the GPU hit. Remember, Snow Leopard introduced several enhancements designed to make greater use of the GPU.

    I'd prefer a Core i3 and discrete graphics, too, but there simply is no way yet to cram all of that into packages as small as the current MacBook Air models while getting decent battery life.
    KPOM1
  • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

    It'll be interesting to see what happens when Sandy Bridge comes out. If they support OpenCL on the integrated graphics (which they most likely won't) then Apple will probably JUMP on them, if they don't then Apple will be looking at a future with the MBA and 13" MBP having hardware that's 2 generations out of date. I suspect that Apple is/will be trying to pressure Intel to either allow nVidia to produce chipsets for them or to produce OpenCL capable chipsets themselves (integrating higher-end graphics into the southbridge), since they can't be happy about this, but at the same time Intel has little reason to comply since Apple can't switch to AMD anyway (too much heat and power usage). The OTHER option for Apple would be to eliminate the need for OpenCL which would allow them to use Intel's integrated graphics, but I'm not sure how difficult that would be.
    fredgiblet
    • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

      @fredgiblet
      Yes, it will be interesting to see what happens when sandy bridge comes out. According to anandtech, sandy bridge will not support OpenCL. But Apple's hand will be forced eventually because in a year or so (I'd guess) Intel will stop manufacturing core2duo. Apple could go to AMD's new bobcat architecture...
      ruraloregon
      • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

        @ruraloregon

        Only if AMD can bring down the power usage enough. I don't know how difficult optical shrinks are but it may be worth Apple's time/money to get Intel to shrink C2D to 32nm or even 25nm. That would allow them to ramp up clocks a little and provide better performance while keeping everything else in line. Of course it probably costs a fair chunk and Intel probably won't benefit enough to bother. More likely is that Steve Jobs will put on a series of demonstrations where he proves repeatedly that C2D is vastly superior to the i series despite all evidence to the contrary.
        fredgiblet
  • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

    Is there a reason they dont use the i7 like on my MBP 15inch? I would love an MBA if they really made them scream with at least 320 G HD and i7's
    eyecoin
    • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

      @eyecoin

      Heat, price, power consumption, size.
      fredgiblet
  • One simple reason.

    Profit Margin!! Adding the i3 to the MBA would have made it's performance on a par with the more expensive MBP. So to protect the MBP you've got to keep it at a higher performance level.
    Scubajrr
    • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

      @Scubajrr So Apple's greed gets the better of them. But the lemmings will snap it up no problem. It also is a condemnation of the competition. Where is the Lenovo Air with core i3? Or Vaio?
      MSFTWorshipper
      • RE: Thoughts on the Core 2 Duo in the new MacBook Air

        @MSFTWorshipper

        ASUS has the U35 series. Not QUITE as thin and with a slower graphics subsystem (if you get the model with discrete graphics) but similar and $400 cheaper. Also it lacks an SSD but that can be remedied while still leaving it $300 cheaper than the MBA.
        fredgiblet
  • Irrelevant

    Most of the people buying an Air will be women who just need to surf, check email and type a few documents. You don't even need a C2D for that.
    MSFTWorshipper