Just to review: The brain inside the current Apple iPhone 5s is the A7 SoC manufactured by Samsung using a 28nm process. The A6 (iPhone 5) and A5 (iPhone 4s) are based on Samsung 32nm. The rest of the Apple SoCs also used Samsung processes. I think we can all now agree that the coming Apple A8 SoC (iPhone 6) will use the TSMC 20nm process. In order to properly postulate which process the Apple A9 will use let me share with you my observations, opinions, and experience on the topic.
In the beginning Apple started with Samsung as an ASIC customer where Apple did the preliminary design specifications and Samsung did the rest and delivered a completed chip. Over the course of the last ten years Apple evolved into one of the largest and most capable fabless semiconductor companies and now does everything required to get an SoC design into a foundry and the resulting chip into their products. In fact, Apple is now an “early access foundry customer” which means they are actively involved in early stage process development.
The important question is: Why did Apple leave Samsung for TSMC?
Apple is unique in that they release new mobile products in the fall of each year while competitors like Samsung release multiple products throughout the year. This ties the release of new foundry silicon to Apple’s new product releases since the volumes of wafers required are in the hundreds of thousands. Samsung’s delay from 32nm to 28nm was a big wake-up call for Apple. The iPhone 5 was supposed to contain 28nm silicon but clearly that did not happen which put Apple at a competitive disadvantage.
Since TSMC is the only foundry to release a new process node in 2014 (20nm) with the wafer capacity to satisfy Apple (Apple has asked its suppliers to build between 70 to 80 million iPhone 6 handsets by the end of the year), Apple moved to TSMC for the A8. Moving to TSMC also clearly demonstrates that Apple is truly an independent fabless semiconductor company and can choose any foundry moving forward. This will enable Apple to play Intel, Samsung, and TSMC against each other for better wafer pricing, absolutely.
Apple’s first FinFET SoC is a very difficult situation. I know for a fact that Apple carefully considered Intel 14nm, Samsung 14nnm, and TSMC 16nm. The key criteria here is the iPhone 6s Fall of 2015 ship date. Which means the design must be taped-out by the end of Q3 2014 for production start in Q2 2015. Based on what I know today here are scenarios I would like to offer up for discussion:
Apple will NOT use Intel 14nm in 2015. Intel is still learning how to be a foundry and Apple is very demanding so there is a high element of relationship risk here. Apple is also VERY closely tied to ARM and Intel does not work with ARM on process development like TSMC and Samsung do. Intel 14nm also experienced big delays which increased the risk of missing the Apple Q2 2105 production start date.
Apple will NOT use TSMC 16nm in 2015. TSMC 16FF was on track to be in production 1H 2015 but the process was further optimized to be more competitive with Intel and Samsung. The new TSMC 16FF+ process will not be in production until 2H 2015 which will miss the Apple iPhone 6s launch.
Apple will NOT use Samsung 14nm in 2015. From what I understand today Samsung 14nm is still having silicon correlation problems. And as we have seen with Intel, yielding at 14nm is no small feat. The risk of missing critical wafer delivery dates here is very high.
Apple WILL use TSMC 20nm in 2015. It is my understanding that the Apple A8 will have a dual core CPU running at a maximum of 2GHZ and will not have an integrated modem. Thus the room for an improved A9 20nm SoC is pretty big, especially if Apple is concerned about 14nm FinFET production delays.
Bottom line: 14nm FinFET technology is still evolving, 20nm technology has room for improved power consumption and performance, and 10nm is years away. For Apple the low risk scenario is: 20nm SoCs in 2014 – 2015, 16nm SoCs in 2016 – 2017, and 10nm SoCs in 2018-2019. Sound reasonable?