Apple reportedly moving A6X and A7 SoCs from Samsung to TSMC – it’s about time

Autore: ExtremeTech

The big news today (it’s always a bit dry after the New Year and before CES) is that TSMC is set to begin trial production of Apple’s A6X processor while ramping A7 production later this year on 20nm. This is a move that’s been a long time coming.

In relationship terms, Apple and Samsung are long past Judge Judy and Jerry Springer and have descended into what sociologists refer to as “The Lohan Zone.” When Apple launched the iPhone 5 earlier this year, it let slip that, while Samsung was building the processor, it was serving strictly in a foundry capacity, having contributed no other IP to the project. That was highly unusual in a day and age when foundries are scrambling to add IDM-like capabilities, and it indicated just how poor relations were between the two companies.

The surprising factor here isn’t that Apple would be moving away from Samsung, but that it’s already taken this long to do so. What that implies is that there are contracts in place between the two companies that have slowed the process. Up to this point, Apple has accounted for the majority of Samsung’s foundry business and it’ll take the South Korean manufacturer time to shift to other customers and keep its fabs running at capacity.

Trial production, meanwhile, is scarcely the same thing as running full out. TSMC has pre-existing contracts it has to honor with Qualcomm, Nvidia, AMD, and the other companies that build on its 28nm process. That’s part of why CEO Morris Chang floated the idea of investing in specific foundry facilities for particular customers earlier this year, and the company has stated it expects to be capacity-constrained on 28nm through 2013. Nonetheless, getting production of the A6X off the ground is an important step towards breaking away from Samsung. The timing suggests that Apple may have funded the development of two different versions of the same chip — one at Samsung, built using gate-first technology, and one at TSMC using that company’s gate-last process.

Gate-first vs. gate-last

It’s entirely possible that TSMC will ramp a 28nm version of an Apple chip up in 2013; the ramp and subsequent demand could even explain why the company has stated it believes 28nm capacity will be constrained through the end of the year. Either way, Apple’s decision to shift to TSMC, when it eventually happens, could have a profound impact on the rest of the industry. If TSMC and Apple begin working closely together, Apple’s competitors may decide to shift their business elsewhere, particularly if the Taiwanese foundry actually built a custom fab for its Cupertino customer. Nvidia has already done some collaboration with Samsung; other players could easily follow suit.

This is a situation to watch. With process node jumps becoming more difficult, both foundries and their customers are going to look for ways to ramp R&D and cost-sharing structures. There’s already been a great deal of speculation on whether or not a 28nm gate-last processor would have superior performance/power characteristics to Samsung’s 32nm design, but the answer to that question simply isn’t clear. It’s more accurate to say that either design could come out superior to the other, in the end, depending on a wide range of characteristics. Process node shrinks, in and of themselves, are no longer a guaranteed route to lower power consumption.

Apple A7 SoC

As for the A7 and 20nm ramping in the second half of 2013, it depends on your definition of the word “ramp.” In the x86 world, “production ramp” tends to signal a near-term launch. TSMC is a bit more fluid with such statements. In the past, the company has announced production on a new node a full year or more before products actually shipped. Even once a node has shipped, capacity constraints tend to keep practical product availability low for months thereafter.

With that said, TSMC is pushing hard. It’s even planning to try and jump forward to gain ground on Intel. All the same, it’s doubtful we’ll see 20nm shipping in volume before the middle of 2014, if not the beginning of 2015. With customers reportedly dragging their feet and loathe to commit to a node where the process and performance gains are expected to be smaller than any previous generation, there’s just not much reason to push the envelope on this one.

Now read: Deliberate excellence: Why Intel leads the world in semiconductor manufacturing

5 thoughts on “Apple reportedly moving A6X and A7 SoCs from Samsung to TSMC – it’s about time

  1. vorrei comprare un ipod apple solo per musica non per filmati non necessariamente da pinzare addosso, anche da infilare in tasca; non me ne intendo per nulla chi mi dà una dritta sulle caratteristiche e sui costi ( io so solo che vanno dai 50 euro ai 250) ? non ne faccio una questione di prezzo in via di principio ma mi parrebbe assurdo prenderne uno costoso che però costi di più solo perchè ci puoi vedere filmati…
    grazie 1000
    in termini di brani musicali, è una domanda legittima chiedere quanti ne contiene un gb ? tanto per regolarmi sulla scelta di una memoria più o meno ricca…
    grazie per intanto ad entrambi.
    in termini di brani musicali, è una domanda legittima chiedere quanti ne contiene un gb ? tanto per regolarmi sulla scelta di una memoria più o meno ricca…
    grazie per intanto ad entrambi.

  2. Attendo con ansia il nuovo iphone 5!! ma quando uscirà??? la notizia è arrivata alle orecchie già da Giugno.. ma ancora niente di concreto..!! Voi sapete qualcosa?? quale saranno le caratteristiche?? e quale sarà il suo aspetto?? Inoltre volevo aggiungere..voi comprereste un iphone o uno smartphone con sistema operativo Android?? Grazie anticipatamente!! :-) Punteggio assicurato alla miglior risposta!

  3. …. i componenti hardware e vero che li fanno costruire da paesi come per esempio cina perché la manodopera costa poco , e in seguito vengono portati negli USA per essere venduti?
    In poche parole le aziende di hardware inviano il progetto con tutte le caratteristiche e qualità che deve avere ai cinesi e loro costruiscono. Dico bene o sbaglio?
    Grazie a tutti!

  4. Salve ragà possibile che in giro non ci sono xbox 360 e le jasper quando arrivano….sto aspettanto questa nuova modifica hardware ma vedo ke sono ancora falcon….
    Sapete qualcosa???
    Grazie mille………
    Allora io conosco molto bene la differenza tra l hardware jasper e falcon….voglio solo sapere perchè ancora deve uscire quello jasper….leggente le domande prima di rispondere….il copia e incolla nn serve a nulla……

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