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Opinion: Apple-Nvidia chip stack venture makes sense

Posted: 20 Dec 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:chip stacks? graphics chip? memory?

Rick Merritt of EE Times give his take on the rumoured partnership between Apple and Nvidia, suggesting that beefing up its flagship notebook, desktop and tablet brands with enhanced chip stacks would enable Apple to differentiate its devices from Android competitors.

Nvidia could develop chip stacks for Apple that would make for some pretty interesting iMacs, Macbooks and iPads. I'm just speculating on industry rumours, but it makes a lot of sense.

Nvidia could lay two to four graphics chips down on a 2.5-D substrate using through silicon vias to create an ultra-powerful graphics-card-on-a -chip driving a muscular iMac. It might even add a memory chip to the mix to create a device with fast memory access, good for either an iMac or Macbook.

What's more, Nvidia could place one of its new Project Denver ARM cores next to a graphics chip and maybe some memory to enable a high performance, low power Macbook running iOS. A low cost iOS laptop could leapfrog anything we have seen to date out of the Windows 8 crowd.

Here's the kicker: Apple could supply its A-series SoC to Nvidia which could add graphics and memory to a stack for a high-end iPad. It would create a novel premium product injecting fresh life into tablets at the high end, putting more distance between Apple and its growing Android tablet competitors.

The stacking technology is still too expensive, hot and power hungry for smartphones. But come 2015 or so, it may start appearing there, too, in the form of full 3-D stacks.

This isn't rocket science. Xilinx started the trend of 2.5-D stacks in late 2011 with an ultra dense chip that put two of its top FPGAs on a single substrate. Huawei said it is working on a similar device using an Altera FPGA and a memory chip for a router.

In computers, IBM is working on 2.5-D chips that marry its Power server processors and memory. IBM is already pitching to customers it a ability to make such stacks as is TSMC which helped make the Xilinx part. One market watcher tells me there are as many as a dozen of these designs in the works for 2013.

Jen Hsun just smiled
Rumors of Apple/Nvidia devices have been crawling around the industry for a few months now. They make sense for a number of reasons.

By late 2013 the technology will be proven out by multiple vendors, so it's not the bleeding edge stuff Apple tends to avoid for its high volume markets. It would create novel products with a performance and price premium, the kind of positioning Apple favours.

Late last year Tim Cook tipped Apple's plans to do something really interesting in semiconductors. I think this could be it.

Nvidia announced a year ago it was working on Project Denver, a full line of ARM-based computer processors from laptops to supercomputers. Since then it has gone quiet. A partnership with Apple would be just the sort of motivation to keep lips sealed at Nvidia.

I saw Jen Hsun Huang at an industry dinner last week and asked him about Project Denver. A smile came over his face and he said, "We will have a good story to tell."

My guess is this is that story. What do you think?

- Rick Merritt
??EE Times

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