Samsung and Apple team up on 14nm FinFET, chips expected in 2015
The will-they-won’t-they dance between Apple and TSMC was a long-running tech story years before it became shipping reality. After reported test runs on 28nm and a long negotiation process, TSMC finally won Apple’s business for its brand-new 20nm node. This lock, however, appears to be short-lived — Apple and Samsung are reportedly planning a launch on Samsung’s 14nm technology later this year.
A new report from Korea IT states that Samsung began manufacturing ramp on Apple’s new A9 SoC yesterday, which would fit an introduction timeline for later next year. Samsung had previously given guidance that it expected to begin 14nm production in the near future, but hadn’t specified whether or not it would win back Apple’s business.
The longstanding litigation between Apple and Samsung often seemed to suggest that the Cupertino-based smartphone manufacturer might abandon its Korean foundry altogether, but the benefits of the new process node apparently outweigh lingering mutual dissatisfaction over rounded corners and design elements. Samsung’s foundry business took a hit when Apple shifted its A8 orders to TSMC, but cutting the 20nm node altogether appears to have paid off.
Comparing the various nodes is always a bit tricky, and TSMC, Intel, and Samsung often snipe at each other over disclosures and claims, but we’ll take a shot at it. First, courtesy of Hiroshimo Goto of PC Watch, there’s a comparative estimated SoC size chart between Intel, Samsung, and TSMC. The size of each chip has been adjusted relative to the known dimensions and features that each company is using for its respective node.
Samsung is expected to deliver a slightly smaller 14nm chip than TSMC’s 16nm, which may also explain why TSMC has chosen to keep a slightly higher node number (16nm vs. 14nm). Samsung is adopting FinFETs at its 14nm node, and predicting significant benefits over 20nm, as shown below:
What does this mean for the industry at large? First, it seems likely that Apple may have locked in early 14nm availability at Samsung, just as it did with TSMC. Qualcomm and other manufacturers have 20nm parts in the pipeline with announcements expected at CES, but Apple’s iPhone 6 will have a six-to-nine month lead time by the time hardware is actually shipping to customers.
Apple’s multi-foundry strategy
In the past, we discussed how the difficulty of shifting designs between foundries made it likely that any Apple-TSMC pair-up would be a significant strategic shift. What now seems more likely is that Apple has chosen to pursue a multi-foundry strategy that give it additional options and flexibility.
Given the larger macro trends in semiconductors, this multi-foundry strategy makes a great deal of sense. Apple can adjust more adroitly to emerging trends in EUV, snares in process node migration, or even technologies like fully depleted SOI wafers, should one or more foundries choose to deploy them at lower nodes.
Given the current lack of agreement over next-gen foundry standards and an emerging uncertainty that EUV technology won’t be available until 10nm or below, it only makes sense for IDMs like Apple or Qualcomm to hedge their bets. The consequences of betting on the wrong foundry technology could be disastrous — possibly dwarfing the expense of ramping multiple designs at multiple foundries.
Now read: Intel’s 14nm Broadwell chip reverse engineered, reveals impressive FinFETs, 13-layer design
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