How Intel’s Skylake processors will supercharge your MacBook

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Intel-1151
Intel's Skylake chips are coming to your MacBook.
Photo: Intel

This year’s MacBook and MacBook Pro upgrades are expected to bring Intel’s latest Skylake processors. Delivering more than just speed improvements, the new chips will bring far greater performance, graphics and battery life to Apple’s notebook lineup for 2016.

Here’s what makes those Skylake processors so special — and how they’ll supercharge that new Mac you’ll soon be drooling over.

Performance

The first thing we look for in new processors is performance improvements; the chips must be faster than what’s inside the machines we’re already using, otherwise they’re not worth the upgrade cost. And performance improvements don’t come much bigger than Skylake.

Intel’s annual chip upgrades traditionally bring incremental speed improvements of less than 10 percent. But thanks to a major microarchitecture redesign, Skylake — currently used by Apple only in the latest 27-inch iMacs — is as much as 20 percent faster than the Broadwell chips used in other 2015 Macs.

In addition, Skylake chips bring Intel’s latest HD 530 GPU, which is faster than the equivalent HD 4600 GPU used in the Haswell chips that power most other current Macs.

Skylake chips also support up to 64GB of faster DDR4 RAM running at 2,133 MHz (twice as much as you could use with a Haswell chip), though it’s unlikely Apple will give you a 64GB upgrade option. Instead, MacBooks will likely max out at 32GB, which should be ample for the vast majority of users.

Data and connectivity

Skylake’s compatibility with PCI Express 3.0 lanes means we’ll get even faster data, too.

In a recent speed test with the 2015 MacBook Pro, which already ships with PCIe 3.0 storage, Ars Technica got read speeds of 2,013.96 MB/s and write speeds of 1,520.12 MB/s. In comparison, a 2015 MacBook Pro with PCIe 2.0 storage achieved read speeds of 1,391.51 MB/s and write speeds of 648.35 MB/s.

And don’t worry if you don’t have enough internal storage, because Skylake supports Thunderbolt 3, which means we’ll see even faster peripherals. Intel calls it the “the fastest, most versatile connection to any dock, display, or peripheral device.”

Thunderbolt 3 offers data-transfer speeds of up to 40 Gbps (twice as fast as Thunderbolt 2), drives two 4K monitors at 60 Hz through just one port, and supports more protocols, including USB, PCI Express and DisplayPort. It also offers 10GB Ethernet connections.

Another advantage to Thunderbolt 3 for devices like the MacBook is its power capabilities; with support for up to 100W, it provides even faster charging, and should allow you to top up your new MacBook quicker than ever before.

Skylake chips also support wireless charging; unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely Apple will give us that. We haven’t even got it in the iPhone yet!

Battery life

One of the reasons for all these performance improvements is the cutting-edge 14-nanometer (14nm) manufacturing process Intel uses to build Skylake chips — and it brings more than just faster speeds.

That 14-nanometer manufacturing process means Skylake chips are smaller than Haswell chips, and in turn they run cooler and require less power. In MacBooks with Skylake chips inside, the fan will be required less frequently and battery life will be even better.

14nm chips are so efficient that they are commonly found in today’s high-end mobile devices. Apple’s A9 and A9X chips, which power iPhone 6s, iPhone 6s Plus and iPad Pro, are manufactured using a 14nm process — as is Samsung’s Exynos 7420 processor, found in the Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 series.

According to Channel Pro, battery life could be up to 30 percent better with Skylake, but that’s only if MacBook batteries remain the same size. You probably shouldn’t count on that, though.

We know Apple is willing to sacrifice battery life to make its products thinner — it has proven that with devices like the iPhone — so rather than passing power-handling improvements on to users, the company could see them as an opportunity to make its MacBooks slimmer while delivering the same battery life we’re already used to.

Skylake Macs

It’s difficult to be sure how much of an impact Skylake will have on MacBooks, because improvements in speed, graphics and battery life are also dependent on software and hardware.

We’ll have to wait until Apple unveils its 2016 upgrades to find out exactly how much better they’ll be, but you can be sure they’ll be a huge improvement over whatever portable you’re using now — even if it’s only a year old.

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  • Lochheart

    Just look at Dell XPS lineup. Between Haswell and Skylake, they loose nearly 2h of battery life…

    • Christopher Randall

      Not a fair comparison because the 2015 model has 4k display while the 2014 has 1080p so thats why it suffers in battery life

    • bkkcanuck

      As Christopher said, the primary reason is the retina screen. Apple did not update the Macbook Air to retina when they came out with the Macbook (lower power CPU) because rough estimates had it wiping 30% to 40% off of the battery life (bringing it below the 9hr minimum that Apple prefers to keep – so they can say all-day). Skylake is potentially 20% to 30% more power efficient, so even with the additional efficiency the retina screen would bring down battery life.

      • Marcous

        Surface Pro 4 gave me a bad experience on Skylake, But still all Apple operating systems are more energy efficient than Windows

  • Godrifle

    Not all A9X chips are on 14nm

    • bkkcanuck

      They are all 16nm (TMSC). The A9 is both 14nm (Samsung) and 16nm (TMSC) and for the most part the TMSC 16nm one is better received.

  • naseem

    I have two questions:

    1. Is the MacBook Air likely to also have Skylake?

    2. Is Skylake likely to be incorporated after the Apple March 2016 event or later in the year?

    • yoyo ma

      I’ll be shocked if the Macbook Air ever gets upgraded again considering the existence of the Macbook. And the March event including Mac updates seems extremely unlikely at this point. WWDC in June is the best bet so far.

    • bkkcanuck

      My bet is the Macbook Air gets absorbed at the low end by the Macbook, and at the higher end by a thinner version of the Macbook Pro. Not sure what they will do price-wise on the low end (i.e. retina vs non-retina low end model).

    • Marcous

      I think it will have intel core m skylake

  • bIg hIlL

    TSMC are making CPUs at 10nm this year and 7nm next year. 14nm is old hat already. Why the song and dance?

    • KillianBell

      Because you can’t buy 10nm and 7nm chips yet?

    • bkkcanuck

      10nm may appear in reasonable quantity in 2017. This year probably not enough quantity to use in iPhone 7.

  • Barry Marshall

    Every new chip that Intel brings out and Apple sticks in a MacBook supercharges it, it’s called evolution. Nothing really new here, move along.

  • terryo

    Nice improvements but no mention of expandable ram capacity, et. al or moves towards generating less e-waste –

    Wish Apple would rethink its position to permit more ram expansion capacity – aside from environmental benefits of a longer lasting product, some of us would like to increase ram capacity as it can be afforded. More importantly because as extensions and customizing programs are added the machine ultimately ends up sluggish as a sloth. I’m on a 2012 Macbook – what has helped stave off obsolescence was a solid state hard drive and 16 gigabytes of ram. Don’t worry Apple, I’ll still purchase your products, but my timeline for doing so is a bit longer. Let me reiterate, Apple should put its money where its mouth is on making less environmental waste – making a product that will last longer generates less e-waste to landfills and to toxic waste sites in third world countries. Eliminating customization creates more e-waste sooner, Apple should rethink its position and become better environmental stewards. Permitting ram increases, replacement of hard drives with SSDs and perhaps CPU upgrades is positive for the world and Apple’s customers.

    • bkkcanuck

      High quality machines that are manufactured as a single component are much less likely to require repairs – it is not just the cost of manufacturing but also lowering the warrantee costs that need to be absorbed. This means that broken components are less likely to be discarded, and the machine is more likely to last a longer life. If you outgrow the current machine – you can either hand it down or sell it off – instead of tossing it – which would also reduce e-waste.

      • terryo

        Might be true, but my experience with the necessity of Apple product repairs has been insignificant. Have you got a citation for your statement? And to which single component are you referring? There is yet a cpu, ram and a drive. I have never seen a memory slot go bad, but ram certainly can – so if it goes bad and under warranty the entire computer is tossed due to a unified unit? And why fix a system which isn’t broken, e.g, replaceable memory and replaceable HD? I appreciate the Macbook Air is designed more like an IOS device – so a single component makes sense, but not for a Macbook Pro, not yet for a Mac-mini, nor for an iMac. I purchase an iPhone every two years and also pass along my old one to family or friends. I still have an old 2007 Mac-mini operating under Lion OS and I gave it a cpu transplant so it could operate on that OS. It will go to Ubuntu soon, but it still provides value to me.

      • bkkcanuck

        It is what the manufacturers have reported – that as they go to uniform construction with the components installed – the after manufacture requirement for in-warrantee support dropped (out of warrantee repairs usually end up getting devices tossed). In warrantee support generally meant replacing the motherboard because of stress damage. Prior to my macs — Toshiba etc. would end up in service at least once during warrantee, and then tossed out of warrantee (company wide). I don’t see the same issues with Mac laptops (though my data set is greatly restricted). It actually makes since since the things that break down are the things that are exposed to stresses – and the less exposed any component is the less likely there will be any stresses beyond manufacture. Older technology tended to break near points of soldering components on to the motherboard – but exposed to outside stress. Highest area of stress is those components soldered on, but exposed to outside stresses like ports that are soldered on the motherboard but receive the most stress. As those stress points are eliminated, the reports of failure go down. (all external ports on the Macbook are attached by ribbon cables – and nothing is exposed).

  • Greg Woods

    “is as much as 20 percent faster” — that will not get anyone to upgrade, long gone are the big improvements from Intel. apparently the craving for an ever faster beast has been sated by our chip monopoly. Maybe that is why PC growth is so bad, there have not been real reasons to upgrade for awhile. You can keep your old PC with no real penalty in performance.

    Yes, it will be nice, but no it won’t drive big replacement sales from 2-3 year old macs

    • jonen

      yep. i bought a laptop in 2011 with an i7-2670qm, gt 540m, 4gb and a 5400rpm HDD for 599$. i recently upgraded with a samsung 950 pro SSD and 2x4GB RAM at a higher frequency for about 120$. it can pretty much match any new laptop in general boot and application speed. its a bit outdated on gpu performance but can still beat most integrated gpu`s. the screen kinda sucks sadly at 768p, but still good enough for general tasks.

      why would i buy a new laptop when my 2011 laptop can compete with current more expensive laptops just by adding a new SSD and RAM. heck it beats most new laptops and the iPad pro in geekbench with a 5 year old CPU. if a 5 year old machine went up against a brand new machine at the same price point before 2010, it would almost certainly be severely outperformed

    • bkkcanuck

      What will drive replacement sales is likely battery (which can last 3 years or 5+ years depending on whether you actually pay attention to proper usage/maintenance). Once a battery dies (even if replaceable) it costs $200ish for a replacement battery, then the question becomes do I replace it (what is it’s market worth and is it worth $200 to “fix” a rather old model). Even with replaceable batteries — laptops tended to be junked at that point. New chips just tend to create hand-me-downs for those that are driven by having to have the newest …. who get replacements…. The regular folk …. they wait until they have to. My 8-core 2008 Mac Pro still has more than enough power as my primary (stationary computer)… but will consider getting a new laptop next month — if my holiday with family coincide with new work (4 days of work = cost of new laptop = breakeven).

    • KillianBell

      A 20 percent improvement is pretty impressive. Intel’s last upgrades have delivered speed improvements of less than 10 percent for several years now, so 20 percent is much better than we usually get.