Apple’s A5 chip has debuted with iPad 2, but the company’s already hard at work designing the A6, contemplating the A7 and thinking about the A8. Apple added more chip experts to their in-house silicon team and poached veteran engineers from Samsung and ARM earlier this month. A LinkedIn profile belonging to chip expert Eunseok Ji reveals he recently came on board as a senior Apple engineer, the role he played for years at rival Samsung. He counts advanced semiconductor skills in his profile, hard core stuff such as logic design, DFT, silicon testing and hands-on experiences on post-silicon bring-up and debugging of complex mixed-signal design for system-on-a-chip (SoC) solutions.
Why antagonize your silicon manufacturer by poaching such an expert? Okay, Samsung is a frenemy. But why lure an engineer away from ARM? This fabless semiconductor firm makes designs that power Apple’s iOS gadgets and the vast majority of mobile gear, for that matter. ARM’s Steve Ravet, who also joined Apple in March as an SOC prototyping engineer, is a twelve-year veteran who worked as a system verification engineer at Compaq and verification engineer at International Meta Systems prior to joining ARM as an electrical engineer.
His competencies include CPU validation and design, focused on FPGA emulation, silicon and board bringup, top level simulation and debug for ARM microprocessor cores and SOCs. I’m just speculating here and your guess is as good as mine, but I think you’ll agree such a hiring spree might be a tell-tale sign of a greater number of unique hardware features in upcoming Apple gadgets. Look no further than Apple’s current lineup of iOS devices.
Apple began pursuing custom silicon strategy with the purchases of PA Semi and Intrinsity, reputable silicon design shops. They are behind the A4 and A5 chips that make iOS devices tick, including iPhones, iPods and iPads. Whether Apple’s bolstering of its in-house silicon team yields greater differentiation on the hardware level or paves the way for their next big thing (an Apple-branded networked television set, anyone?) is a debatable matter. For now, Apple is content with light silicon customization which enables some unique hardware capabilities not available elsewhere, helping differentiate its gadgets from rival products that typically rely on the widely used off-the-shelf components.
So far, the strategy is working out pretty well. The iPad’s ten-hour battery life? Courtesy of low-powered A4/A5 chips and flattened battery design. Its snappy performance? Custom silicon. Thin profile? That, too.
The Intrinsity team is said to be behind performance enhancements in the A5 chip’s ARM Cortex processing cores. The PA Semi team are experts in power management and came up with the A5’s dynamically adjusted clock that helps save battery. The chip’s package-on-package design is also their accomplishment. It’s an engineering technique that puts the memory module atop the processing core in order to save power, which boosts performance and allows for a smaller package, making thin designs possible. The resulting A5 chip is almost twice the size of its predecessor. It’s being fabbed on Samsung’s 45 nanometer process. They are Apple’s largest silicon supplier and this is where company politics comes into play.
As EETimes recently reported, Apple could be taking this lucrative fabbing contract to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), also a contract manufacturer for cellphone leader Nvidia and silicon providers Qualcomm and Texas Instruments whose chips power many mobile devices. Conventional wisdom has it that Apple is switching manufacturer due to the competitive pressure from Samsung’s popular Android-driven smartphones and tablets.
While there might be some substance behind this theory, note Apple could be simply looking to secure an alternative supplier in order to reduce its dependency on a single chip provider. We also know Apple will prepay Samsung $7.8 billion for some components. Nevertheless, it appears Samsung will at some point lose the Apple account concerning chips, it’s just not going to happen overnight.
The recently released Samsung Galaxy Player (above) aims to compete with the iPod touch, while the Galaxy S II smartphone (below) gives iPhone 4 a run for its money. Both devices benefit from Samsung’s custom chip designs and manufacturing capabilities, making it increasingly hard for Apple to both partner and compete with the Korean multinational conglomerate.
- The A5 chip almost twice the size of A4, fabbed on Samsung’s 45nm process (9to5mac.com)
- Apple moving to TSMC for A5 production? (9to5mac.com)
- Intel to delay Sandy Bridge chips, iMac and MacBook Pro timetables to suffer? (9to5mac.com)
- Apple taking steps toward iPhone 5 (9to5mac.com)
- ARM earnings explode on iPad, iPhone blessing (9to5mac.com)