After the Core 2 Duo, what’s next for Apple laptops?

It’s always a bit of a delicate dance, running the laptop division at a computer company — certainly at one that’s as vertically integrated as Apple, and certainly when the next generation of the company’s popular MacBook and MacBook Pro lines are being prepped for release.

You want to make a powerful, full-featured laptop, but not one that obviates your company’s desktops. In the past, when competent CPUs ran large and hot, and solid graphics required large and dedicated boards, this wasn’t much of an issue. But based on rumblings about Intel’s new laptop CPUs and various low-power graphics solutions, we may be seeing the last signs of a tipping point — to use a marketing term — after which time laptops may be all most people need.

As Computerworld blogger Seth Weintraub has already pointed out, Intel’s new Nehalem is near, even though it was recently rebranded as Core i7 and may have a model code-named Bloomfield (Note to Intel: We surrender! All the code names are too much!). And tech know-it-alls are drooling over the speedy goodness, as Seth outlines.

Now in use: Core 2 DuoThe current generation of the MacBook, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air — referred to collectively as “the MBs” — are built around Intel’s oddly named Core 2 Duo processors, which range in speed from 1.6 GHz to 2.5 GHz. (If you want to get into more baffling detail, the part designation for the 2.4-GHz CPU in the MacBook is T8300, while the 2.5-GHz CPU in the MacBook Pro is T9300.)

These are all from the “Penryn” clan of processors, as per Intel’s family tree; the previous MBs used “Merom” processors. The newer chips are built on a 45-nanometer process, compared to the older generation’s 65nm, offering better energy efficiency and a higher top-end speed.

To add to the marketing-name soup, these models are also based on Intel’s “Santa Rosa” chip set — with “chip set” encompassing the CPU plus the motherboard chips as well as the hardware for wireless connectivity. And Santa Rosa is the fourth generation of what Intel calls “Centrino.” Which, to bring things in a circle, is a blanket term for chip set.

Now let’s try unpacking code names for the future. Ready?

Nehalem — Core i7 — is the CPU, like a Core 2 Duo, that fits into the Calpella (again, Intel — really?) chip set. Compounding the issue is the fact that CPUs and chip sets can mix and match: for example, the Penryn CPU can go into the Santa Rosa and Montevina chip sets, and the Santa Rosa chip set can support both the Penryn and Merom.

Got it so far?

If it helps, forget all those names above aside from Core i7 and Calpella. The CPU promises huge advances over past models, with Intel’s QuickPath replacing the front-side bus (FSB) and hooking the CPU straight to the system RAM; eight virtual cores via Hyper-Threading; scalable processor usage??? it all portends serious speediness.

More cores are better than oneMultiple cores inside a processor can offer significant boosts at low hardware costs. Given a good design, with plenty of bandwidth allowing bits and bytes to be slung as needed between the cores, properly constructed software can juggle data and computation with vastly greater speed and efficiency. This could mean a serious boost in responsiveness even for high-end apps, even in compact, low-power CPUs.

Note that I said “properly constructed software.” Designing properly multithreaded applications can be quite a bear of a task. Development tools in the past haven’t been designed with this in mind, so it can take a lot of manual troubleshooting and checking — and there are reports about how Vista just isn’t up to snuff in this area (not to mention others). In contrast, Apple has been working to make its Xcode development environment better on this front, and the next revision of Mac OS X — Snow Leopard — should offer advances on the multicore front when it emerges next year.

Coming soon: Calpella?

But all the CPU goodness means little without the chip set — the bass, drums and keyboards to the CPU’s lead guitar. Calpella is supposed to unleash the Core i7 goodness described above, plus support newer technologies such as Blu-Ray, WiMax and solid-state hard drives.

Whether Apple will use the full Calpella platform, though, is not certain. Certainly, the QuickPath and Hyper-Threading will be in, but Apple may have its own ideas for the wireless networking hardware.

Sure, each year — or even multiple times per year — we geeks get all hepped up about the hardware that’s “just around the corner.” And Apple’s running hard up against the academic year purchasing schedule, which normally sets its budgets and buys by August. But it wouldn’t be the first time Apple has dropped new laptops after students are in their dorms and it hasn’t hurt sales — at least as far as Apple knows. Still, if Neha — sorry, Core i7 — and Calpella meet even part of their expectations, expect the fall line of laptops to be the new desktops.

Dan Turner has been writing about science and technology for over a decade at publications, including Salon, eWeek, MacWeek and The New York Times.

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