In a blow to graphics chip maker Nvidia, Apple has decided to use Intel chips for its MacBook laptops in 2011, according to CNET. The chips, code-named Sandybridge combine 3D graphics and a microprocessor in a single chip.

Intel has not commented, and Nvidia declined comment, but a source familiar with the matter confirmed the CNET story to VentureBeat.

As the No. 3 computer maker, Apple is an important Nvidia graphics chip customer. Even worse, Apple is a trendsetter and its acceptance of the Intel combo chip shows that Intel’s big bet on combining the functions of two normally separate chips may pay off. Intel chief executive Paul Otellini is expected to formally announce Sandybridge at the Consumer Electronics Show on Jan. 5. He has already said that Sandybridge is one of the most popular products Intel has ever had in terms of acceptance by computer makers.

While lots of computer makers will talk about Sandybridge-based computers at CES, Apple is not expected to do so, since it never makes announcements at CES.

The CNET story says that Apple will use the Intel processor in new low-end MacBook laptops. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all Apple products will use Sandybridge, whose performance is targeted at the low-end of the spectrum. Advanced Micro Devices is also creating a series of combo chips, dubbed Fusion, that are debuting early next year.

Nvidia’s problem is that it has the leading graphics chip capability, but it does not have a microprocessor that is compatible with Intel’s computer chip designs. In the mobile market, Nvidia has the Tegra combo processor based on ARM technology, but that kind of chip isn’t likely to be used in PCs anytime soon.

For Nvidia, the challenge remains to race far ahead of its rivals with graphics technology. If it can do that, it can hang on to the high end of the market even as rivals take the low end. Historically, combo chips haven’t had great performance, but Anandtech estimates that Sandybridge will have twice the graphics performance of its predecessors.

Intel doesn’t have its integrated graphics chip sets in Apple’s laptops now. Nvidia pretty much knocked Intel out of MacBooks a couple of years ago.