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Report: Apple planning major MacBook Pro refresh with AMD Polaris GPUs, Touch ID, and OLED function keys

The rate at which Apple refreshes its hardware has come under fire in recent weeks. While we’ve noted that the company’s laptops are mostly reasonably new, there are some old MacBook Pros in need of a refresh and the Mac Pro desktop is now nearly three years’ old.

A new report from Bloomberg claims that Apple will refresh its entire MacBook Pro line this fall, with a new design and a number of new features. The company is supposedly working on a new programmable strip of OLED-based function keys that can be switched to perform different functions depending on which application you’re using. Apple’s goal is to simplify shortcuts and allow it to reprogram hardware buttons to add capabilities with software updates, rather than refreshing internal hardware.

Other changes supposedly include a thinner body (but not a tapered one like the MacBook Air), a smaller footprint with shallow curves around the edges of the device, a slightly larger trackpad, and integrated Touch ID support. Some systems will reportedly offer GPUs based on AMD’s Polaris architecture, while the lower-cost models will use Intel’s integrated graphics. USB Type-C is also rumored to be on the way and Thunderbolt 3 is logically expected, though whether Apple will use USB Type-C for it is a matter of debate. Previously, the company used DisplayPort to provide Thunderbolt capability.

We haven’t seen the mobile SKUs for Polaris yet, but it’s generally assumed that they’ll resemble the desktop chips AMD has just launched. At present, only one MacBook Pro uses an AMD GPU, the R9 M370X. That chip is a 640:40:16 configuration with an 800MHz core clock and a 128-bit memory bus. A mobile variant of the RX 460 could make a potent upgrade for that particular chip. It’s an 896:56:16 GPU with 4GB of RAM instead of 2GB and 112GB/s of memory bandwidth, up from 72GB/s.

Mobile chips typically have to operate at lower TDPs than desktop processors, which might require AMD to tweak the RX 460’s power envelope. But we’d still expect Polaris to offer substantially better performance compared to the old GCN 1.0 / Cape Verde GPU that Apple has relied on to anchor its top-end hardware. AMD would undoubtedly relish the halo win, but the impact on its bottom line is likely to be small unless Apple breaks with its own history of offering a limited number of GPU-equipped SKUs.

Apple may be turning back to the Mac line as a way to bolster flagging revenue from the iPad, as Bloomberg notes. While the iPad outstripped the Mac in 2012 and 2013, total revenue from the tablet business has been declining for years, despite Apple’s attempts to renew it with new variants of the iPad and the iPad Pro. One common criticism of the iPad Pro has been that Apple didn’t make the software changes necessary to turn the tablet into a serious productivity system. That kind of adaptation takes time, and it’s clear that the iPad Pro isn’t offsetting the general decline in tablet sales.

Apple isn’t expected to unveil this new hardware at its September 7 iPhone event, but the new systems will likely debut this fall, possibly alongside Intel’s Kaby Lake 14nm refresh.

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