Apple taps TSMC for test run of A6 chips

In a snub to Samsung, contract chipmaker TSM has been chosen by Apple to begin punching out a trial run of next-generation A6 processors, expected to be used in iPads and iPhones

Apple is giving TSMC a try-out as a supplier of chips for iPhones and iPads, a sign it may be distancing itself from long-standing processor provider Samsung.

The Taiwanese company, the fourth-largest chip manufacturer by semiconductor sales, has already begun a production test run of the next-generation A6 chips expected to be used in Apple's mobile devices, Reuters reported on Friday.

"TSMC has got all the authorisation and details ready," a source told Reuters. "Whether Apple puts in a formal order will depend on the yield rate."

Samsung manufactures the A5 processors, widely believed to be based on an ARM design, used in Apple's iPad 2.  The A6 series will follow on from those chips, but is not expected to appear in devices for some time.

Unlike Samsung, TSMC is a contract chipmaker and does not design or make its own semiconductors. It manufactures Intel's Atom processors and Tilera's 100-core chips, and it has a long-term fabbing agreement with mobile-device chip leader ARM.

Moving to TSMC could have an impact on the performance of Apple's chips, as the Taiwanese company's manufacturing process is marginally less advanced than Samsung's.

In the sense that Samsung as a corporation competes with Apple, it makes sense.

– Malcolm Penn, Future Horizons

"Samsung's process is slightly more applicable to what Apple needs; from that point of view, [the TSMC move is] a quarter of a step backwards," Malcolm Penn, chief executive of semiconductor analyst firm Future Horizons, told ZDNet UK. "It doesn't cost any more, but you have to make a choice. Once you decide which way you go, you're committed."

Chip fabrication processes dictate the design of the chips made with them, as the architecture must be tweaked to align with the manufacturing method, Penn noted.

"It's a whole design. The design is to a process. You design to whosever's process you're working with," he said.

Legal battle

The distancing from Samsung comes as Apple is involved in a legal battle with the South Korean chip and device maker. In a patent suit filed in April, it alleged that Samsung "slavishly" copied the design of iPhones and iPads for its own tablets and handsets.

"In the sense that Samsung as a corporation competes with Apple, it makes sense" to look into other processor manufacturers, Penn said. He added that it would not be practical for the iPhone maker to use both TSMC and Samsung as suppliers. "It's too expensive to do that these days. That's not just for Apple, it's for everyone," he said.

Intel is the world's largest semiconductor manufacturer by sales, according to IC Insights, followed by Samsung, Toshiba and TSMC in order.

TSMC declined to comment on Apple's move. "We don't talk about any customer engagements," a company spokesperson said.

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