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iPhone sparkles with key design-in wins

Posted: 16 Aug 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:iPhone key designs? consumer device? teardown?

Analysts at Semiconductor Insights (SI) and Portelligent went inside the iPhone to uncover the technologies and companies behind the hottest consumer device on the planet. Some have attributed the iPhone's success thus far to good marketing. But the teardowns show that there's substance behind the hype, from solid, tried-and-true component selections to what is doubtlessly the iPhone's biggest differentiator: its software-enabled user interface.

"There are phones available in the market that have better functionality than the iPhone, just as there were better MP3 players than the iPod, but the iPhone really sets itself apart from its competitors with an interactive touchscreen and its integration of iTunes," said Allan Yogasingam, SI's supply chain manager. Then there's the "really slick design. The first thing you say when you see an iPhone is, 'Cool,'" he said.

SI technical marketing manager Greg Quirk likened the iPhone to the Nintendo Wii in that the system internals are unremarkable, but the user interface is revolutionary.

'Milestone product'
"This is a milestone product for both Apple Inc. and the wireless industry, so having a place among the suppliers of the key ICs that enable the iPhone carries heavy bragging rights in the entire IC industry," said David Carey, president and chief technology officer at Portelligent. "Without prejudging the commercial success of the iPhone itself, there's no doubt that the IC makers that have chips in this product view their design win as having significance that goes beyond just the revenue implications: It helps validate their solution and their approach."

"The first thing that struck us as SI looked inside the iPhone was the number of Apple-branded components," said SI's Quirk. That made it difficult to discern whose parts are actually used. To get inside the chips, SI resorted to decapping, a process that involves immersing the chips in acid to dissolve the outer packaging and then manually scraping away any residual packaging material.

The first Apple-branded component is a Samsung stacked-die package "containing an S5L8900 processor and two 512Mbit SRAM dice," said Quirk. The second Apple-branded part is the Broadcom BCM5973A. While there is no information available about the Broadcom part, SI believes it provides the I/O controller used for the video interface to the touchscreen.

To get inside the chips, SI resorted to decapping, a process that involves immersing the chips in acid to dissolve the outer packaging and then manually scraping away any residual packaging material.

NXP provided a part that Portelligent's Carey believes is the main power management device.

Infineon's PMB8876 S-Gold 2 multimedia engine with Edge functionality provides the baseband. A second Infineon part appears to be a GSM RF transceiver.

National Semiconductor provides a 24bit RGB display interface serializer. Carey noted that National also got the design win "at both ends of a Mobile Pixel Link LCD interfaceone device on the board and one on the glass."

Other components were more difficult to pin down. One appears to be a Texas Instruments boost converter; another is a multichip package with STMicroelectronics and Peregrine Semiconductor die markings. The ST part provides an accelerometer.

iPod similarities
Quirk noted the similarities in component makeup between the iPhone and "some of the latest iPod models," adding, "Apple is taking what it learned [with the iPod] and redesigning it into the phone. This surely made the design process easier, as Apple is familiar with the components and how to implement them."

Some components were used in both the iPhone and some iPod models.

For example, Samsung's 65nm, 8Gbyte K9MCG08U5M multilevel-cell NAND flash was used in the iPhone. "This is the exact same component that was used in the 8Gbyte iPod Nano," said Quirk. "This memory is used to store things like songs, pictures and videos. Samsung provides the K9HBG08U1M in the 4Gbyte version of the iPhone."

The audio codec, the Wolfson WM8758, "is the same codec that was used in the iPod Video, making the sound quality similar to what you experience from your iPod," said Quirk. Other parts common to both the phone and MP3 platforms are supplied by Linear Technology and Silicon Storage Technologies.

Components newly tapped for the phone include wireless connectivity devices and the touchscreen. The Marvell 88W8686 is a 90nm WLAN device whose die can also be found in the Wi2Wi 802.11 + Bluetooth system-in-package. CSR plc's BlueCore4-ROM is a Bluetooth device that was also used in the BlackBerry Pearl 8100.

Balda, a German company, scored the design win for the touchscreen. According to Quirk, Balda has worked with Nokia, Motorola and Sony Ericsson. The iPhone also implements an Intel wireless flash device with 32Mbits of NOR coupled with 16Mbits of SRAM for code execution.

Carey confirmed that Micron Technology got the 2Mpixel CMOS imager win. "Other imagers could be used if it's a standard module, and the same applies to the storage NAND and other similar commodity parts," he said.

Amperex Technology supplied the lithium polymer battery, Carey said, "but this, too, likely is multisourced."

Minimal dead space
Carey is enamored of the software that enables the phone's ease of use. On the hardware front, "my overall reaction was an engineering fascination at the shoehorning used to pack it all in," he said. "Dead airspace was kept to a minimum."

Despite the phone's "external simplicity and serene look and feel, the internal implementation is actually quite complex," he said. "There are many secondary operations, fastener screws and difficult orientations needed for final assembly, making the manufacture of the iPhone in China a near-must."

A veteran of many hundreds of teardowns, Carey confessed he was "still a bit giddy from playing" with the iPhone, adding, "It has a jewelry-like quality in some respects. I'll reserve on further gushing until potential warts emergeI'm sure there are some latent faultsbut it's hard to deny the 'wow factor' at the moment."

- Patrick Mannion
EE Times




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