New Apple TV

One shrinking chip may have growing implications

The latest iteration of the Apple TV – that “hobby” project first of Steve Jobs then later Tim Cook – includes a downsized A5 processor that may hint at progress in Cupertino’s ongoing effort to distance itself from rival Samsung.

Or not.

On Sunday, MacRumors reported that they had popped open one of the new Apple TVs that were first hinted at in a January software update, and inside they found an Apple A5 chip – which is no surprise, seeing as how the A5 has powered the third-generation Apple TV since it was released in March of last year.

What is a surprise is that the Apple TV’s A5 has shrunk. According to MacRumors, it’s now a mere 6mm by 6mm, whereas its predecessor measured 8.19mm by 8.68mm. That larger A5 was produced using a 32-nanometer chip-baking process; its predecessor, the 45nm A5 that appeared in the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4S, measured 10.09mm by 12.15mm.

We called Apple, and they told us that the new A5 is now a 28nm chip, and it’s manufactured not by Apple’s iDevice processor partner, Samsung, but instead by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), and that they made the change because Apple is weaning itself from its chip-baking relationship with the Korean smartphone competitor and patent-litigation enemy.

That previous paragraph, of course, was pure fantasy – übersecretive Apple would never be so forthcoming. Nor, truth be told, should they be, competition being as fierce as it is in the consumer electronics market.

But it could, indeed, be true.

As of today, however, all we know is that the A5 in the Apple TV is smaller than the previous A5s that Samsung baked for Apple. We don’t even know if it’s a 28nm chip – although that would seem a safe guess, considering the smaller package size.

Well, lookee here – it’s the incredible shrinking A5 (source: MacRumors; click to enlarge)

A smaller A5 would be well-suited not only for the puck-sized Apple TV, but more importantly for the long-rumored lower-cost iPhone that world+dog are certain that Apple will release this year and promote heavily in the gargantuan market opportunity that is the developing world. After all, if that shrunken A5 is a 28nm part, all else being equal it should offer quite respectable performance in a low power envelope. Not every iPhone needs the iPhone’s A6, let alone the sure-to-be-on-the-drawing-board A7.

Apple’s A5, like all of the A-series processors running Apple’s iDevices, is ARM-based, and TSMC is perfectly capable of pumping out 28nm ARM chips, having firstdone so last May – just about the same time, coincidentally, that Samsung shrunkApple’s A5 from 45nm to 32nm. There has also been a rumor floated that Apple ismoving to TSMC in the fourth quarter of 2013 – but that one rumor says that such a move would be at the 20nm node.

Samsung is also hiking down the 28nm trail, most notably with its eight-corebig.LITTLE processor aimed at high-end tablets and smartphones, the Exynos 5 Octa SoC, which combines four low-power ARM Cortex-A7 cores with four top-notch Cortex-A15 cores. That chip is said to ship soon, and may very well appear in Sammy’s upcoming Galaxy S IV smartphone, which appears to be scheduled for its unveiling this Thursday.

There’s nothing magical about the 28nm node, of course. Intel has hurdled that hurdle, and Apple now uses Chipzilla’s 22nm “Ivy Bridge” processors in all of its Macs. That is, all but the long-neglected Mac Pro, which is currently available in two standard configurations, one with Intel’s four-core 32nm Xeon E5645 from early 2010, and the other with dual six-core 45nm Xeon W3565s from late 2009. Step-up processor options are available for the Mac Pro, but none are at 22nm, even though Intel introduced its 22nm four-core E3-1200 v2 series early last year.

But you can chalk Intel off your list of suspects for the shrunken A5 that MacRumorsdiscovered. That company doesn’t make iDevice chips for Cupertino, just chips that run OS X – although there have been recent rumors that talks are underway between Apple and Intel about ARM-based processors being baked by Chipzilla for Apple’s iOS products.

If your Reg reporter were a betting man – and he hastens to add that gambling is one of the few vices he shuns – he would put a few bucks down on the proposition that the li’l A5 in the Apple TV is, indeed, a TSMC part. After all, what better way to test a new chip-baking partner than to have them make processors for a low run-rate product such as the Apple TV?

Sometimes a hobby can have cold, hard business purposes. ®

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