Macbook Air's tiny CPU not exclusive to Apple

Intel's new compact mobile chipset available to all

TODO alt text

The ultra-compact Intel chips inside the ludicrously thin MacBook Air laptop are not exclusive to Apple. It's therefore only a matter of time before the Air's status as the world's thinnest notebook is challenged, right?

Very probably. When Apple supremo Steve Jobs unsheathed the new three-quarter-inch thick notebook model at Macworld on Tuesday, it was immediately obvious there must be something exotic inside.

But what exactly? Intel currently supplies CPUs for all of Apple's Mac-based computers. So, it was no surprise when Jobs confirmed the MacBook Air was powered by an Intel Core 2 processor.

Special relationship

But then came the interesting bit. Apple reckons it has a very special relationship with Intel. Special enough, Jobs claimed, to have Intel knock up some ultra-compact chip packaging for the MacBook Air's Core 2 processor and chipset. Without that, it's doubtful it could be so incredibly thin.

Implementing new chip packaging is certainly no mean feat. As Jobs told his faithful throng in San Francisco, "Intel invested a lot in engineering to create this for us."

It's a unique chipset for a uniquely thin notebook, then? Not quite. As keen students of Intel's roadmap, we couldn't help but notice the new kit closely resembled the upcoming SFF (Small Form Factor) option Intel announced for its Centrino mobile chipset at the Intel Developer Forum last September.

Something old, something new

In fact, that's what the new chips in the Air very much are. The only difference is that the IDF announcement was for Intel's next-gen Montevina Centrino chipset and the upcoming 45nm Core 2 processor. The MacBook Air sports Intel's existing 65nm Core 2 processor.

In other words, Intel brought forward the SFF packaging for the current 65nm generation of CPUs. But that's about it.

Sizing up the competition

What's more, speaking to TechRadar, Intel bod Nick Knupffer confirmed that 65nm SFF kit was not exclusive to Apple. "If other companies develop products with a similar size, power and performance specification, we will offer this or a similar product to those companies," Knupffer says.

Of course, there's plenty more clever kit and engineering that goes into making the MacBook Air the thinnest notebook on the planet. No doubt Apple has worked some magic in the thermal and power consumption departments that will be tough for other makers to copy.

But it seems the basic chipset is available to all. And it should lead to a new generation of ultra-thin notebooks. The MacBook Air had therefore better beware.