When WWDC 2013 came and went without an update to the MacBook Pro line, many wondered what Apple was waiting for. A radical redesign, just a year after the introduction of the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, seemed unlikely, and rumors of the discontinuation of the non-Retina models wouldn’t logically explain a delay in updating the remaining members of the family.
Earlier this month, an answer to the mystery finally seemed to drop: Apple was waiting for a custom CPU from Intel. The purported chip, designed specifically for the MacBook Pro, would be based on Haswell’s dual- and quad-core configurations but leverage a unique “supercharged” integrated GPU. The highest-end publicly known Haswell GPU is the GT3e, or Iris Pro 5200. Apparently, Apple is seeking a chip with even more performance, with some speculating about the departure of discrete graphics options in the next refresh.
It’s certainly plausible that this report is accurate, and that Apple will indeed leverage this high-performing Haswell chip to help distinguish its notebooks from the competition. But Intel has been working on Haswell for years, and the company’s roadmap was almost certainly provided to Apple engineers in advance of its public release. In short, it doesn’t make sense that Apple would miss the vital back-to-school summer shopping season to wait on a custom part that the company had plenty of time to prepare for.
Instead, we propose another answer to the MacBook Pro refresh mystery: Thunderbolt 2.
Apple was the first consumer company to launch Thunderbolt products, which it did in February 2011 with, you guessed it, the MacBook Pro. The technology quickly found its way into the rest of Apple’s Mac lineup with the exception of the neglected Mac Pro, which will finally see an update to a radical new design this fall.
Thunderbolt 2 is an upcoming evolution of the original Thunderbolt specification. Using the same port but a new controller, codenamed “Falcon Ridge,” the Thunderbolt 2 specification will offer bandwidth up to 20Gbps (compared to 10Gbps for the current Thunderbolt specification) and the ability to simultaneously utilize 4K displays and storage arrays. AnandTech explains:
Today, Thunderbolt exists as four 10Gbps channels – two upstream and two downstream. Each channel however is fully independent. Although PCIe and DisplayPort are muxed from the cable perspective, you can only send one or the other over each channel. That limits max performance for a single storage device to 10Gbps (minus overhead), and it similarly limits the max display bandwidth to 10Gbps as well. The latter is insufficient for 4K video (~15Gbps depending on refresh rate)…
By combining the channels together, Thunderbolt 2 enables two 20Gbps bi-direction channels instead of two sets of 10Gbps channels. There’s no overall increase in bandwidth, but the solution is now more capable. Since there’s 20Gbps of bandwidth per channel, you can now do 4K video over Thunderbolt. You can also expect to see higher max transfer rates for storage. Whereas most Thunderbolt storage devices top out at 800 – 900MB/s, Thunderbolt 2 should raise that to around 1500MB/s (overhead and PCIe limits will stop you from getting anywhere near the max spec).
We already know that Apple is planning to utilize Thunderbolt 2; the aforementioned Mac Pro will pack six ports onto its small cylindrical chassis. It’s also likely that Apple is waiting to incorporate Thunderbolt 2 into the next update of the Thunderbolt Display which, like the Mac Pro, has gone several years without an update.
Thunderbolt 2 won’t be available until later this year, and it’s likely that Apple will once again be the first company to bring the technology to market. So if Apple is already definitely planning on utilizing Thunderbolt 2 for the Mac Pro and is likely planning on adding it to the next generation of Thunderbolt Displays (which may also include a 4K model), it makes sense to add it to the company’s mobile powerhouse, the MacBook Pro.
The Iris Pro 5200 GPU can already support 4K output, Apple’s custom specifications aside. A “bundled” launch later this year (CFO Peter Oppenheimer did mention during the company’s third quarter results call that Apple was in for a “very busy fall”) of high-end mobile (MacBook Pro) and desktop (Mac Pro) computers, alongside shiny new 4K displays would certainly generate a ton of excitement from the professional and creative communities, excitement that has lagged a bit in recent years.
This strategy explains the delay in the MacBook Pro refresh, and the end result may be enough to make up for the lack of a new MacBook Pro during the back-to-school campaign. What do you think? Is Thunderbolt 2 going to make an appearance on the next generation of MacBook Pro? Let us know in the comments!