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Will the Apple A9 Fall Flat?

Will the Apple A9 Fall Flat?
by Robert Maire on 01-23-2015 at 12:00 pm

 Several months ago we had suggested that we were concerned that Apple’s A9 processor would wind up being 20nm planar (maybe 14nm planar) rather than the expected 14nm FinFET. As we are now under 9 months from a likely launch time for Apple’s next gen IPhone the timing for getting a 14nm FinFET processor on board the phone looks much more difficult. The generally held expectation is that the A9 would be 14nm FinFET, closely following on the heels of Intel’s 14nm FinFET release last year and a significant upgrade from the A8 which itself was a huge uptick in transistor count, density and overall performance from the prior A7 processor and helped make the iPhone 6 a significant hit.

Also Read:
The TSMC iPhone 6!

The math doesn’t add up…
If we assume a September roll out and work back from there, adding up the production time of the processors, getting them tested and shipped in volume and soldered onto the circuit boards and assembled into phones, we are likely talking about volume production of A9 by the end of the June quarter. Given the ongoing news about slow spending by TSMC & Samsung and the recent delay at GloFo, it seems hard to put together enough capacity at a high enough yield in the time left (maybe 5 months at best) to satisfy an Apple roll out of a new phone and associated volumes. While we wouldn’t rule it out completely, it seems increasingly difficult to get 14nm up to snuff in time without a huge risk that Apple is not likely to want to take given the potential embarrassment and potential fall out of supply issues.

KLAC is a leading indicator…
Last nights lackluster guidance for foundry spending in H1 2015 continues and underscores the sluggish rollout of 14nm FinFET at foundries. Remember that 14nm FinFET stumped even the great Intel so its no surprise that it has slowed everyone else down as well. Its hard to get the 14nm process up to yield without yield management tools (in significant volume). Right now a ramp in mid 2015 is dubious.

A “6S” would fit Apples “tick tocK” pattern…
Much like Intel’s “tick tock” practice of “shrink & exploit”, Apple seems to come out with a more significant upgrade on every other IPhone model and the IPhone 6 was a biggie, which suggests that the one this fall is less significant. This would seem to simply that the next model will be a “6S” rather than a “iPhone 7”.

20nm capacity could fit the situation…
Both Samsung and GloFo have nicely working 20nm capacity with GloFo supplying Qualcomm out of Malta. The news reports over the last several months point to Samsung winning the lions share of the A9 along with sidekick GloFo and a potential TSMC chaser (already building the A8 at 20nm). We found those news reports curious as it seemed to make little sense for Apple to commit so early in the process. However those reports make more sense if they gave up on the thought of going to 14nm FinFET in time for September and instead settled on the safe and readily available 20nm capacity today.

Also Read: Who will Manufacture Apple’s Next SoC?

This would also further support the reason why the foundries don’t appear to be in as much of a hurry over 14nm spending if the A9 deal is already done with existing technology/capacity. Furthermore this would also support the back filling of 28nm and 20nm capacity that has been talked about. Though there is the potential of 14nm planar, we don’t think that is is likely scenario (though stranger things have happened). The pieces all seem to fit together….

Core Wars…
Recently there has been a lot of buzz about the number of cores in the the processor of Android phones which are now touting 8 core designs. Maybe rather than a 14nm shrink and shift to FinFET, Apple could stick with 20nm planar and increase the die size a bit to squeeze in more cores? Though Apple probably does not want to be seen as following Android , there may not be a choice here. Obviously the Apple OS would have to be capable of using more cores (something we have no real clue about). It could be but we just don’t know …but it makes some sense.

Apple counting on things Big and Small???
It may be that Apple is counting on the IWatch and foot long, IPad Pro to carry the momentum in 2015 rather than an iPhone refresh. Logically this seems to make sense as the IWatch will likely roll from the Spring into the fall holiday selling season for 2015’s holiday gift idea while the Ipad pro attacks the business market. If this is the case it may take the pressure off of needing a big IPhone refresh in 2015. Better to wait til 2016 for the IPhone 7 and a jump step in processor power.

Slowing Moore’s Law forces choices…
It feels to us the 28nm was the last “good node” as per transistor cost increased from there in its first upward excursion ever after the long downward curve of Moore’s Law. 20nm has been OK albeit with increasing costs due to multi patterning. But 14nm FinFET looks to be a major cost dislocation causing a significant jump in wafer and per transistor costs that will set the industry on its ear and cause heartache. Most of the delay can be laid at the feet of the delay in EUV and next generation Litho improvements that would allow shrinks without as much multi patterning that we are now facing. While not the only issue in the continuation of Moore’s Law , it is clearly the core culprit.

Given what we heard from KLAC last night, that Actinic, “at wavelength” mask inspection will not be available until 2020, it underscores the view that EUV will not be ready for high volume manufacturing for another 5 years and into the 7nm node forcing more pain again at 10nm. (don’t cry for ASML as they are more profitable with current tool sales and EUV delays). End users, such as Apple & Qualcomm will have to deal with the previously reliable cadence of Moore’s Law slowing down and figure out how to roll out new and better products to an ever more discerning consumer base who always want the next great thing.

Robert Maire
Semiconductor Advisors LLC

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