Apple's A6 processor: 28-nm, 3D IC and made by TSMC

By Jonny Evans

While we wait for Lion, interesting to note the next Apple [AAPL] A6 processor will be made by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC)  and will be a 3D IC 28-nanometer low-power powerhouse, sweetly tucked inside your iPhones and future model iPads.

[ABOVE: The trailer for 3D movie, Avatar, nice to look at, but it's not that kind of 3D I'm talking about.]

Feel the power

The new processors could in theory be so powerful at such low heat yields that it might even make sense to put them inside future model MacBook Airs, though the next iterations of those products will stick with Intel.

A 3D IC is a chip in which two or more layers of active electronic components are integrated both vertically and horizontally into a single circuit.

[This story is from Computerworld's Apple Holic blog. Follow on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

Take a look at existing tear-downs of the A4 and A5 Apple chips and you'll see layered designs: the A4 has three distinct layers: the microprocessor itself and two layers of Samsung RAM. Now imagine if these layers worked even better together.

Intel's overtures to begin production of Apple's mobile chips on a fab basis seem to have failed, with TSMC beginning manufacture of the devices on a trial basis, while that company attempts to finesse its new supply lines. And Samsung is losing yet another few million dollars of orders.


[ABOVE: The value of Apple's custom processor business inevitablty reflects the growth spurt across its product range, above -- iPad sales.]

Heating up

Meanwhile, as all the rumor coagulates in one large fire of speculation, it seems the A5 processor may be proving challenging to put inside iPhones, with reports the chips overheat.

TSMC has a solution. It is developing an implementation of 3D-IC chips which SemiWiki claims "is said to achieve performance gains of about 30 percent while consuming 50 percent less power." That's even before bringing the tri-gate tech currently championed by Intel into the frame.

Samsung recently poached TSMC's senior director of R&D, Mong-Song Liang, to lead its own R&D.

Rumors concerning a possible switch by Apple from Samsung to TSMC have been around for many months.

Today, Reuters tells us TSMC has begun test production of A6 chips. The manufacturer is attempting to increase production yields to prove it can handle the deal for hundreds of millions of processors.

"Apple is trying to diversify its orders but it will still maintain some kind of relationship with Samsung," said Fubon Securities analyst William Wang, speaking to Reuters. The analyst believes Apple will only share part of its order with TSMC, perhaps 20-30 percent. We wait and see.

Last month, Dan Heyler, a semiconductor analyst with Merrill Lynch in Taipei, Taiwan told the Commercial Times (via Ars Technica) that TSMC would be most likely to take the A6 manufacturing deal.

3D, no not that 3D

Making the news even more interesting, TSMC could deliver its first semiconductors with 3D IC interconnects by the end of 2011, according to a recent report by the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA).

Given that Apple constantly invests in the cutting edge of technological development, could these 3D plans form part of the future of iOS devices? Certainly Apple has filed numerous user interface patents which could exploit such power -- take this data sharing patent, for example.

Also on the cutting edge, both Samsung and TSMC have confirmed plans to move to 28-nanometer process technology for future mobile processor design. Spookily, given the Apple A6 connection, TSMC has said it plans to start commercial production of chips using 28nm process this year. Reading between the lines, I'm speculating it's possible Apple is helping drive the move.

It is also interesting to note that TSMC has approved chip design software from San Jose, Calif. company, Magma Design Automation, for use with its 28-nm process. This is interesting because Magma has plenty of connections within Apple, and also inevitably iPhone graphics connected firm, Imagination technologies.

Hidden hurdles

A move away from Samsung to an alternative chip supplier poses some problems -- Samsung had a hand in the design of existing chips, so has some IP of its own. This means Apple's processor team will have to work with TSMC to replace some elements of the design.

Samsung will work hard to keep Apple's lucrative business, including potentially lowering fabrication costs to a point at which it would make no direct financial sense to invest the time and money in an alternative supplier.

The ball seems firmly in TSMC's court. The company must work to ensure it can supply these processors in the kind of quantities and quality that Apple's mobile devices require. If it fails to achieve this, then Apple will very likely stick with Samsung -- assuming the two firms continue speaking together.

Do you buy this? Will Apple really move away from Samsung to a new processor supplier? Is the future of the company's platforms really ARM-based? Let us know your thoughts in comments below...

I'd also very much like to invite you to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when I post new reports here first on Computerworld

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon