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Tick Tock

April 26, 2013 - Dave Hecei

That might be the sound that a large grandfather clock is making in the far corner of the room I’m sitting in. Actually, it is the cycle of digital chip design from Intel, among others.

According to Wikipedia, Intel adopted the Tick-Tock chip design cycle around 2007. The Tick cycle includes a major change in die size and process. The Tock cycle is a new microarchitecture, or the hardwired coding in the chip itself.

This may sound a bit complicated, but the gist is that Intel comes out with a new processor about every year. The last chip was named Ivy Bridge and was a Tick cycle release. It replaced the previous processor named Sandy Bridge.

Sandy Bridge uses a 32nm process, which is a chip designer’s measurement of the half-distance between the transistors etched on the chip. The Tick cycle Ivy Bridge shrank the die size down to a 22 nm process. Not to get too technical (I know, too late), this was possible because Ivy Bridge uses a new 3D transistor technology.

Ivy Bridge is a Tick cycle processor. The next Tock cycle is set and is called Haswell. It also uses the 22 nm process but with a significant change in microarchitecture. Intel is set to start selling the new chipset this year, presumably some time in June.

Apple is currently using Ivy Bridge chips in all Macs, except for the Mac Pro tower. While nobody but Apple, (and maybe Intel and Foxconn) knows when new Haswell-based Macs will be available, the most likely first Mac will be the MacBook Air.

The Air is Apple’s lowest priced laptop. It is also extremely popular, being the thinnest and lightest model. Recently, Apple created MacBook Pro models with a much higher resolution display, which they call Retina – a technology they created for the iPhone 4. The first Retina based Mac was a 15-inch MacBook Pro. A few months later, Apple released a 13-inch MacBook Pro model with Retina. The MacBook Air has yet to have a Retina-based model. When Haswell chips start shipping, this will likely change.

One of the problems with a much higher resolution display is that there are more pixels to draw on the screen. The more pixels there are the more time it takes. This means that to refresh the screen fast enough you have to have a very fast computer and fast graphics system.

While the MBP 15 has a pretty fast processor and discrete video card, the current Air is a bit more anemic. The CPU speed and the graphics system in the Air is probably why we haven’t seen a Retina Air. The new Haswell processors are rumored to perform faster at the clock speed. The big improvement is stated to be in the built-in, what is also referred to as integrated, graphics processor. With faster processing and faster graphics, a Haswell-based Air will easily handle the Retina display.

During Apple’s most recent quarterly results announcement and conference call, Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, hinted to the fact that there would be some surprises this fall and during all of 2014. Of course this is nothing but a vague promise, but if seems that Apple really has nothing new to announce for this spring or summer. This puts new Macs much later in the year than expected. Hopefully, we will see some sort of new Mac, maybe the Air, announced at this year's WWDC show scheduled for June 10-14th.


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