How TSMC Won Back Exclusivity With Apple for the A10 Chip in iPhone 7

tsmc_logo_newLast year, MacRumors covered the potential reasoning for Apple's rumored return to having a single partner for Apple A-series chip production with the A10 after having both Samsung and TSMC produce versions of the Apple A9.

Since then, TSMC confirmed in conference call comments that its chip packaging changes have led to improvements of 20 percent in both speed and packaging thickness and 10 percent in thermal performance. This has a number of implications for future device performance and future foundry partner selection for Apple.

First, it is helpful to understand why InFO-WLP (Integrated Fan-Out Wafer-Level Packing) is such an important development for Apple's mobile processors. Typically, chips as large as CPUs or mobile SoCs have been attached via "flip-chip" methods which attach an array of inputs and outputs to a package substrate via solder bumps, ultimately enabling it to be attached to a printed circuit board (PCB) for device integration.

From the start, this is a compromise, as it would be preferable to attach a silicon die directly to the PCB to minimize height and reduce the lengths of interconnects between components. A number of technical limits in areas such as interconnect pitch, board produceability, and damage due to board warpage typically prevent this direct attachment.

The above problem had previously been circumvented for smaller I/O count components with a similar concept called Fan-In Wafer-Level Packing, where smaller dies are allowed to route their inputs and outputs in an area roughly the same area as the die. TSMC is just one of many companies beginning to enable this concept for larger I/O count devices in such a way that allows high volume, acceptable yields, and an acceptable cost.

tsmc_info_wlp_slide

Slide from 2014 TSMC presentation on InFO-WLP advancements

With this method, the traditional substrate becomes unnecessary, as a silicon wafer serves that purpose with one or more logic dies included. The reduced height of this method and a thinner redistribution layer (RDL) for remapping pins of the die to the PCB means that all interconnects are shorter, which directly enables lower power and better thermal performance. The transistors driving the outputs on this device now drive less metal length, meaning they can save power. Saving power also means performing better thermally, but a more direct connection to the PCB means there is simply less thermal resistance to the PCB, which can pull heat away from the device.

The promised performance improvements are certainly significant. A 20 percent improvement in performance is roughly equivalent to the improvement expected between successive foundry nodes (e.g. the change from 14 nm to 10 nm). With both TSMC and Samsung only offering refined versions of their 16 nm and 14 nm FinFET processes, this means that total performance gains could be in line with the same improvement seen from the A8 to the A9 chip, but driven by packaging improvements rather than a new process.

Of course, every generation can't enjoy this same improvement, but increased power efficiency is critical for mobile devices to be allowed to hit higher peak limits for short durations. In the keynote for the iPhone 6 family of devices, Apple went into detail about how it made a significant effort to ensure the A8 processor did not throttle itself as the A7 had. This was and is an industry-wide problem as mobile SoC makers have raced to provide the highest performing chips. By taking advantage of new packaging from TSMC, Apple gets more relief in this metric, and freedom to go to a higher power dissipation mode for short periods.

a10_logic_board_side

Bare iPhone 7 logic board with space for A10 chip

A long-term advantage of this technology is to enable much faster main memory interfaces to the logic die, largely by widening the interface. Current mobile SoC packages use PoP (package-on-package) techniques which connect the memory dies to the main processor with tiny wires, which is thermally inefficient and not ideal for performance. By using wafer-level packaging, these drawbacks can be reduced for the main memory, while also increasing the number of connections and data that can be moved in a given time.

In the long run, this move will likely be a cost-saver for Apple as it removes the package substrate. However, the co-design of device die and device package explains why multiple partners are not technically feasible for an effort such as this. Companies like TSMC have also labored for years to make this a reality, with the benefits long being understood.

At this point, there is no denying Apple's technical acumen and bandwidth in chip design. The company has developed multiple chips for market in extremely aggressive timeframes with fully custom designs that rival those of Intel for performance per watt. Apple beat its competitors to market for a 64-bit ARM design by over a year, and designed two custom A9 dies in the time that its competitors designed one.

Given Apple's focus on pushing the performance of its silicon, and TSMC's packaging advancements, it makes sense that TSMC has been able to gain sole possession of Apple's chip orders for at least this generation. Looking forward, the InFO-WLP packaging technique marks a significant development not only for TSMC and Apple, but the semiconductor industry as a whole.

Tags: TSMC, A10 chip
Related Forum: iPhone

Top Rated Comments

avanpelt Avatar
65 months ago
Kudos for these more technical articles of late. Keep them coming!
Score: 37 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Attirex Avatar
65 months ago
Steve Jobs would've never attached the silicon die directly to the PCB to minimize height and reduce the lengths of interconnects between components.
Score: 32 Votes (Like | Disagree)
_mdavenport Avatar
65 months ago
Great article. I give it A10/10 ;)
Score: 15 Votes (Like | Disagree)
gigapocket1 Avatar
65 months ago
Grins - "1 less apple component needed from Samsung"
Score: 13 Votes (Like | Disagree)
MH01 Avatar
65 months ago
DID THEY THANK THE U.S FOR THIS TALENT?
I thank the US every morning when I wake up.....

On a serious note ....what?
Score: 12 Votes (Like | Disagree)
LoveToMacRumors Avatar
65 months ago
I didn't understand much of the article :(:confused:
Score: 10 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Top Stories

iPhone 13 Always On Feature

iPhone 13 to Bring Over a Major Feature From the Apple Watch

Wednesday July 28, 2021 2:21 am PDT by
Apple's upcoming iPhone 13 lineup will feature an always-on display akin to the Apple Watch Series 5 and Series 6, according to recent reports. In his weekly Power On newsletter, Bloomberg journalist Mark Gurman, who often reveals accurate insights into Apple's plans, said that the iPhone 13 may feature an Apple Watch-inspired always-on mode. The Apple Watch Series 5 and Apple Watch...
REC ASA CODE2016 20160601 205816 2745

Elon Musk Reportedly Demanded to Become Apple CEO as Part of Potential Tesla Acquisition [Update: Musk Denies]

Friday July 30, 2021 9:04 am PDT by
Tesla CEO Elon Musk reportedly once demanded that he be made Apple CEO in a brief discussion of a potential acquisition with Apple's current CEO, Tim Cook. The claim comes in a new book titled "Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk and the Bet of the Century," as reviewed by The Los Angeles Times. According to the book, during a 2016 phone call between Musk and Cook that touched on the possibility of ...
duracell battery bitter coating

Apple Says Don't Buy AirTag Replacement Batteries With Bitter Coating

Wednesday July 28, 2021 11:08 am PDT by
Since AirTags were just released earlier this year and are expected to have a year-long battery life, it may be some time yet before AirTag users need a replacement battery, but when the time comes for a refresh, Apple is warning customers not to buy batteries with a bitter coating. AirTags use coin-shaped CR2032 batteries, which happen to be a size that's easy to swallow. Some battery...
nothing ear 1 buds 1

Nothing 'Ear (1)' True Wireless Earbuds Launch to Take on AirPods Pro With ANC and Unusual Design for $99

Tuesday July 27, 2021 7:57 am PDT by
Nothing, a new brand from OnePlus founder Carl Pei, has today officially launched the "Ear (1)" true wireless earbuds after months of anticipation around the company's AirPods Pro rival. The Ear (1) features an in-ear design, Active Noise Cancelation, Bluetooth 5.2, IPX4 water resistance, and a charging case with Qi-compatible wireless charging and a USB-C port. Fast pairing is supported on...
General Apps Messages

Android iMessage Competitor Puts Pressure on Apple

Friday July 30, 2021 3:15 am PDT by
Google and the three major U.S. carriers, including Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, will all support a new communications protocol on Android smartphones starting in 2022, a move that puts pressure on Apple to adopt a new cross-platform messaging standard and may present a challenge to iMessage. Verizon recently announced that it is planning to adopt Messages by Google as its default messaging...
Apple Leak Feature

Apple Demands Leaker Reveals Sources Under Threat of Being Reported to Police

Wednesday July 28, 2021 6:53 am PDT by
Apple has sent a cease and desist letter to a leaker based in China as part of its continuing attempts to curtail leaks of unreleased products, according to Vice. A Chinese citizen who shared images of stolen Apple prototypes on social media was sent a warning letter from Fangda Partners, Apple's law firm in China, on June 18, 2021. An extract from the letter read:You have disclosed without ...
apple rtp land

Apple Preparing to Occupy 200,000 Square Feet of Temporary Space Ahead of New $1 Billion North Carolina Campus

Thursday July 29, 2021 9:14 am PDT by
Back in April, Apple announced a $430 billion investment over the next five years to create more than 20,000 new jobs as the company continues to expand. One significant piece of that plan is a new engineering and research center in North Carolina where Apple will be investing over $1 billion and hiring at least 3,000 employees. Assemblage of seven properties in Research Triangle Park owned by ...
iOS 15 General Feature Purple

Everything New in iOS 15 Beta 4: Safari Tweaks, MagSafe Battery Pack Support, Notification Updates and More

Tuesday July 27, 2021 11:47 am PDT by
Apple today released the fourth betas of iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, introducing additional refinements to the new features that are coming in the software updates. In these betas, Apple has introduced changes for Safari, Notifications, Focus mode, and more. Safari Updates Apple is continuing to refine the design of Safari on the iPhone, and in iOS 15, there are tweaks to improve usability. ...
new m1 chip

Tim Cook on Apple Deciding to Manufacture Components: 'We Ask Ourselves If We Can Do Something Better'

Tuesday July 27, 2021 3:04 pm PDT by
During today's earnings call for the third fiscal quarter of 2021 (second calendar quarter), Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked how Apple decides what components to purchase and what components to develop, and Cook said that Apple asks if it can be done better. We ask ourselves if we can do something better. If we can deliver a better product. If we can buy something in the market and it's great...
a15 chip

iPhone 13 and Redesigned MacBook Pro Chip Production Hit With Gas Contamination

Friday July 30, 2021 5:44 am PDT by
The most important TSMC factory that manufactures Apple's chips destined for next-generation iPhone and Mac models has been hit by a gas contamination, according to Nikkei Asia. The factory, known as "Fab 18," is TSMC's most advanced chipmaking facility. TSMC is Apple's sole chip supplier, making all of the processors used in every Apple device with a custom silicon chip. Industry...