What I'd Like to See in the 2016 Macbook Pro

As of this writing, 2016 has not been a good year for Macs. A proper upgrade for the Mac Mini and Mac Pro are nowhere in sight, and the current 5K iMac, while gorgeous, is in a weird area where it has a huge, professional-grade display, but not the hardware capable enough to truly take advantage of it.

Then there's this Spring's Macbook refresh. The 12-inch Macbook got a nice speed bump to Intel's latest Skylake CPUs, but still hasn't solved it's other major problems, such as its extremely limiting one USB-C port and its last-decade 480p webcam.

The Macbook Air got an even bigger shaft this year, only getting a memory upgrade from 4GB to 8GB, while keeping its older Broadwell chipset around. While the speed differences between the low-voltage Broadwell and Skylake CPUs are almost negligible, there is a noteworthy increase in graphics performance with Skylake, meaning the Macbook Air has skipped on what could have been a great performance boost.

There's no easy way to say this: The Macbook Air is probably on Apple's chopping block. If you love the Macbook Air and are looking to upgrade soon, better start looking at other options.

Not all hope is lost, however! Apple's venerable Macbook Pro line has yet to get it's upgrade, and Apple still has a chance to make things right.

Keep in mind that all of this is just fun speculation, but I tried to be as rational with these guesses as I could. With that out of the way, let's get started!

The Specs

I am not expecting Apple to deviate much from their current Macbook Pro hierarchy. The dual-core 13-inch Macbook Pro will remain dual-core this year, and I'm afraid the 13-inch model is not getting discrete graphics either. Likewise, the 15-inch model will remain exclusively quad-core, and there is strong reason to believe the 15-inch model will continue last year's tradition of having a speedy integrated GPU for its base model, with the discrete GPU reserved for premium upgrades.

To say that the 2016 Macbook Pros will retain their status quos sounds like a letdown, but I firmly believe that the move to Skylake, which I am nearly certain will happen, is going to shake things up for both models, especially when it comes to graphics.

Guesses for the 13-inch Macbook Pro
13-inch Macbook Pro
CPU Family Skylake (2015)
CPU (Base) Core i5 6267U 2.9 GHz
CPU (Max) Core i7 6567U 3.3 GHz
CPU Core Count 2
GPU Intel Iris 550
SSD 128 GB

Let's first talk about the 13-inch model. Starting off with the CPU I came up with the Core i5 6267U for the base configuration, and the Core i7 6567U for the maxed out model. This was a really easy guess since the 13-inch Retina line for quite a while now has used CPUs with a thermal design power (TDP) of 28W. Thus figuring out the CPUs for the 13-inch Macbook Pro was a simple matter of looking at Intel's Skylake catalog, and finding all the 28W CPUs in the mobile lineup. The Core i5 6267U is the low-end 28 W chip, while the Core i7 6567U is the high-end 28W chip. Piece of cake.

When it comes to memory, I don't think we have quite reached a point where moderately high-performance applications like Photoshop would massively benefit from 16GB of RAM compared to 8GB, which means the base 13-inch Macbook Pro will stick with 8GB of RAM for one more year. There's still the possibility that the new 13-inch model will come with 16 GB standard, but I suspect that Apple thinks this would make the 13-inch model too competitive with the 15-inch model, so I have my doubts.

Storage is very likely going to have a similar story to memory. While SSD prices continue to fall, I suspect the price hasn't fallen far enough for 256GB in 2016 to cost as much as 128 GB last year, or even in 2014. Besides, if Apple can continue to sell 16GB iPhones and get away with it, why can't they get away with a 128GB Macbook Pro?

Now on to the most interesting part of the 2016 model: the GPU. The 13-inch Macbook Pro's GPU is as obvious as the CPU, since all the 28W CPUs come bundled with the Intel Iris 550 integrated graphics. For the longest time regular system RAM has been a major bottleneck for what is actually a pretty fast Iris GPU. However, Skylake finally removes this bottleneck by giving the Iris lineup 64MB of ultrafast eDRAM, dramatically boosting graphics performance. It's only half the memory that the Iris Pro has, and it won't necessarily work miracles, but the Iris 550 is poised to be the biggest GPU upgrade to the 13-inch line since the GeForce 9400M.

Guesses for the 15-inch Macbook Pro
15-inch Macbook Pro
CPU Family Skylake (2015)
CPU (Base) Core i7 6770HQ 2.6 GHz
CPU (Max) Core i7 6970HQ 2.8 GHz
CPU Core Count 4
GPU Intel Iris Pro 580
Unknown AMD M400 Series GPU
SSD 256 GB

Now let's move on to the 15-inch model. The choice for CPU is also pretty easy, since Apple likes using quad-core CPUs with a TDP of 45W on their 15-inch line. This yields the Core i7 6770HQ for the base, and the Core i7 6970HQ for the max configuration.

Memory will likely remain the same as last year, at 16GB standard. SSD Storage will also stay the same at 256GB for the base model.

On the integrated graphics side, the Iris Pro distinguishes itself from the now eDRAM-equipped Iris by massively increasing its graphics processor count. The Intel Iris Pro 580 has a 50% higher processor count than its predecessor, giving it a theoretical throughput of 1.1 TFLOPS! With this kind of upgrade to the integrated graphics, I don't think the Iris Pro will have much trouble running graphics-intensive workloads except for high-end gaming.

The discrete graphics is easily the biggest mystery of the 2016 Macbook Pro specs, since no existing mobile GPU fits into the 15-inch model's power requirements. The maximum power that a 15-inch Macbook Pro's power supply can handle is around 90W, and since the CPU already has a TDP of 45W, that only leaves around 45W for the discrete GPU.

Here is where things get really tricky: based on my own research, there isn't a single GPU recently announced that neatly fits the Macbook Pro's strict power requirements of 45W. The Macbook Pro's current GPU, the AMD Radeon R9 M370X, has no clear successor in AMD's recently announced lineup of mobile GPUs, even though most of them are just rebrands of last year's lineup. The absolute closest I can find from AMD is the R7 M465X, which according to Anandtech is merely a rebrand of last year's R9 M370. It gets worse when you look at Nvidia, since not a single new mobile GPU from them has been announced yet, and not one Nvidia GPU from last year's lineup has the power envelope and the performance premium needed to be an upgrade from the R9 M370X.

This means that the discrete GPU that will find its way inside a 15-inch Macbook Pro this year hasn't been announced yet. If I were a betting man, I would bet that this will be an AMD GPU. This is mostly due to the fact that AMD already has a next-gen GPU (a.k.a. Polaris) that they claim can fit inside a laptop; it just doesn't have a name nor a release date yet. In fact, when this very GPU was demoed earlier this year against a Nvidia GTX 950, it was pointed out that the AMD GPU used around 53W less than the competition. Since the GTX 950 uses around 90W of power (according to Nvidia), subtracting 53W from 90W would give us 37W, well within the Macbook Pro's power requirements! This isn't to say that this GPU will have a TDP of 37W, but it does mean that AMD definitely has a GPU that's suitable for the Macbook Pro.

The Ports

This is probably the most fun part of this speculation post, since Apple is famous for removing ports earlier than the competition. After years of not adding nor culling any ports in their Pro lineup, I think this is the year when things finally change, largely thanks to Skylake.

First, here are the ports that the current models have:

  • MagSafe Power Connector
  • 2 x Thunderbolt 2 Ports
  • 2 x USB 3.0 Ports
  • 1 x HDMI Port
  • 1 x 3.5mm Headphone Jack
  • 1 x SDXC Card Slot

I think Apple is going to keep MagSafe, even though USB 3.1 is theoretically capable of charging even the 15-inch model. While the 12-inch Macbook has shown that Apple is willing to throw MagSafe away, I don't think they will do it with the Pro this year.

Since Thunderbolt 3 uses USB-C and can even double as a USB 3.1 port, Apple is likely going to replace both Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3.0 with just Thunderbolt 3. How many ports? Because we live in a world where the 12-inch Macbook exists, I think Apple is going to make the controversial decision to remove HDMI, and will instead rely on three Thunderbolt 3 ports to provide all USB, IO and video functionality going forward.

The headphone jack will stay this year, with the iPhone 7 likely being the first device to forego it.

Now we get to the SDXC card slot. The biggest users of this card slot are professional photographers, many of whom still use dedicated cameras for their work despite widespread adoption of high quality smartphone cameras. This is a very tough call, but I'm just barely leaning towards Apple keeping the SDXC card slot, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if Apple takes it away.

Here's a summary of the ports that will likely be in the 2016 Macbook Pro:

  • MagSafe Power Connector
  • 3 x Thunderbolt 3 Ports (USB-compatible)
  • 1 x 3.5mm Headphone Jack
  • 1 x SDXC Card Slot

Thoughts on Existing Rumors

There are other, more radical rumors floating around regarding the Macbook Pro, and while I admit that my guesses for this year are relatively conservative, these others rumors are worth thinking about.

Thinner, Lighter Design

This sounds pretty likely, especially if a new manufacturing process is involved. The removal of the glowing Apple logo and the addition of new colors are probably on the table as well.

Touch ID

This one sounds plausible, but one thing to remember about Touch ID is that its design is dependent on a proprietary security chip called the Secure Enclave. I firmly believe that Apple will not implement Touch ID without the Secure Enclave, and I honestly don't know if Apple will be able to get this chip onto a logic board with an Intel CPU on it.

OLED Display Replacement for Function Keys

I find this very difficult to believe, especially since the rumor mill hasn't made it clear how this OLED display will be a better replacement.

Keyboard Similar to the 12-inch Macbook

No. Please no. Not that ultra-low travel keyboard that I find so icky to type on! Please, Apple, don't do this!

The Conclusion

It's been a while since the last major revision to the Macbook Pro line, and it looks like this year is when it will happen again. There's a lot to be excited about in the new Macbook Pro (e.g. Skylake), as well as things to be nervous about (e.g. the keyboard), but nevertheless I do hope we won't have to wait much longer to see it.

Note: There will be a follow-up post when the new Macbook Pros arrive where I assess myself to see just how right or wrong I actually was. Hope you look forward to it!

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