Apple is probably the first customer that will use Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company’s (TSMC) InFO chip manufacturing process in creating in-house intended A10 chips for 2016 iOS devices, probably allowing it to shake off some excess weight off the next iPhone model.
If we look back to see the bigger picture, we have a tendency to overanalyze Apple’s chip efforts thus far and make precise guesses as at what advances in terms of silicon design and integration the next iPhone might provide.
We’ll also ponder on how having the foresight to take its chip destiny into its own hands more than five years ago has helped Apple differentiate itself from competition.
What is InFO?
An acronym meaning Integrated Fan-Out, InFO is a chip process technology that doesn’t require an actual chip to be fitted on a substrate before being mounted onto a circuit board. InFO is supposed to reduce the thickness of a typical mobile chip by 0.2 mm or more.
But, what are subrtrates?
Also known as diffusion layers, substrates determine where chip features like the conductors and the connections between the conducting layers are implanted on a logic board.
The engine that makes your iPhone tick isn’t connected directly to the printed-circuit board due to its small footprint. Rather, it’s fitted on a package substrate which then connects the chip die to the logic board and distributes input-output signals over the entire die.
However, as TSMC is supposedly on the cusp of solving yield issues, its InFO process using a 16-nanometer node should be finished approximately when next iPhone’s A10 processor enters mass production.
Bernstein Research assumes that using InFO to mount the A10 directly onto the iPhone’s circuit board will reduce the general thickness of the device.
Due to the shorter distance between logic die and printed circuit board, chip speed could increase by around 20 percent.
In addition, supply chain sources said recently that TSMC will do all A10 orders exclusively, leaving Samsung out of the picture.
SoC vs. InFO vs. SiP
Further on, Apple’s supposed use of TSMC’s InFO process for the next iPhone allows other advancements, such as SiP – System-In-Package. This technology essentially packs entire computer architecture onto a single chip.
Contrast SiP approach to Apple’s current A9 and A9X mobile chips that combine some, but not all features onto a single die. Specifically, the A9/A9X combine a fully-customized ARM-based dual-core CPU, dubbed ‘Twister,’ 2 GB of LPDDR4 RAM, L1/L2/L3 cache, an image processor, an embedded M9 motion coprocessor and graphics cores onto a single die.
This is known as a system-on-a-chip (SoC) approach.
iPhone 6s a9
Apple’s ‘A9’ SoC in iPhone 6s has 70% faster CPU and 90% faster graphics. Its predecessor, the A8, has ‘only’ two billion transistors.
As we said before, the A9 chip is connected to the iPhone 6s’s logic board via a substrate. Removing it would let Apple engineers to mount an iPhone’s SoC and other dies directly onto an even smaller printed circuit board.
iPhone 7: Thinner, Waterproof – Could It Be Any Better, Huh?
If Apple manages to embed wireless chips and sensors—currently separate chips—into its own SoC, the next iPhone could have fewer, smaller chips.
If that package is covered in resin, like Apple Watch, Apple should be able to create a completely waterproof iPhone.
Interestingly, VentureBeat claims that Intel has hired more than 1,000 engineers for a project to adapt its hailed 7360 LTE modem chip for Apple, so it could be embed in the iPhone 7′ A10 SoC.
Apple’s silicon engineering can be traced as far back as 2007, when it started buying semiconductor startups to assemble an internal team which now counts 1,000+ wireless and chip designers.
Deciding to take its chip destiny into its own hands was a tremendously risky move, one that has now paid off in ways more than one.. You can see it in iPhones and iPads consistently outperforming the commodity chips used by its Android competitors, in terms of both speed and performance per watt.
iPhone 6s M9
‘M9’ motion coprocessor, previously a separate chip, is now embedded in iPhone 6s’s ‘A9’ system-on-a-chip.
If Apple and its chip manufacturers succeed in embedding an LTE modem and other remaining iPhone chips in the A10, the company will leap even further ahead of competition in terms of custom silicon design.
Looking beyond the iPhone, including the cellular modem would make an Apple SoC a lot smaller, and thereby more likely to fit inside an Apple Watch. A 3G/LTE-equipped Apple Watch would make for a 100 percent standalone wearable device, one truly untethered from your iPhone.
Make no mistake, radio interface chips rival CPUs in complexity—that’s why iPhones and iPads have traditionally used wireless chips from Broadcom and Qualcomm.