Apple has been an AMD-only shop in the last few years. Graphics may not be a core area that Apple focuses on — OpenGL support in the latest version of macOS remains stuck in 4.1 territory). But it does include discrete graphics cards in several of its MacBook Pro and iMac products, as well as in all of the Mac Pro SKUs. Now, there’s talk that Apple might switch back to Nvidia.
Bloomberg first noticed multiple job listings at Nvidia (some of which have since been edited) that talk about “help[ing] produce the next revolutionary Apple products” and claimed the role would require “working in partnership with Apple” and writing code that will “define and shape the future” of the Mac’s graphics software. There are also openings on the Mac driver team, and Nvidia doesn’t bother writing drivers and software for a platform it doesn’t intend to sell.
The report also notes that winning Apple’s business back would be a coup for Nvidia, which has lost some small amount of market share to AMD in recent quarters. Overall, Nvidia remains in control of the desktop add-in market, with roughly 75% market share. AMD’s own Polaris launch earlier this year was meant to reverse this trend, but Polaris is still priced well above its initial MSRP. GTX 1060 stock, in contrast, is both more widely available and more likely to be found at its target $200 to $250 price point. Both companies are still running hot, but Nvidia is doing a better job of managing the temperature.
As for the proverbial feather in Nvidia’s cap, Apple occupies a weird spot in the overall PC market. Its shipments are significant (Apple typically claims the fourth or fifth spot in total PC market share), but it’s dwarfed by its competitors. At the same time, however, people talk about the decisions Apple makes, whether that means building an extremely powerful system in a small wastepaper basket or removing useful ports from smartphones. When Apple shipped twin GPUs with the Mac Pro, it was seen as a sign the company would move towards improving its own graphics implementations and support emerging standards more aggressively. This hasn’t really happened; Apple has Metal, but it doesn’t support OpenCL 2.0 or any version of OpenGL past 4.1.
In the past, Nvidia’s CUDA has generally been the preferred choice for workstation applications compared with OpenCL. It’s not clear if this is still the case, but Nvidia would undoubtedly love to button up the Mac line. It may not bring in huge amounts of revenue, but Apple products still drive industry discussions, and by extension, offer a halo effect to the company’s suppliers.
We’ve focused mostly on the workstation side of the equation, since Macs aren’t typically thought of as gaming machines. But there are undoubtedly Mac owners who would like to see more powerful GPUs in their various systems. Intel’s HD Graphics chips have been improving steadily every year, but they still lag behind what AMD or Nvidia can offer. Valve has stepped up to promote Steam and Apple gaming, where Apple generally offers benign neglect, but more powerful GPUs based on Pascal would still improve the situation.