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Wednesday, July 01, 2009, 03:20 pm PT (06:20 pm ET)

Apple may drop NVIDIA chips in Macs following contract fight

Although they've portrayed themselves almost as best friends for several months, Apple and NVIDIA are now rumored in a spat that could see some GeForce chipsets excluded from future Mac models.

A report from this past weekend asserts that negotiations between Apple and NVIDIA are now extremely bitter after the latter's proposed terms were viewed as "arrogance and bluster" and all but rejected as-is.

Those claiming to be inside the discussions have told SemiAccurate, the new project of a previous Inquirer editor with sources inside NVIDIA, that Apple may not agree to another such deal for 3-4 years as a result of the heated words. It wouldn't result in an immediate exit, as the recentness of implementing NVIDIA chipsets into nearly all Macs means some models will keep their existing designs for a long time, but could already result in some comparatively near-term updates shedding the NVIDIA platform.

These would start with iMacs and MacBooks based on Intel's Nehalem processor architecture, the tipsters say, but would get progressively wider as time goes on.

While the exact terms that would have set off such a hostile reaction haven't been publicized, it's believed that conflicting opinions over MacBook Pro graphics failures are what would have actually triggered the resistance. As all GeForce 8600M video chipsets are known to have a heat-related defect that gradually renders them inoperable over time, Apple has not only had to replace those June 2007 and newer portables that use the part but to extend its warranty for the issue to three years regardless of whether or not the owner has AppleCare — an expensive proposition given the ubiquity of the machines on the market until they were replaced in October 2008 with the unibody models.

Specifically, Apple may have an issue not just with the cost, at least some of which may be footed by NVIDIA through money set aside to cover all PC makers, but with answers it's received on the subject. The Cupertino-based company openly challenged NVIDIA and revealed that the graphics chip designer was falsely representing the scope of the problem, insisting that MacBook Pros wouldn't be affected at all when two entire generations of the 15- and 17-inch models were guaranteed to eventually suffer video corruption or shutdowns. Apple may also not believe NVIDIA when it claims that unibody MacBook Pros won't see the same problem due to partial similarities in the contact material used to join the GeForce 9600M GT chip die to its package.

Doubts have been raised as to just how likely it is that the Nehalem withdrawal is connected to any possible tiff between the two electronics giants, however. Electronista notes in spreading the story that Intel and NVIDIA have been embroiled in a license battle over NVIDIA's right to make logic board chipsets for any processor that has its own internal memory controller, including any desktop or notebook processor built on Nehalem. A win for Intel in its lawsuit would bar NVIDIA from ever making another chipset in the vein of the GeForce 9400M that could support Core i7 or related processors; it would immediately sabotage any roadmap for NVIDIA-based Macs once the ban took effect, no matter how amicable Apple and its partner would be at the time.

Mac Pros would never be affected as they still use an Intel chipset and dedicated graphics for the brunt of their graphics performance.

Unsurprisingly, neither Apple nor NVIDIA has discussed the rumor so far, though at least Apple's sudden change of mind wouldn't be out of place: the company famously dropped ATI (now AMD) graphics from a generation of Power Mac G4s at the last minute after the company posted a press release spoiling Apple plans just a day ahead of a Macworld keynote.