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A5 Chip in Tweaked Apple TV Still Manufactured by Samsung at 32nm

Earlier this week, we opened up the newly tweaked Apple TV to find a remarkably small A5 chip inside rather than an A5X as had been suspected from the device's software posted by Apple over a month ago.

Since that time, we've been talking with chip experts at Chipworks and Silicon-IP about the possibilities and have confirmed that, unlike in the previous Apple TV, this even smaller A5 does not use a stacked chip design involving the DRAM. We were unable to identify the chip to the left of the A5 in our unit due to illegible markings, but Chipworks has cracked open another unit and discovered Elpida DRAM in that location.

a5_2012_2013_comparison
Size comparison of 2012 A5 die with 2013 die

Despite continued rumors that Apple has been working very hard to transition away from Samsung for production of A-series chips, it appears that Apple has not yet been able to make that step on a mass production basis, as this new smaller A5 is still being fabbed by Samsung.

Chipworks has confirmed the die size of this new A5 at 6.1 mm x 6.2 mm, making it just over half the size of the 8.19 mm by 8.68 mm die in the previous version and less than a third the size of the original A5 introduced in the iPad 2 two years ago.

chipworks_a5_7498_die_markDespite confirmation that this new A5 chip is being manufactured by Samsung, Chipworks is still working to confirm the process node for the chip.
Is this new A5 a pipe-cleaner for TSMC in a lower volume (and risk) device? Is this new A5 a lower cost variant that we will see in new lower end phones from Apple? Is it a shrink from Samsung’s 32-nm process to their 28-nm? All were speculated upon, and this time around we can deny the first rumor by confirming that the chip has die markings consistent with the continued use of Samsung as the foundry partner. With respect to the second rumor, we can provide our $.02 that we do expect to see this chip in future Apple devices (such as a possible phone or iPod) because that behavior would be consistent with what they have done in the past. As for the die shrink, the math tells us that the size reduction is more than a simple shrink – some functionality has changed too. We’ll have to wait for the cross-section to see if it is fabbed on the smaller process.
Chipworks' Jim Morrison notes that it is unclear exactly what Apple's larger plans are for this chip, given that the Apple TV is not a high-enough volume product to justify creation of the new chip, so it is possible that Apple intends to use this A5 as a smaller, cheaper, and more power efficient chip for its rumored lower-cost iPhone or perhaps the next-generation of iPod touch. Apple made a similar move last year with the 32-nanometer A5, launching it in the Apple TV and a tweaked iPad 2 before rolling it out on a larger scale in the iPad mini and iPod touch later in the year.

Morrison also notes that, despite this new A5 being manufactured by Samsung, it could still be part of a pipe cleaner run to prepare for a move to TSMC, serving as a reference and fallback option for Apple as TSMC builds its own versions of it.

Also unclear is why Apple is not using a stacked DRAM design for this latest A5, although Silicon-IP's Kurt Wolf suggests that the company may simply still be lining up the process for building it with a package-on-package design. With the Apple TV having ample board space for the separate packages, Apple had little need to wait for a more compact stacked design.

Update 11:22 AM: Chipworks has now confirmed that the new A5 chip still uses the same 32-nanometer process seen on the previous generation, meaning that this nearly 50% smaller chip is truly a new device and not simply a shrink of the earlier design. Chipworks will have more information once it is able to obtain polysilicon die photos to view the layout of the chip.

chipworks_a5_7498_contacts

Related roundup: Apple TV

Top Rated Comments

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20 months ago
Apple and Samsung are like husband and wife. They fight every once in a while but they both need each other.
Rating: 8 Votes
20 months ago
Apple would be in deep trouble if it didn't have Samsung as a close partner.
Rating: 7 Votes
20 months ago
If Samsung are the best and most capable at manufacturing these components, it's not really in the users interest to have them made by anyone else is it?

Beyond the Samsung Vs Apple blurb, wouldn't we all appreciate Apple pumping out better hardware even if it is by Samsung?

Going to an inferior supplier will harm everyone with a potential worsened user experience. I've seen plenty of arguments on here about the different display manufacturers and units for example.

Do you want the best that Apple can offer or something slightly worse in a vain attempt at hurting a component supplier?
Rating: 4 Votes
20 months ago

Apple and Samsung are like husband and wife. They fight every once in a while but they both need each other.


business partners have always sued each other and continued to do business

no one paid any attention to it until bloggers came on the scene to link to any halfway interesting story to keep the clicks going

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To an end user, a chip maker is just a provider of plumbing and there are many others who can do it . After all, Apple users already use graphics chips made by TSMC and CPUs made by Intel on their Macs, and iPhones and iPads with wireless chips made also by TSMC



Ideally, we would all be using the chips made by the most advanced process available now, which would be Intel, not Samsung. Not that Samsung is a bad chip maker by any means but I suspect the biggest advantage of Samsung is that they have worked together with Apple's engineering team for a long time. Also it's always a big risk when you move your big manufacturing away from your long time supplier.



It's not just a "vain" attempt though. Apple tells Samsung ahead of time what kind of processor they need and what quantity, that could be a valuable information for the competition. Just look at all the noise created by the analysts checking with the suppliers.


the process to manufacture a CPU is different for each design

and when you get to Apple's size going from 32nm to 28nm is a huge money saver so it makes sense to choose your manufacturing partners wisely.
Rating: 4 Votes
20 months ago

A good reason to distance themselves from Samsung don't you think? They are not the only fish in the sea and Apple does not need to feed the Samsung engine any more. They have proven to not be friendly.


If Apple could possibly do without Samsung, that is exactly what would be happening.

But that is not reality.

The reality is that Apple is completely and totally dependent on Samsung as of now. And if Samsung were to pull the cork, Apple would founder and sink to the icy depths.
Rating: 3 Votes
20 months ago

If Sammy were to announce that they would henceforth refuse to do any business with Apple, AAPL would drop to around $200.

Apple needs to show some gratitude.


A good reason to distance themselves from Samsung don't you think? They are not the only fish in the sea and Apple does not need to feed the Samsung engine any more. They have proven to not be friendly.
Rating: 2 Votes
20 months ago

So the 3rd gen with the larger A5 had 1 core disabled right? Does this smaller chip have only 1 core active as well or are they both active this time?


That seems the logical inference.

It is probably also the case that Apple are experimenting with alternative ways to achieve certain functionality (IO, cache, memory controller, etc) at lower power, lower area, or higher performance. Obviously the sensible thing to do with the first version of the A5 is to utilize the safe version of each piece of functionality, but later, when you are not under time pressure, there is the chance to try out whatever better ideas you have had.

My guess is that all these A5 variants are not the long-term game; they are all ultimately learning experiences. I'd imagine the longer term game involves the same sort of thing (a constant stream of ever smaller, lower power, but superficially similar chips), but based not on A5 but on A7 (or whatever the 64-bit version of A6 will be). Going to 64-bit ARM allows Apple (just like it has allowed ARM) to strip out bits of the ARM spec that are no longer useful, and obviously Apple wants that transition over-and-done as soon as possible, so it only has to maintain one OS and one toolchain (just like they hurried along the OSX 64-bit transition as rapidly as possible).

So I expect we'll see more of this sort of thing over the next few years (perhaps in A6 variants once the iPhone 7 launches), all as "secondary" chips, for low-volume items, and without time pressure, all exploring aspects of the design space which may not seem sexy ("ho hum, the new L2 cache design is based on a flubar circuit with non-MRU replacement algorithm; who cares") but acting as a way for Apple (which let's remember, is very new to the custom CPU game) to refine its parts as it were, in parallel, even more so than a Tick-Tock like strategy.

A comparison would be to the venerable PPC 750 CPU (which, back in the day when Apple used it, was called the G3 by Apple). IBM STILL ships that part, which has gone through a dozen die shrinks and tweaks of one sort or another. My guess is that that's the sort of place Apple will strive to be in, once they have their 64-bit ARM part nailed down --- something that works well, has been optimized to the max, and that can just be cranked out at minimal cost by the billions.
Rating: 2 Votes
20 months ago

Disappointing to see Eric Slivka using slang words like fabbed.

Some of the writing on MacRumors is fairly poor, but I've always found Eric's articles to be very well-written.


WTF? In what way is fabbed an unreasonable word to use?

Are you unhappy that Shakespeare never used it in any of his works? The world changes, and especially the tech world is constantly adopting new words, not least because it HAS to, since we are dealing with things that did not exist before. Are you also upset that this blog uses the word blog? Do you complain when you see the words wiki, or CPU or RAM? Do you think that flash should refer to a fragment of light and nothing else?

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Kind of quirky to label it A5.

Perhaps same general functionality but a hand tuned transistor layout for most of the sub-components for the CPUs but still same tweaked ARM A9 basic functionality. Maybe a more efficiently implemented GPU that takes less space. in that context it would make sense to keep the A5 label but different.

They could dump a core if though that AppleTV didn't need it. ( and anything else that isn't used on an AppleTV. ) Effectively an optimized for only AppleTV SoC. As the volumes get bigger some of these products can get their own SoC if Apple has enough designers on staff and the optimizations pay off in lower foundry costs.

Same process means this will be cheaper to make on very mature processes (i.e.,g very high yields. ).


I don't think costs are an important part of the equation here. Redesigning makes sense for a very high volume product, but the AppleTV is not high enough volume to justify a redesign purely to reduce costs.
(And I don't believe this or any similar chip is going into an iWatch. The iWatch will be just like its competitors are --- a companion to an iPhone/iPod Touch consisting of a touch screen, low-power bluetooth, and very minimal logic, RAM, and storage. Anything more ambitious is simply not possible with today's battery technology.)

Which is why I think this is all about experimentation and learning on the part of Apple --- the point of this part is, IMHO, that it contains a whole bunch of redesigned basic blocks, which Apple has tweaked and is testing for future use in the large-volume future chips for iPad and iPhone. The point is the experimentation; the lower area is just a nice side effect, but is not the REASON for the new part.
Rating: 2 Votes
20 months ago

when you manufacture CPU's, most never come out perfect. it used to be you junked the bad ones. now you use lasers to disable circuitry and sell it as a lower model SKU. Nvidia and ATI have been doing this for years. different GPU SKU will be the same generation but with different core counts, different memory pipelines, etc.

Intel would just rate better manufactured CPU's for higher speeds. in the 90's people would buy 133MHz or lower Pentiums and over clock them. most times they ran perfectly because Intel just needed some lower end SKU's and marked a CPU for a lower rating.

the Apple TV is an amazing product because the A5 chip in there is a manufacturing reject. instead of throwing it out along with the money it cost to make it, apple created a product around. doesn't matter that the margins on it are tiny. it saves money just by using up "bad" CPU's

and since its a low volume product apple can use it as a test bed for new manufacturing processes like its doing now.


What do you described is Binning.
Rating: 2 Votes
20 months ago

Disappointing to see Eric Slivka using slang words like fabbed.

Some of the writing on MacRumors is fairly poor, but I've always found Eric's articles to be very well-written.


Using words like "fabbed" has pretty much been normal when talking about chip fabrication for, say, the last 20 years. Certainly feels like it to me.
Not sure that's something to complain about.

Would you complain if you heard somebody say l10n?
Rating: 2 Votes

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