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Apple has legendarily been mum on its future product plans, but its relatively recent switch to Intel processors in its Macintosh line of computers has tied these products, as least in processor capabilities, to Intel’s public product plans.

Though Apple will no doubt have surprises to reveal, looking at Intel’s plans can at least give hints as to when Mac users could expect to see big jumps ahead.

It should be noted that the release of a new Intel processor may not mean immediate availability of Apple products sporting these changes. For example, Intel introduced its Core 2 Duo line, supplanting the Core Duo, in July 2006; however, Apple did not release Core 2 Duo-equipped MacBook Pros and MacBooks until October and November of that year, respectively.

Still, 2007 could show a great deal of promise for Apple.

Most crucial to the potential upgrade cycle of Apple’s popular laptop line is the introduction of Intel’s Santa Rosa platform. Santa Rosa, officially called Centrino Pro (Apple does not use Intel’s platform branding), mates a 64-bit Core 2 Duo processor to a new Intel 965 graphics chip, an 800MHz front-side bus and 4MB of Level 2 cache.

At the same processor speed, the increased bus speed should offer a significant performance boost over existing Mac laptops for most computational tasks. In addition, the new graphics chip should offer significant performance gains over what many have called the anemic performance (especially for 3-D games) of the integrated graphics in existing MacBooks.

Some sources say that Intel will release the CPUs for Santa Rosa systems in May. This could place new portable Macs—and models such as the Mac Mini, which is based on a notebook motherboard—for early summer 2007. This would, coincidentally, fit well with Apple’s traditional nine-month product upgrade cycle.

Apple’s Mac Pro desktop line has, since the company’s switch to Intel, used two dual-core Xeon 5100-series processors.

Intel has recently focused on quad-core Xeon processors. These add two computational cores to existing dual-core processors and are targeted at high end (often gaming) desktops and servers.

At the CES expo in January, Intel unveiled three new quad-processor chips. And then, in February, the company said it would soon release a “low-watt”, quad-core server chip.

Such rapid movement for high-end chips—the current Mac Pro professional desktop sports two dual-core Xeon processors, but at the slower clock speeds reflecting their 2006 heritage—makes for less of a specific window for Apple predictions. The next Mac desktop could use faster 65-nanometer Xeons or updated Core 2 Duo Extremes, or even double the number of processor cores.

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In fact, some hobbyists aren’t waiting for Apple to upgrade their Mac Pros. Some have taken advantage of pin compatibility between the Xeon 5100 series and its replacement, the Xeon 5300.

The Xeon 5300 is a quad-core chip; the hobbyists dropped these into their Mac Pros and saw that the operating systems automatically had eight processor cores. (However, the practical benefits of eight cores for most applications is questionable. Most software would need to be revised to distribute the workload.)

Or Apple could extend the existing Mac Pro’s lifetime in hopes of an early release of 45-nanometer Xeons.

Intel has promised to make the migration to 45-nanometer processes in the second half of 2007. This size reduction could result in improved performance of up to 20 percent in tandem with up to 30 percent power savings, in addition to reduced production costs for Intel.

Last month, Intel unveiled its first family of 45-nanometer processors, code-named “Penryn”, commenting that it was testing computers based on the chip with Windows, Linux and Mac OS X.

Intel said it is planning to put Penryn into production in the second half of 2007, and company CEO Paul Otellini has said that it will migrate its designs to the new process.

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