Apple prepping a quad-core MacBook Pro?

Apple’s mid-October refresh of its notebook line left a curious gap at the top end of the card with the 17 inch MacBook Pro missing the make-over of its 15 inch cousin and the 13.3 inch MacBook.

That could be about to change next week with the possibility that the Jobs-free keynote at Apple’s last Macworld show could be used to launch the company’s most powerful laptop ever.

There’s no doubt that the 17 inch MacBook Pro will soon boast the same sleek ‘unibody’ chassis as its siblings. In a company with Apple’s design and marketing ethic it couldn’t be any other way.

So why the delay? There’s a fair chance that Apple sets its pace against Intel’s roadmap and the arrival of a low-cost quad-core mobile processor. That CPU broke ground overnight in the ‘dead zone’ lull between Christmas and New Year sneaking onto one of the regular updates of Intel’s CPU price list.

Branded as the Core 2 Extreme Q9000 the chip partners four 2GHz cores with 6MB of Level 2 cache for US$348. That price is one third the US$1038 ticket for the QX9300 2.53GHz superslab and well under half that of the next-down Q9100 2.26GHz which lists at US$851.

Both of those processors have twice the L2 cache of the Q9000 but they all share the same 45nm Penryn-class architecture and a 1GHz front side bus compared to the 800MHz bus (also with 6MB of cache) of the T8300 and T8500 processors used in the 15 inch MacBook Pro.

With this budget-priced four-core engine Apple could still deliver its most muscle-bound laptop and avoid the risk of sticker shock of breaking the US$3000 barrier in an increasingly dollar-sensitive market given that the 17 inch MacBook already sells at US$2799.

However while Intel chose not to trumpet its newest CPU Acer was quick off the mark to announce the Q9000 would drive a new “extreme gaming” notebook with an 18.4-inch screen and Nvidia GeForce 9700M GT graphics. The system will start at US$1799 but there’s been no word on intended local availability.