Apple’s New MacBook Pro a Boost for GPUs

clip_image001Last week, Appleintroduced the “MacBook Pro with Retina display”, their latest in flagship and premium notebooks starting at $2,199. The new notebook upgrades nearly every component inside in addition to the design outside. The biggest departure from prior designs is its display, named the “Retina display” which can display over 5M pixels at 2880×1800 resolution. That’s 4X the pixels and twice the pixel density which means a great visual experience. This is the highest resolution display ever for a notebook and twice the resolution of their other notebooks. This means crisper and clearer images to help with photo and video viewing, editing and sharing. There will be no doubt that media professionals, prosumers and the wealthy who just want the best will swarm onto this. The impact to the rest of the market will be to raise the bar on graphics as a whole, which can only benefit high-end graphics makers like NVIDIA and AMD. And that’s ironic given the rumors of the death of the discrete GPU.

For the decade, there has been a lot of chatter about the death of the GPU. I know it as I lived it and was immersed in the business. The premise seemed to make sense on the surface; as integrated graphics became more powerful and were integrated into the CPU becoming the “APU” like with AMD’s Brazos and Intel‘s Sandy Bridge, there wouldn’t be a need for discrete graphics. What those on the outside fail to realize is that as integrated graphics rise in performance, the content rose in density. By density, I mean the complexity and size of the content. Just look at games and video. It is more complex and growing. The other fact people need to realize is that the GPU isn’t just for displaying complex scenes, it is also an incredible parallel processor as well. The reason we haven’t historically seen these huge gains across many traditional apps is around the challenge of programming. Efforts by NVIDIA with CUDA changed this in higher-end application. AMD, ARM, and Imagination are beginning to do this with the recent HSA Foundationannouncement.

The new Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display is the perfect example of this trend to take better advantage of the GPU to improve the user experience. The new MacBook uses NVIDIA’s latest Kepler-based GeForce 650M notebook GPU to accelerate all this goodness. Consumers not only get one of the highest-end GPU architectures but also 7 hours of battery life to boot. Apple is targeting their hard-core base of media professionals and prosumers with messages of an improved photo and video playback and editing experience. They will also pull through general consumers who want the “best” and are willing to pay for it. This makes sense given Apple’s success with these market segments. So what does this mean for manufacturers like HP, Dell, and Lenovo?

Apple’s addition of a high-end display and GPU will motivate the entire industry to get even more focused on advanced display and GPU technology. Literally, with one Apple launch, you will see discrete graphics become even more important in notebooks as they once were, particularly given their ability to sip power. At this year’s Computex last month, this started to become evident as many manufacturers added HD-displays and discrete graphics to their offerings at considerably lower prices than the MacBook. The $1,299 Asus Zenbook Prime UX32VDwith an NVIDIA GeForce 620M, 1920×1080 display at only18mm thick is a good example. I fully expect many larger, global manufacturers to follow suit for the holiday selling season with industrial designs and experience that are very similar to the new MacBook Pro .

Whichever lens through which you analyze this phenomenon, Apple’s addition of the retina display to the MacBook Pro bodes well for discrete graphics as a whole. Net-net OEMs will need to add HD displays and discrete GPUs to stay competitive with Apple’s high-end offering.

Disclosure: Patrick Moorheadhas a relationship with NVIDIA and AMD.

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