Earlier this week Apple announced its MacBook Air, and within hours we had the mystery of its "60% smaller" CPU uncovered. Or at least we thought.

It turns out there's even more depth to the CPU in the MacBook Air, it's even less conventional than we originally thought. Here's what happened over the past couple of days.

When Apple first made the announcement, we sent an email off to Intel to see exactly what CPU was used in the MacBook Air. As is usually the case with companies that work closely with Apple, including Intel, we got the usual "you have to ask Apple PR" response.

Intel, surely responding to tons of similar requests, put out the following official response:

"Intel provides its customers with a range of technology choices. If a customer requires a different technology feature-set, then where possible, Intel will work with them to develop a solution to meet their respective market needs, as we have done in this case."

But by then we'd already pieced together the puzzle and published our article.

 

The CPU in the MacBook Air is a 65nm Merom based Core 2 Duo, with a 4MB L2 cache, 800MHz FSB and runs at either 1.6GHz or 1.8GHz. The packaging technology used for this CPU is what makes it unique; the CPU comes in a package that was originally reserved for mobile Penryn due out in the second half of 2008 with the Montevina SFF Centrino platform. Intel accelerated the introduction of the packaging technology specifically for Apple it seems.

After our article went live, Intel followed up with some more detail on the CPU and chipset:

"The MacBook Air uses the Intel® Core™ 2 Duo Processor and Intel 965GMS chipset with integrated Gfx using a new miniaturized package technology. This new CPU and chipset allows for approximately 60% reduction in total footprint. The Core 2 Duo Processor TDP is 20 watts. The Macbook Air is using existing Core 2 Duo technology with a lower voltage spec in a new miniaturized packaging design. It is not a ULV processor."

The CPU and chipset are both reduced in footprint, we assumed that this might be the case but lacked the visual evidence from Apple to back it up (at least until we can get a MacBook Air in house and take it apart). If you look back at our Montevina SFF diagram from IDF you'll see that the overall platform footprint reduction of 58% comes through reducing both CPU and chipset size, so it makes sense that Intel applied the same technology to the 965 and Merom chips in this case.

 

The line about lower voltages threw us, we originally assumed that the Core 2 Duos used in the MacBook Air were the L7700 and L7500, both Low Voltage 65nm Meroms running at somewhere between 0.9V and 1.2000V. A little more digging revealed that the chips used in the MacBook Air weren't LV parts after all, but they were lower voltage than the standard mobile Core 2 processors.

The 1.6GHz chip in the MacBook Air runs at 1.0V - 1.25V, while the 1.8GHz part runs at 1.1125V - 1.25V. Note that this is less voltage than a standard mobile Core 2 Duo, but more voltage than the Low Voltage chips. The TDP of these not-quite-low-voltage Core 2s reflects the increased voltage; while the L7700 and L7500 have a 17W TDP, the chips used in the MacBook Air are rated at 20W (standard mobile Core 2 Duo chips are 35W parts).

CPU Core Clock Speeds Voltage TDP
Intel Core 2 Duo 65nm Merom 1.80GHz - 2.60GHz 1.0375V - 1.3000V 35W
MacBook Air CPU 65nm Merom 1.60GHz - 1.80GHz 1.0V - 1.25V 20W
Intel Core 2 Duo (Low Voltage) 65nm Merom 1.40GHz - 1.80GHz 0.9V - 1.2000V 17W
Intel Core 2 Duo (Ultra Low Voltage) 65nm Merom 1.06GHz - 1.33GHz 0.8V - 0.975V 10W

 

Why did Apple and Intel opt for a hotter than necessary chip for use in the MacBook Air? Here's where our trail goes cold but we suspect that in order to bring the smaller CPU/chipset packaging to market earlier, some tradeoffs had to be made. Remember that CPU packaging controls far more than how big the chip is, but also governs FSB frequency, power delivery and getting data in and out of the chip itself.

The shiny die connects to hundreds of pins on the bottom of the package. The more pins that need to be connected, the higher the FSB frequency and the smaller the chip the more strain this puts on the packaging technology itself. It's quite possible that one side effect of the small form factor CPU package is worse power delivery, requiring that the chip be given a higher than normal operating voltage.

The bigger concern however has nothing to do with packaging technology or operating voltages, but overall thermals. The MacBook Pro runs very hot and while the 20W TDP of the MacBook Air is significantly lower than the 35W TDP of the Pro, it's high for such a small chassis. We won't know for sure how hot the Air will get until it's in our hands but the SSD route seems like an even better bet now that we know a little more about what we're dealing with. Cutting down heat in that thin chassis will be very important, and moving to solid state storage is the only real option you have there.

A Discussion of Specs
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  • BladeVenom - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    It's just the media. While Steve Jobs is a media Svengali, it's only the media who are eating out of his hand. The general public is smarter than that and see Apple for what it is. They only had a 5.7% market share this year in the US, and far less elsewhere. Reply
  • 0roo0roo - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    it is not just the media. media hype can get people to buy maybe one product one time. it cannot make them come back. frankly apples been around and successful for so long the media hype argument needs to be shelved. Reply
  • michael2k - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    All indications are that Apple has 7% marketshare in the US.

    Probably by the end of this year it will be 10%. It wasn't long ago that they only had 4% in the US.

    So, no, it's not just the media. The general public actually is buying Macs. Look up Apple's quarterly results and you'll see that too.
    Reply
  • Griswold - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    No, the general public is not much smarter than that. See the ipod and how people rush to stores only to get the latest model whenever there is a new one. And the (now somewhat calm) iphone hype.

    Dont just look at computer market share figures... thats not their cash cow anymore.

    Besides that, the media drones only cater to the needs of the dummies listening to them in the first place - principle of supply and demand.
    Reply
  • brianb - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    Form factor of the MBA is definitely the tastiest I've seen, but the notebook is still a little heavy for an ultraportable. The toshiba portege r500 is only 1.7 pounds. Now, I have a Mac and what I want Apple to improveve on is the MacBook glossy screen. It's a total wash out as seen on this video (http://www.maccomplainer.com/macbook-complaints/ma...">http://www.maccomplainer.com/macbook-co...s/macboo....

    Some people practically "live" in their notebooks working long hours on it, but unlike Sony, HP and Dell, Apple chooses a substandard screen.
    Reply
  • brianb - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    sorry, the link is:

    http://www.maccomplainer.com/macbook-complaints/ma...">http://www.maccomplainer.com/macbook-co...ts/macbo...
    Reply
  • Ratinator - Thursday, January 17, 2008 - link

    "The love affair"

    I think it is just the type of marketing they do. They hope to hit the hundreds of thousands of people out there that don't have a clue and suck them in.

    For those that know better or are smart enough to seek out a friend a who does know better aren't as affected.

    My father in law is an excellent example. He doesn't know better but he thinks he does. I have 15 years experience in software/hardware etc. He will ask my advice on something and then usually does something completely different. Usually because he heard something on TV or one of his friends who doesn't have a clue told him different.

    It's amazing how many of this type of people are out there.
    Reply
  • Mathue - Sunday, January 20, 2008 - link

    Reply to Ratinator:

    My Ghod I wish marketing products was as simple as you think it is. I _strongly_ doubt Apple could have grown so much over the past five or so years (Maybe it's longer?) on mere 'marketing to people without a clue'. I get SO SICK of my executives belief that marketing crap will make people buy crap, there's five years of proof where I used to work that that is a complete and utter pipe dream.
    Reply
  • 0roo0roo - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link


    quote:


    I think it is just the type of marketing they do. They hope to hit the hundreds of thousands of people out there that don't have a clue and suck them in.


    if it were easy as marketing everyone would be pulling apples.
    Reply
  • michal1980 - Thursday, January 17, 2008 - link

    oh I wish I could edit:

    Becuase I want to add,

    how can apple be praised for high design when they leave things off... But other manufactures get ripped for missing port x,y,z.

    Dell should release a notebook with no ports. not even a power plug, or a usb port. Talk about RADICAL.


    oh and the graphics solution, can't intel get a faster chip that the old g9x5 chip?
    Reply

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