Inside Apple's 2016 MacBook Pro: Graphics processing unit choices

Posted:
in Future Apple Hardware edited August 2016
Once again, Apple probably won't rock the boat with any new MacBook Pro, and will likely stick with Intel integrated graphics and lower end next-generation discrete GPUs rather than giving macOS users faster options.




Long-time Apple consumers have a vision in mind of what they expect from a Pro-designated modern Mac. Users expect the fastest processors, the most memory, fast drives, and speedy graphics processing.

None of those expectations are met by the currently shipping Apple Mac product line, however. The Mac Pro was refreshed in 2013, and has sat unrevised since. The MacBook Pro did get updated in 2015, but because of varying factors, some benchmarks fell behind previous years' models.
We believe that the high-end 15-inch 2016 MacBook Pro will have a new AMD "Polaris" GPU, while lower-end 15-inch models and all 13-inch models will feature Intel integrated graphics.
While new and faster Thunderbolt and USB interfaces may be the most obvious looking at the outside of new computer, performance can be greatly enhanced, or hurt, by Apple's choice of a graphics processing unit (GPU). Apple's history of GPU inclusion in its products hasn't been consistently great, though.

Recent developments in the GPU market may change all that.

AMD has in recent years broken the Nvidia monopoly on stand-alone GPUs in the Mac. In the wider marketplace, the two are going head-to-head with very recent and very powerful GPU releases.

Based on these developments, and Apple's current marketplace biases, we believe that any 2016 MacBook Pro revision will have a new AMD "Polaris" GPU on the high end, and will skip faster offerings or GPUs from any other vendor, despite availability. We also believe that Apple will continue its "good enough" trend and will stick with integrated Intel graphics on the lower end MacBook Pro, and any 13-inch MacBook Pro.

To understand why takes some examination.

Needs for off-CPU graphics processing have always existed

Co-processors for dealing with graphics have been around since the '70s. Development was driven by the game industry first, and the scientific community more recently.

The '80s and '90s saw the first predecessors to the GPU, with wide use of blitter chips for video by the early '90s. Blitter chips were sub-processors originally designed to move and modify data in RAM rapidly in sync with display refresh rates, eliminating load on the main processor in a time where CPU clock speed was measured in megahertz and could be counted on the fingers of two hands.

As video arcade machine technology developed, demand grew for hardware-accelerated 3d graphics in the growing home computer market. The term "graphical processing unit" dates back to the late '90s as a marketing term.

Speaking of the late '90s, development of 3D APIs split during this time between OpenGL, and Microsoft's DirectX. OpenGL and its direct descendant, OpenCL, are used heavily by Apple in the macOS, and iOS to this day.

For a brief time in the relatively early days of GPU development, Apple held the crown for 3D rendering performance with the 16MB ATI Rage 128 card in the blue and white G3 tower.

Turn of the century

Released in 2001, The Nvidia GeForce 3 can be considered the first "modern" GPU, encapsulating the first use of programmable shading, rather than the earlier less efficient approach of "hardware transform and lighting." Floating point math was added in 2002 to many GPUs.

In 2006, the GeForce 8 series was introduced with clusters of processors working in tandem, making scientific calculations feasible on the GPU. Nvidia's CUDA platform (not to be confused with Apple's relatively early CUDA power management chip), introduced in 2007, was the first "standard" for GPU computing.

The advent of powerful, general purpose mobile devices, heralded by the iPhone, forced GPU developers to consider both power consumption and computing power. Manufacturing techniques intended for mobile started crossing over into GPU development around this time.

Since 2007, AMD and Nvidia have moved to control nearly 100 percent of the consumer GPU market.

Apple's checkered GPU past

Industry-wide, most computers shipped up through 2007 had poorly performing integrated graphics, but Apple's offerings generally had dedicated graphics. Any GPU expansion or upgrading during that time was performed through an AGP, PCI, or PCI-e slot -- notably absent on Apple's desktop iMac and Mac mini lines, to say nothing of laptop computers.

In between the blue and white G3 and the 2013 rebirth of the Mac Pro, Apple's GPU offerings even in build-to-order configurations have never been top of the line in any product. As an example, when the Mac mini graduated from the G4 processor, updated with the Intel Core-family it was saddled with Intel GMA950 integrated graphics for a while.

With the help of Nvidia-supplied drivers, the 2008 Mac Pro through 2012 Mac Pro can take some modern graphics cards, and associated CUDA-related software through the PCI-e interface. Performance is constrained somewhat on the 2008 Mac Pro as a result of architectural limitations in the now eight-year-old computer.




The 2013 Mac Pro that replaced the 2012 Mac Pro tower was revolutionary for its time. The AMD FirePro D300, D500, and D700 GPUs outclassed anything else available on the market.

Time has marched on. From a raw processing power standpoint, the D700 is capable of 3.5 teraflops of computing power, where the GTX 980 PCI-e GPU released in 2015 benchmarks at 6.4 teraflops.

Three years hasn't led to that much improvement in Intel's CPU offerings other than power efficiency, but clearly, GPU technology has leapt forward in that time.

Laptop as portable computing powerhouse?

Apple's shift to laptop components for a large swath of its product line has led to less powerful mobile discrete GPU chipsets being included, or reliance on Intel integrated video chipsets. Even if the D700 was made available in a mobile form, power consumption issues would prevent long battery life from a portable, which the modern computing market seems to value more than processing power in recent years.

Intel CPU development has stagnated speed-wise in recent years, leading to a situation where the 2012 15-inch i7 Retina MacBook Pro remains competitive with the 2015 model, and in some cases, outperforms it. Apple has been roundly criticized for infrequent updates, but the problem is clearly multi-fold.

The biggest loss in Apple's failure to frequently update hardware as of late isn't in CPU performance, but is in the advancement of GPU technology. The on-board graphics capability of Intel processors stands far above that of just a few years ago, but it is still remarkably limited when compared to dedicated mobile chipsets.

Half of the picture

Nvidia has supplied the slim unibody iMac with mobile-class GPU chipsets since 2012. Other Nvidia offerings dot the Apple product line alongside competitor AMD.

In July, Nvidia announced the 1000-series PCI-e interface GPU, based on the company's "Pascal" architecture. While the low-end 1060 chip is not faster than the previous generation's high-end 980 that crushes the D700 performance-wise, there are significant gains across the board in power management over previous generations.

The Nvidia "Pascal" technology is the culmination of a decade of work spanning desktop and mobile processors. The raw speed of the desktop GPU has been cross-pollinated with the power-sipping needs of mobile devices during the development of the new GPU line.




In August, the "mobile" versions of the 1000-series Nvidia GPUs were announced. For the first time, there are only minor differences between the laptop versions and the desktop versions. Nvidia claims that the mobile version of the new GPU is within 10 percent of the desktop model it was based on.

Desktop to mobile versions performance of previous chip architectures varied widely. Performance gaps between the two generally ranged between 30 and 50 percent, depending on implementation, with Apple generally choosing to slow down a GPU further opening the gap to cut down on heat, and improve battery life.

The other side

After the 2006 purchase of ATI Technologies, AMD has supplied Radeon-branded GPUs to Apple for some time. The AMD M290, M380, and M390 families drive the Retina iMac line, with the sole exception of one 4K iMac using Intel Iris Pro integrated graphics.

AMD also has a new GPU series. The "Polaris" RX 400 series was revealed in the spring, and just started shipping to retailers in PCI-e expansion card form. The company boasts 5.8 teraflops performance in the high-end version of the card, in what may be a more cost-effective deployment than the nVidia alternatives, at least for now.




However, any drivers for an AMD inclusion in a new MacBook Pro would necessitate a custom driver package. Nvidia does most of the "heavy lifting" for macOS coding, and AppleInsider has learned that Apple does the vast majority of the coding for AMD GPUs included in its products. However, most of the work has already been done on this, as AMD GPUs dominate the current Retina iMac line.

Very recently, a new gaming laptop was revealed, utilizing the first mobile variant of the RX 400 "Polaris" technology. The limited edition HP Omen has a mobile version of the RX 460 chip, with HP and AMD claiming that the laptop has only a very few frames per second difference between it, and the desktop version of the GPU.

Prior to the refresh of the HP Omen gaming computer line, only vague promises of future deliveries of a mobile AMD "Polaris" chip had been made.




Based on manufacturing similarities, and the alleged performance of the AMD RX 460 for mobile, higher-end AMD Polaris-based chipsets for laptops than the RX 460 will have similar power demands and performance as the announced Nvidia 1000-series GPU's mobile variants. But, we aren't expecting to see either Nvidia nor higher-end AMD GPUs in the MacBook Pro.

Big concerns abound

As we mentioned in the first part of the series, the new Intel "Kaby Lake" processor suitable for the MacBook Pro isn't expected for another few months, so improvements in the on-board graphics processing routines with the new processor won't be realized. Issues surrounding a potential MacBook Pro CPU will be delved into in a future installment of this series, but at this point we don't think that the imminent MacBook Pro refresh will have the seventh generation of the Intel Core-series processor in it.

So, omitting "Kaby Lake" leaves the sixth generation "Skylake" processor. Integrated graphics chipsets are greatly more advanced, and feature higher performance than in years past. Advantages in power consumption for omitting a dedicated GPU cannot be denied.

Combining the two factors in favor of integrated graphics clearly points to a reason to omit a dedicated GPU in the low-end MacBook Pro refresh. However, Apple's recent predilection to using them in "Pro" level gear is problematic, even more so given the relative age of the "Skylake" processor.

Given the state of the GPU market, continued use of AMD GPUs seems likely with the "Polaris"-series chip seemingly obvious for the new MacBook Pro despite only the low-end version of the chip ready for mobile for the fall. Certainly not guaranteed, but obvious.

Apple sold 4.3 million Macs in its third quarter of 2016 that wrapped up in June, generating $5.2 billion. In the same quarter, it sold 40.4 million iPhones, resulting in revenue of $24 billion.

The focus of the company has changed, and with it, the consumer type that it homes in on. The 2015 MacBook rebirth is a perfect example of that, and the very long period of time between the last MacBook Pro refresh and now is astounding, and telling.

Apple will continue to make Macs, if for no other reason than to support its iOS, watchOS, and tvOS development initiatives. In the pursuit of a new and larger customer base which have different aims and goals than previous Apple purchasers, new machines may just not have the level of graphical performance that long-term Mac aficionados clamor for.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 82
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 6,819member

    The focus of the company has changed, and with it, the consumer type that it homes in on. The 2015 MacBook rebirth is a perfect example of that, and the very long period of time between the last MacBook Pro refresh and now is astounding, and telling.
    This...î So all you spec people just go right ahead and switch to the latest, greatest spec’d machines from whoever and be content running a crappy operating system on them. Apple has moved on and so should you. Be happy.

    And you should have seen this coming years ago when Apple Computer became Apple Inc.
    edited August 2016
  • Reply 2 of 82
    wood1208wood1208 Posts: 1,883member
    We all know Appe can't give you which doesn't exists like 10nm ICE Lake processor which Intel said will deliver end of 2015. Apple can help make Mackbook Pro thinner/lighter(for college kids carrying heavy backpack with tons of textbooks along with macbook pro,etc) to the point thermo physics allows and please start base model with 25GB storage and easy upgrade to RAM. Other bells and whistles features are always welcome news.
  • Reply 3 of 82
    ...in MBP in my experience GPU has been the heat/fan pariah... I sold a 2011 for a 2010 17" mbp for heat & noise reasons. That being said I understand the integrated 6000 is now on par with a 330M discrete. Is offloading GPU to external monitor(s) on demand a no brainer if technically feasible, and significantly more scalable, at least perhaps in concept...? So in my pro camp wishlist, I'd contemplate Aiir 11/13", 15", 17" line up with enough discrete GPU for an internal retina display, offering up to 3 external 5k retina 27" displays with discrete GPU at the top tier ? For what it is worth I'll be hanging on to my larger 17" display as long as possible for (my) professional 'portable desktop' work! Go Apple go...! ;)
    viclauyycmacxpress
  • Reply 4 of 82
    knowitallknowitall Posts: 1,241member
    It's clear I think that the next PC standard will not be defined by Apple.
    But I think most people will be perfectly happy using a $30 ARM 64 bit super computer running Linux Ubuntu.

    xzubrian greenyassfiverepressthis
  • Reply 5 of 82
    Why not use their own A-series chip like A9X or something like that for GPU?
    brian greenrepressthis
  • Reply 6 of 82
    Also it could well be that Apple is waiting for Optane 3D XPoint  to replace the current SSD technology: http://www.anandtech.com/show/10604/intels-140gb-optane-3d-xpoint-pcie-ssd-spotted-at-idf, ;
  • Reply 7 of 82
    mvo_ny said:
    Also it could well be that Apple is waiting for Optane 3D XPoint  to replace the current SSD technology: http://www.anandtech.com/show/10604/intels-140gb-optane-3d-xpoint-pcie-ssd-spotted-at-idf, ;
    Link doesn't work. The link shows up blank in Safari and in Firefox I get this message: Server Error in '/' Application. The resource cannot be found. Description: HTTP 404. The resource you are looking for (or one of its dependencies) could have been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable. Please review the following URL and make sure that it is spelled correctly. Requested URL: /show/10604/intels-140gb-optane-3d-xpoint-pcie-ssd-spotted-at-idf,
    repressthis
  • Reply 8 of 82
    knowitallknowitall Posts: 1,241member
    acatomic said:
    Why not use their own A-series chip like A9X or something like that for GPU?
    Someone will complain that some GPU is twice as fast (altough it consumes two orders of a magnitude more energy) and so the MacBook is doomed and cannot be used by serious gamers.
    It also uses OpenGL which is extremely slow compared to 'direct this and such, version 100' or so and looses a few percent on this interface; Apples 'metal' solution cannot be used because serious game programmers do not take the time to program for this tiny market segment.
    And so on.
    sockrolidmattinozacatomicrepressthisrevenant
  • Reply 9 of 82
    I cannot emphasize this enough. Intel integrated graphics stink. Try using Duet on a Mac laptop with the 12.9" iPad Pro. It is an atrocious experience for what would otherwise be a fantastic tool. The lag simply isn't there when the iPad Pro is attached to an iMac with dedicated GPU. And the desktop doesn't heat up like the laptop when using Duet.  

    If Apple cannot or will not supply a MacBook (pro) with a discrete GPU, they absolutely need to build an external solution using the Thunderbolt port which certainly has sufficient bandwidth. 

    I am more than wiling to tote around a couple of extra pounds for a discrete GPU and larger battery. For those who want the ultimate in thinness and portability, there is always the MacBook and MacBook Air. 
    yassfivexzuoldbluegmc50cnocbuibrian greenbaconstangrevenantrepressthislolliverwaverboy
  • Reply 10 of 82
    wood1208wood1208 Posts: 1,883member
    I would be thrilled to buy Macbook pro with ICE lake processor, Optane 3D XPoint SSD, high speed memory from Samsung and OLED screen in weight/thickness close to Macbook Air or Macbook. Life would be better if Apple can design and use it's own multi-core CPU/GPU processor.
    edited August 2016 brian greenjay-trepressthis
  • Reply 11 of 82
    it's to switch to pcs, i'm gonna miss mac os, but u can't throw that much  money on such crappy specs, the article is evocking heat concerns but dells xps lineup, asus zenbooks and lenovos thinkpads, handle prefectly high end graphic cards, xps lineup has even equivalent battery life than current macbooks. apple coud innovate on better ways to evacuate heat rather than go for the easy cheap solution of using mid range hardware, and nothings about to change ans long as ppl dont realize its becoming a waste of money, the os is getting worse im having more and more crashes since yosemite, ms windows at least has a way to summon the task manager !! 
    oldbluegmc50cnocbuibrian green
  • Reply 12 of 82
    bulk001bulk001 Posts: 464member
    macseeker said:
    mvo_ny said:
    Also it could well be that Apple is waiting for Optane 3D XPoint  to replace the current SSD technology: http://www.anandtech.com/show/10604/intels-140gb-optane-3d-xpoint-pcie-ssd-spotted-at-idf, ;
    Link doesn't work. The link shows up blank in Safari and in Firefox I get this message: Server Error in '/' Application. The resource cannot be found. Description: HTTP 404. The resource you are looking for (or one of its dependencies) could have been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable. Please review the following URL and make sure that it is spelled correctly. Requested URL: /show/10604/intels-140gb-optane-3d-xpoint-pcie-ssd-spotted-at-idf,
    If you look at the end of the URL posted they got a ", ;"in there which messed it up. Just delete the extra characters and you get http://www.anandtech.com/show/10604/intels-140gb-optane-3d-xpoint-pcie-ssd-spotted-at-idf which should get you there. 
    edited August 2016
  • Reply 13 of 82
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 6,819member
    yassfive said:
    it's to switch to pcs, i'm gonna miss mac os, but u can't throw that much  money on such crappy specs, the article is evocking heat concerns but dells xps lineup, asus zenbooks and lenovos thinkpads, handle prefectly high end graphic cards, xps lineup has even equivalent battery life than current macbooks. apple coud innovate on better ways to evacuate heat rather than go for the easy cheap solution of using mid range hardware, and nothings about to change ans long as ppl dont realize its becoming a waste of money, the os is getting worse im having more and more crashes since yosemite, ms windows at least has a way to summon the task manager !! 
    You start out by saying you’ll miss “mac os,” something that doesn’t even exist (it’s OS X). Then at the end you say the os is getting worse. You then expose your complete ignorance further by saying “ms windows at least has a way to summon the task manager!! Never heard of option-command-esc, huh? Never heard of the terminal app, huh? A post like yours was completely expected at some point. Your ilk simply cannot resist the temptation.
    edited August 2016 topper24hoursbaconstanglollivernolamacguy
  • Reply 14 of 82
    xzuxzu Posts: 139member
    Apple is missing an opportunity to produce "Pro" machines. There is no reason they can't make both consumer and pro machines, other than they don't want to be bothered. Just license OS X, it runs faster and better on other peoples hardware. I have been using Macs since 1987... and I am now forced to use Windoze because of performance, it is embarrassing. Not one computer with desktop class graphics.. and no i am not counting my 2013 Mac Pro, my 2013 hackintosh runs much faster and has upgradable graphics.
    edited August 2016 oldbluegmc50cnocbuientropysyassfiverepressthis
  • Reply 15 of 82
    jkichlinejkichline Posts: 1,331member
    yassfive said:
    it's to switch to pcs, i'm gonna miss mac os, but u can't throw that much  money on such crappy specs, the article is evocking heat concerns but dells xps lineup, asus zenbooks and lenovos thinkpads, handle prefectly high end graphic cards, xps lineup has even equivalent battery life than current macbooks. apple coud innovate on better ways to evacuate heat rather than go for the easy cheap solution of using mid range hardware, and nothings about to change ans long as ppl dont realize its becoming a waste of money, the os is getting worse im having more and more crashes since yosemite, ms windows at least has a way to summon the task manager !! 
    Don't let the door hit you on the way out!
    macxpresswilliamlondonbaconstangrepressthislollivernolamacguy
  • Reply 16 of 82
    bulk001 said:
    macseeker said:
    Link doesn't work. The link shows up blank in Safari and in Firefox I get this message: Server Error in '/' Application. The resource cannot be found. Description: HTTP 404. The resource you are looking for (or one of its dependencies) could have been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable. Please review the following URL and make sure that it is spelled correctly. Requested URL: /show/10604/intels-140gb-optane-3d-xpoint-pcie-ssd-spotted-at-idf,
    If you look at the end of the URL posted they got a ", ;"in there which messed it up. Just delete the extra characters and you get http://www.anandtech.com/show/10604/intels-140gb-optane-3d-xpoint-pcie-ssd-spotted-at-idf which should get you there. 
    Thanks bulk001.

    From mvo_ny;

    "Also it could well be that Apple is waiting for Octane 3D Point  to replace the current SSD technology: http://www.anandtech.com/show/10604/intels-140gb-optane-3d-xpoint-pcie-ssd-spotted-at-idf, ;"

    An interesting article.
  • Reply 17 of 82
    lwiolwio Posts: 83member
    When new iPhones are announced there's always a section on how much faster they are compared to the last generation with a game demo or two.
    Macs don't get this because they aren't any faster, macs aren't important to Apple now, it's a shame because I think OS X is the best os out there and really deserves the best hardware at the pro level particularly at the premium prices Apple charges. 
    xzucnocbuientropysbaconstangrepressthis
  • Reply 18 of 82
    lkrupp said:
    yassfive said:
    it's to switch to pcs, i'm gonna miss mac os, but u can't throw that much  money on such crappy specs, the article is evocking heat concerns but dells xps lineup, asus zenbooks and lenovos thinkpads, handle prefectly high end graphic cards, xps lineup has even equivalent battery life than current macbooks. apple coud innovate on better ways to evacuate heat rather than go for the easy cheap solution of using mid range hardware, and nothings about to change ans long as ppl dont realize its becoming a waste of money, the os is getting worse im having more and more crashes since yosemite, ms windows at least has a way to summon the task manager !! 
    You start out by saying you’ll miss “mac os,” something that doesn’t even exist (it’s OS X). Then at the end you say the os is getting worse. You then expose your complete ignorance further by saying “ms windows at least has a way to summon the task manager!! Never heard of option-command-esc, huh? Never heard of the terminal app, huh? A post like yours was completely expected at some point. Your ilk simply cannot resist the temptation.
    You have nothing to talk about.
    yassfivejay-twaverboy
  • Reply 19 of 82
    Thank you apple insider for writing this article that highlights some of the downfalls of the current Apple. I'm sorry there are Apple users that can't understand that computers are not a one size fits all. When Final Cut Pro dies I will have to look else where but in the mean time I will stick it out. Hopefully external graphics cards become natively supported. The wolf Kickstarter project may be my saving grace!
  • Reply 20 of 82
    jlanddjlandd Posts: 873member
    lkrupp said:
    yassfive said:
    it's to switch to pcs, i'm gonna miss mac os, but u can't throw that much  money on such crappy specs, the article is evocking heat concerns but dells xps lineup, asus zenbooks and lenovos thinkpads, handle prefectly high end graphic cards, xps lineup has even equivalent battery life than current macbooks. apple coud innovate on better ways to evacuate heat rather than go for the easy cheap solution of using mid range hardware, and nothings about to change ans long as ppl dont realize its becoming a waste of money, the os is getting worse im having more and more crashes since yosemite, ms windows at least has a way to summon the task manager !! 
    You start out by saying you’ll miss “mac os,” something that doesn’t even exist (it’s OS X). Then at the end you say the os is getting worse. You then expose your complete ignorance further by saying “ms windows at least has a way to summon the task manager!! Never heard of option-command-esc, huh? Never heard of the terminal app, huh? A post like yours was completely expected at some point. Your ilk simply cannot resist the temptation.
    Nearly all of the OS X image processing and pro audio apps I use and encounter daily elsewhere are available in other operating systems.  Most work as well, some absolutely better than on OS X, through no fault of their own.  It's great that Apple is doing what works best for them, but if you think the ramped up exodus away from Macs in pro creative fields where it once was a better choice (not that it was ever the only choice) has only been participated in by people who are ignorant you'd be wrong.   If you don't think that graphic card performance or hardware limits should matter to anyone, well....
    edited August 2016 cnocbuientropys
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