Yesterday, Apple finally revealed a new MacBook Pro, a full 527 days after the last refresh. The Touch Bar was fancy and bright; the gorgeous display wowed eye sockets; and the price made my wallet pucker. But there was also a conundrum.
It took Apple a year and a half to update one of its best-selling laptops. And when the update finally arrived, the processor that the Cupertino crowd decided to put in the brand new laptop was Intel’s year-old Skylake microarchitecture — not the newer Kaby Lake architecture. This move would normally be both astounding and annoying, except if Microsoft did the exact same thing two days earlier with its newly announced Surface Studio.
What’s up with that?
Back in September, Intel surprised everyone with a new processor microarchitecture, dubbed Kaby Lake. It’s faster than the Skylake design which launched last year, uses less energy, and works on the same CPU socket. Theoretically, Kaby Lake is an improvement in every way, and many of Microsoft and Apple’s competitors have already begun incorporating the new microarchitecture into their computers. Dell, Razer, Lenovo, and even boutique laptop makers like MSI have Kaby Lake machines.
So Kaby Lake’s absence from the hottest new Apple and Microsoft devices is conspicuous. The new Surface Studio, the updated Surface Book, and all three MacBook Pro’s will have Skylake inside.
In the case of the new 15-inch MacBook the answer is simple. “The Kaby Lake chip doesn’t exist yet,” an Apple rep told Gizmodo.
Kaby Lake is being rolled out relatively slowly, and it’s only available in a few forms and wattages. The 15-inch MacBook Pro uses a quad-core processor that has no Kaby Lake equivalent currently. That particular laptop really does have the fastest processor available. The same goes for the Microsoft Surface Studio and updated Surface Book—both also use a quad-core Skylake processor with no Kaby Lake counterpart.
But the Studio and Surface Book are also using much older video cards from the Nvidia 900 series. Nvidia has much faster and less power-hungry chips (the 1000 series) available based on the Pascal architecture. Microsoft’s reasoning for going with older video cards is nearly identical to Apple’s for going with a slower processor in its 13-inch MacBook Pro: the Nvidia 1000 series came out too late.
I asked reps from both companies why they’d elected to go with older CPUs and GPUs when the new ones should have been able to slot into their devices with relative ease. The reps explained how they’d begun to design these devices long before Kaby Lake or Pascal were even a twinkle in Intel and Nvidia’s eyes.
The major intimation was that Kaby Lake and Pascal came so late in the design process that it would have delayed the final products if they’d chosen to use them. New technology, no matter how amazing an upgrade it might be, still requires considerable testing before it can be shipped to consumers. One minor bug, particularly in a system as engineered as the Surface Studio or MacBook Pro, can turn catastrophic if not engineers aren’t careful.
While Samsung wasn’t mentioned, the horror show that’s been the Note 7's launch and subsequent recall can’t be ignored in this context. The now famous screw-up involved a huge company that reportedly rushed a product to market, only to see it literally blow up in its customers’ faces. Microsoft and Apple, both victims of similar missteps in the past, would prefer to play it safe.
In the case of Microsoft, it’s frustrating, because that old GPU is significantly slower than the Pascal GPUs available. The gorgeous Surface Studio appears hamstrung as a consequence. It will play games and render 3D work with aplomb, but the knowledge that something faster is out there will be maddening to some users.
It’s a little less frustrating in Apple’s case, largely because of the old processor microarchitecture that Apple elected to shove into its new 13-inch MacBook Pro. Apple went with a new Skylake dual core processor that draws a lot of power — moreso than any Kaby Lake processor available. It then uses all that extra power to ramp up the speeds of the processor. Which means it is capable of pulling off speeds that can actually match those of the fastest Kaby Lake processor out there.
The only downside to this decision is battery life. Apple’s CPU choice draws more power, which means it needs a larger battery and power supply that competitors like the Razer Stealth and the Dell XPS 13.
If you can suffer the additional weight of more battery, and the knowledge that your £1,500-plus laptop has a year old processor in it, then Apple’s new laptops aren’t actually that behind the times. Even the old GPU in the Surface Studio isn’t a complete deal breaker. It’s just a poke in the eye to any spec nerd out there. But personally, I’d rather a poke in the eye than a brand new device blowing up in my face.
Microsoft and Apple are convinced that their feats of computer engineering will outweigh our needs for the fastest computers. I’ll be curious to see how that plays out for them.