Exclusive: Apple swaps GPU suppliers again

Never means 3 years in Cupertino

Apple Inc.Remember when we said that AMD’s (NYSE:AMD) Llano loss in the MacBook Air had repercussions? Sources point to that deal as a big part of the reason why Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA) is in the next round of MacBooks, quite the repercussion.

Yes, your read that right, Nvidia has won the next round of Macs, likely starting with the Ivy Bridge models next spring. About three years after the decision to boot Nvidia out of the company was made, and two years after the first ATI/AMD Macs in recent memory hit the shelves, you will see Nvidia macs reappearing. I guess ‘never’ at Apple means single digit years.

If you think about it, Apple is in a bit of a pickle. They are notoriously pissy about suppliers, and will ‘permanently’ kick one out for perceived slights, real or not. Back in the days when there was a multitude of suppliers, that was all fine and dandy, you could toss the proverbial bums out every few years and there would be a host of virgin suckers to choose from. Now there are two GPU vendors, period, and no others in the wings to pick up the slack.

If you boot Nvidia to the curb like they did, there is only one place to go, AMD/ATI. When you boot AMD to the curb too, you are left with…. errr…. nobody. So you go crawling back to Nvidia and point out how “never again” really meant three years. Given the magnitude of the of the order, I am pretty sure that Nvidia will just smile and pretend to believe it.

That brings us to the word magnitude. Of late, GPU attach rates are not dropping much overall, but there is a precipitous drop in the GPU attach rate for the smaller and thinner notebooks. To add pain to the numbers, each new CPU that comes out with integrated graphics cuts out more and more potential market share out of the low end GPUs. The upcoming AMD GPU line no longer has a low end ASIC, with Llano you get a mid-range GPU for free, and Ivy Bridge will raise Intel’s GPU performance to roughly twice that of Sandy Bridge. GPUs in laptops have their days numbered.

This leaves one open question, how big is the market for GPUs at Apple? The only sane answer is “Big, but smaller with every passing generation”. What will that fraction be this time around? We at SemiAccurate aren’t sure, but spring laptop refreshes will surely tell all. Now do you understand some of the comments made in last quarter’s Nvidia financial conference call?S|A

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also available through Guidepoint and Mosaic. FullyAccurate