As the fifth month of the year continues to progress the time is nearing for Apple to release a flurry of new Macs. Unlike the days of IBM’s PowerPC CPU architecture it’s now relatively easy to pinpoint when and what Macs are going to get refreshed at what point during the year and that is all down to Apple’s use of Intel’s architecture.

Last year Intel released Sandy Bridge and up to this point all Macs but the Mac Pro take advantage of the Sandy Bridge architecture. In addition Thunderbolt connectivity became a standard across Apple’s lineup of Macs, slowly pushing Firewire into the past.

In 2012 Intel’s new architecture is named Ivy Bridge, on a technical level the architecture marks a huge leap from the previous Sandy Bridge taking advantage of a 22 nm die shrink process. Some other headline improvements over Sandy Bridge include PCI Express 3.0 support, integrated USB 3.0 and the use of tri-gate transistors (sometimes known as 3D transistors) which offer the same performance as their “2D” counterparts but are said to offer up to 50% less power consumption. Apple may choose not to be cutting edge with all the technologies available in Ivy Bridge as the company tends to enjoy setting its own trends.

Outside of the real technicalities of Ivy Bridge the raw numbers look promising over Sandy Bridge; CPU performance is said to increase between 5% and 15% and integrated GPU performance between 20% and 50% (for the recored the integrated GPUs are HD 2500/4000).

Intel Processor Schedule

Intel Processor Microarchitecture Schedule

As mentioned above Ivy Bridge carries support for USB 3.0, making use of the same connector and being featured on PCs for several months now it’s certainly the year we see Apple make the upgrade. Unlike what has been reported elsewhere the Ivy Bridge architecture does not carry inherent support for Thunderbolt but Intel’s new controller named Cactus Ridge was out on the market earlier this year. Cactus Ridge marks Intel’s second-generation Thunderbolt controller and carries a smaller footprint and less power consumption, the developments to the Thunderbolt architecture aren’t just good news for Mac users in terms of less power consumption, heat generation and footprint but also will push other manufacturers to adopt the technology.

Ivy Bridge is set for release across the whole of 2012, currently quad-core processor models are already on the market and PCs with Ivy Bridge are on sale. Dual-core mobile CPUs are not expected until June 2012 but Apple has been known to get advanced purchasing rights in the past.

But enough talk about what Ivy Bridge is about, let’s take a look at what we can expect from Apple in terms of Mac models this year. For desktop models this remains a not too difficult task but for Apple’s notebook models this year it’s widely expected that there will be a big shakeup. Intel also hasn’t quite finished releasing all Ivy Bridge details so more suitable chips may come clearer after this has been posted.

Currently five notebooks make up Apple’s portable Mac line ranging from the ultra-portable 11-inch MacBook Air to the not so portable 17-inch MacBook Pro. Rumours have been circulating for some months that Apple will not only try and condense the choice but also amalgamate the lines. It’s expected that Apple will make bold moves and push the Pro models towards a more Air like form factor but there is little consistency in rumours with some claiming Apple will remove the 17-inch model all together and others claiming it will stay.

Naturally if Apple decides to go the way of thinner, lighter notebooks then the same (or similar) processors that adorn the current MacBook Pros will be unsuitable. Intel has already admitted that Ivy Bridge runs hotter than Sandy Bridge and anyone who has used a current MacBook Pro would raise an eyebrow at that.

Rear of Mac mini

Rear view of Mac mini (Mid-2011)

Mac mini

Let’s deal with the desktop first then starting from the bottom up. Apple’s Mac mini was last updated in July 2011 and was largely a minor update gaining Thunderbolt and Bluetooth 4.0 support and upgrades to Sandy Bridge, here’s how the Mac mini currently specs (low end to high):

  • Intel Core i5-2415M, 2.3GHz dual-core
  • Intel Core i5-2520M, 2.5GHz dual-core
  • Intel Core i7-2620M, 2.7GHz dual-core (optional upgrade)
  • Intel Core i7-2635GM, 2.0GHz quad-core (Mac mini server)

Candidates from the currently announced Ivy Bridge lineup for a future Mac mini update include (low end to high):

  • i5 3320M, 2.6GHz dual-core (low end)
  • i5 2260M, 2.8GHz dual-core (high end)
  • i7 2530M, 2.9GHz dual-core (high end option)
  • i7 3720QM, 2.6GHz quad-core (Mac mini server)

Intel is expected to release the majority of these chips in June 2012 so don’t expect a Mac mini refresh until July or August.

iMac

The iMac is historically the first desktop Mac to move over to Intel’s new platform, last year the iMac received an update in early May and in addition to the update to Sandy Bridge the iMac also gained Thunderbolt connectivity, and a HD FaceTime camera. Here’s how Sandy Bridge shaped up on the iMac (low end to high):

  • i5 2400S, 2.5GHz quad-core (21.5-inch low)
  • i5 2500S, 2.7GHz quad-core (21.5-inch high, 27-inch low)
  • i7 2600S, 2.8GHz quad-core (21-inch option)
  • i5 2400, 3.1GHz quad-core (27-inch high)
  • i7 2600, 3.4GHz quad-core (27-inch option)

There are quite a few potential candidates in the Ivy Bridge lineup, here are my most educated guesses (low end to high):

  • i5 3550S, 3.0GHz quad-core (65W mac TDP, 6MB L3) (21.5-inch low)
  • i5 3550, 3.3GHz quad-core (77W max TDP, 6MB L3) (21.5-inch high, 27-inch low)
  • i7 3770, 3.4GHz quad-core (77W max TDP, 6MB L3) (21-inch option)
  • i5 3570K, 3.4GHz quad-core (77W max TDP, 6MB L3) (27-inch high)
  • i7 3770K, 3.5GHz quad-core (77W max TDP, 8MB L3) (27-inch option)

A number of the Ivy Bridge CPUs listed are already available on the market but expectations are for an iMac refresh in late May or June.

Mac Pro

Apple’s Mac Pro is not a desktop computer that sees regular updates even if the CPUs featured inside have gone through revisions. The Mac Pro was last updated in August 2010 and is in a strong position for an update. The Mac Pro has historically made use of Intel’s high-end Xeon processors the breed available in the current Mac Pros is based on the Nehalem architecture.

With Apple not sticking to regular update cycles it’s best to skip right over the Mac Pro, it’s best tackled on its own in the future. If I was a betting man though I’d put money on an update this year, possibly a significant one.

MacBook Air family

MacBook Air family (Mid-2011)

Notebooks

Time to move onto the notebooks. As discussed briefly further up, this year looks set to mark a serious milestone in Apple’s lineup of portables. Whilst over the last couple of years Apple has been trimming down on the number of models available, most notably removing the MacBook, there remains a dense lineup with some notebooks not having clear distinctions from others.

Marco Arment has already done a bit of leg work in the notebook arena and also brings up the same questions that I would after looking at the rumours and Intel’s Ivy Bridge lineup. The rumours in their current state are scattered across the landscape but a defining pattern amongst them is that Apple will do away with the MacBook Pro type format and make all of its portables more like the MacBook Air, i.e. thin, light and presumably without an optical drive.

In terms of CPUs this raises a very big question as to how Apple wishes to serve its customers who seek a bit more power on the road. The current 15-inch MacBook Pro base model makes use of the Sandy Bridge Core i7 2675QM quad-core processor clocking in at 2.2GHz, despite having a thermal design power (TDP) of 45W this chip runs hot. Some of this is said to be down to the discrete-GPU but either way a processor with a 45W TDP with four cores is a lot to cram into a relatively thin notebook.

The proposal is of course to make an even thinner 15-inch model which naturally rules out using 45W processors and looking at Intel’s lineup probably rules out any quad-core processors too. As Marco points out in this post, Apple will most likely have to drop the discrete GPU and make use of one of the 17W dual-core Ivy Bride processors in a 15-inch MacBook Air. Based on these assumptions we won’t be saying goodbye to the Pro model anytime soon and only serves to confuse Apple’s notebook lineup even more.

Without more coherent rumours it’s impossible to see where Apple is going with the MacBook Pro. As for the rumoured retina display, they’re not relevant to a discussion on Ivy Bridge but more pixels require more horsepower, this certainly seems like an innovation on our doorstep and one heading for the current form-factor MacBook Pro.

Early-2011 MacBook Pro family

Early-2011 MacBook Pro family

The MacBook Air is an easier prospect, this years refresh is set to be a simple speed bump. I don’t see the rumoured retina displays making it into the Air lineup just yet, here’s how the current Air lineup looks (low end to high):

  • i5 2467M, 1.6GHz dual-core (17W TDP, 3MB L3 cache) (11-inch model)
  • i5 2557M, 1.7GHz dual-core (17W TDP, 3MB L3 cache) (13-inch model)
  • i7 2677M, 1.8GHz dual-core (17W TDP, 4MB L3 cache) (11- and 13-inch option)

With its Ivy Bridge processors Intel is offering almost identical chips to those Sandy Bridge ones used in the MacBook Air carrying a slight clock speed bump and making use of the 22nm die which should reap some power saving, although the process does not affect the physical size of the processors.

Here’s how the Ivy Bridge MacBook Airs will shape up:

  • i5 3317U, 1.7GHz dual-core (17W TDP, 3MB L3) (11-inch model)
  • i5 3427U, 1.8GHz dual-core (17W TDP, 3MB L3) (13-inch model)
  • i7 3667U, 2.0GHz dual-core (17W TDP, 4MB L3) (11- and 13-inch option)

That’s a complete summary of where I believe Intel’s Ivy Bridge processors will land on Apple’s Mac lineup, barring the Mac Pro and MacBook Pro lineup.

As for timeframes, it all comes down to when Intel begins shipping the chips in good volumes. Apple has been known to get chips before other manufacturers, here’s what I’d say timeframe wise for refreshes:

  • Mac mini – July/August 2012
  • iMac – late May/June 2012
  • Mac Pro – impossible to say, potentially anytime now
  • MacBook Pro – limited knowledge on potential refresh, expect around July/August 2012
  • MacBook Air – July/August 2012

You can follow me on Twitter @alexbrooks, or follow @worldofapple for the latest on Mac refreshes this year.