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Apple-in-iPhone contention focuses on process differences

07 Apr 2016  | Brian Dipert

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The recent controversy regarding the Apple A9 SoC inside the company's latest iPhone 6s and 6s Plus smartphones is not the first in the tech world. Several others have come before it, but this Apple Chipgate was fascinating to me.

Here's a brief summary, in case you didn't catch the October 2015 kerfuffle. The application processor is dual-foundry-fabricated, from both Samsung and TSMC (the A9X derivative found in the iPad Pro does not, at least yet, seem to be similarly split-sourced). Quoting from Wikipedia:

The Samsung version is called APL0898, which is manufactured on a 14 nm FinFET process and is 96 mm2 large, while the TSMC version is called APL1022, which is manufactured on a 16 nm FinFET process and is 104.5 mm2 large.

Apple A9 SoC

Figure 1: The controversy homes in on the fact that a more advanced process from a dimension standpoint may not be equally advanced from power consumption and/or performance standpoints.

However, as anyone who lived through Intel's Pentium 4 "NetBurst" microarchitecture's heat issues (for example) may already realise, a more advanced process from a dimension standpoint may not be equally advanced from power consumption and/or performance standpoints ... sometimes, in fact, it represents a back-step, at least in its initial implementation. To wit, when running Geekbench, a well-known and CPU-intensive benchmark utility, a TSMC A9-based iPhone 6s delivered roughly 33% longer battery life than the Samsung-fabricated alternative (~8 versus ~;6 hours), as well as delivering slightly higher performance.

Various techniques are available to tell you which version of the A9 is in your smartphone. And predictably, TSMC-based variants are being explicitly identified (and resold for a premium) on Ebay and elsewhere. This is the case even though, as I suspect many of you already realise, CPU-heavy synthetic benchmarks are rarely-if-ever reflective of real-life results ... the cellular, Wi-Fi and other wireless communications subsystems, display backlight, and other hardware modules can have an equivalent-or-greater impact on battery life. Indeed, a short time after news of the SoC issue broke, Apple issued a rare response to "Chipgate", claiming (and backed up by independent testing) that in normal usage, the battery life discrepancy was only a few percentage points' difference.

Is this controversy an isolated incident in tech? History suggests it's not. Looking only at Apple, I came across plenty of other examples, such as:

* Antennagate: the iPhone 4 antenna design led to transmission-and-reception degradation when the smartphone was held in certain ways, and

* Bendgate: the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus were susceptible to bending when pressure was applied to the chassis (such as when putting it into a rear pocket and then sitting down)

Plenty of past case studies from other companies, consortiums, and the like have also occurred (does anyone remember, for example, the perceived racist symbols briefly included in a Microsoft font set more than a decade ago?)

Will incidents like it recur in the future? Indubitably. In fact, I'll wager they'll become increasingly frequent, fueled by the increasing ubiquity (and propagation rapidity) of social media, coupled with the average consumer's understandable ignorance of the nuances of technology (such as the fractional impact of the CPU on overall system power consumption).

So what can you and your company do? First off, anticipate such difficult situations upfront: design around them or otherwise ameliorate them whenever possible, and come up with a solid preparatory question-and-answer set otherwise. Second, robustly monitor social media and other online communication platforms in order to be alerted to potential problems as quickly as possible. And finally, decide which ones to ignore (so as to not give undue credence to nitpicks and trolls) and which ones to react to ... and deal with the latter swiftly, strongly, and comprehensively.

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