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Move could be bad news for PC gamers as it likely means that Apple has a lock on early 20 nm stock

Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) new A8 processor has been extracted and scrutinized, courtesy of analysis firm ChipWorks.  Now we have fresh insight into the chip powering the iPhone 6 and 6+.
 
The biggest news is the confirmation of a persistent rumor -- Apple appears to have dropped Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KRX:005930) (KRX:005935), its long standing application processor (AP) fab partner, in favor of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Comp., Ltd.'s (TPE:2330) (TSMC).
 
Here's a recap on what Apple already told us about the A8:
  • Dual-core (second generation "Cyclone" cores?) @ 1.4 GHz
  • 2 billion transistors
  • 64-bit ARMv8-A instruction set  (from ARM Holdings plc (LON:ARM))
  • CPU Compute: 25% faster
  • GPU Compute: 50% faster
  • Power Useage: 50% more efficient
Here's what we learned from ChipWorks about the A8:

A8 Chipworks
The A8 sits on the iPhone 6+ circuit board. [Image Source: Chipworks]

A8 Chipworks solder balls
Note the triple row of solder balls (same as the A7). [Image Source: Chipworks]
  • Package-on-package (POP) style construction
    • DRAM in package
    • 1 GB DRAM (as widely reported)
  • Internal Name: APL1011 (breaks from previous convention of APL0X98 naming)
  • Die Size
    • 89.25 mm2  (8.5 mm x 10.5 mm)
    • 13% smaller than the A7 which was 102 mm2)
  • Third role of solder balls to dissipate GPU's heat (unused by DRAM)
  • Process
HKMG= high-K metal gate ; CMOS= complementary metal-oxide semiconductor

A8 TSMC
A8 die (with metal overlay) [Image Source: Chipworks]
 
Apple reportedly has a very powerful SoC on its hands, and there's no reason to doubt that given its performance in the last generation, when it blew away rival offerings from Samsung, Qualcomm, and NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA).
 
When it comes to the move away from Samsung to TSMC, it's worth noting a couple things.  First, this is just one chip.  Samsung very well may be filling some of Apple's A8 AP orders, splitting duty with TSMC.  Also, according to the rumor mill it was on the verge of leapfrogging TSMC to 14 nm, raising the chances that it may be back in the drivers seat for the next generation iPhone (iPhone 6S or 7?).
 
That said, the ChipWorks report sounded fairly convinced that Apple appears to now be using TSMC as its partner fab for the new iPhone chips.  It writes:

Indications are that it is fabbed by TSMC, but we don’t have enough images yet to be 100% sure... We can tell you that the contacted gate pitch is ~90 nm, which agrees with our report on the Qualcomm MDM9235, also fabbed by TSMC in their 20 nm process. (Contacted gate pitch is a measure of the process node in which a device is manufactured, and is quoted in most technical papers when a company announces a new process.)

If accurate this news could be a major shakeup to a variety of industries.  For Android phonemakers and the biggest SoC AP supplier for Android devices -- Qualcomm -- this could be a major disruption as Apple has tied up the stock of the best, fastest, most power efficient process at one of the world's largest fabs.  While Qualcomm has leaned heavily on TSMC, it may be forced to explore production with Samsung or Intel Corp. (INTC), depending on how much capacity TSMC has at 20 nm at this point.


This kind of displacement also holds true to the PC industry, where both NVIDIA and Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) are eyeing 20 nm GPU dies.  Both AMD and NVIDIA currently primarily manufacture with TSMC.  They too may be forced to look elsewhere.
GeForce GTX 880M
However, one piece of good news in terms of TSMC capacity at 20 nm is that iPhone sales growth has not been as explosive as some expected.  At launch the iPhone 6/6+ sold 10 million iPhones, versus 9 million with the previous generation (iPhone 5C/5S).  That means Qualcomm, and PC GPU makers may still have a chance to horn in at 20 nm if TSMC can ramp up its production volume fast enough.

Source: ChipWorks





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