New Rumors of An AMD-Apple Alliance Raise Familiar Questions

One of the more amusing things about being an IT journalist is that, after you've been writing for awhile, you realize that many of the juiciest or interesting rumors don't appear so much as reappear, travelling in and out of the public eye much as a comet orbits a star. In this case, the AMD+Apple chestnut has hoved back into view, with a long tail of juicy speculation flowing out behind it. The long and short of it is that AMD employees have been seen traveling to and fro from Cupertino, inside Apple's Commuter Coaches. This has fueled speculation on whether or not Apple is evaluating new AMD products for future iMac/Macbook products, especially since Apple rather pointedly opted not to rely solely on Intel's integrated GPUs when it recently refreshed its Macbook/Macbook Pro series.

We're surprised the folks at AppleInsider could even see the AMD guys.

Let's get the easy part out of the way first. It would be much more surprising if AMD didn't attempt to show off its new products to Apple. Llano is a huge step forward for AMD and it'll be the company's first Fusion part since it bought ATI five years ago. That acquisition has become less contentious as time has passed and ATI's R600-derived architectures became stronger, but AMD's repeated goodwill writeoffs after the ATI purchase eventually totaled more than half the price. Having wasted $2.5 billion when it bought the GPU designer (and running about 2.5 years late), AMD needs Fusion to wow OEMs when it finally comes to market.

If you want to catch people's attention, Apple is the company you court. Toss in the fun of giving NVIDIA a black eye, and there's plenty of reasons why AMD would want to put Llano processors in Apple's labs for performance profiling. The real question is, is there a reason for Apple to be interested in AMD, beyond using the company as leverage against Intel when bargaining over volume pricing?

If we had to bet on what's going on, our first choice would be "business as usual," followed by "AMD = bargaining chip." There is, however, a third possibility. After its recent refresh, Apple's high-end products are now based on Core i5/i7 processors, but there are a surprising number of Core 2 Duo systems (both desktop and laptop) still for sale. If Apple wants to upgrade those products without necessarily jumping for the Core i3/i5 series, Llano, on 32nm, could be a compelling alternative, particularly if AMD can deliver a 32nm CPU+GPU with better performance and lower power consumption than a 45nm C2D+integrated NVIDIA GPU.

The problem with that theory is that it assumes Apple is actually looking for a Core i3 alternative and not just threatening to use one. The one card AMD might have to play in this space is core count; Sunnyvale could try to offer its quad-core Llano parts at a better price than Intel's dual-core Core i3 series.

It's possible, but it doesn't seem likely. As great as it would be for AMD to snag Apple as an OEM, we're betting Apple will stay an Intel-only house for the foreseeable future.