Apple's new, revised version of the third-generation Apple TV may look the same on the outside, but on the inside we already know that it uses a new, smaller version of the A5 system-on-a-chip. Wetalked a bit about the implications of this processor on Monday, but we refrained from saying anything concrete about its manufacturer. Chipworks is currently in the middle of tearing down one of these new Apple TVs, though, and they can tell us more. We don't know about the manufacturing process or architecture, but we now know that Samsung is still responsible for making the chip.
Persistent rumors have suggested that Apple is looking to move away from Samsung's chip production facilities in light of the two companies' ongoing legal troubles—Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and even Intel have both been floated in recent weeks and months as potential partners. A move to another chip manufacturer still isn't out of the question, but it doesn't appear to be in work just yet.
We're still waiting on an actual die shot, but Chipworks has made a few other observations during its teardown: first, this A5's RAM is separate from the processor itself, while past A5s have used a package-on-package (PoP) design that stacked the RAM and the SoC on top of one another. This takes up a bit more space on a given device's system board, but it could be useful as a cost-saving measure. We also now know that the chip measures 6.1mm by 6.2mm, a more precise measurement than the 6mm by 6mm previously suggested.
We'll continue to monitor Chipworks' teardown as it happens, and we'll update this article as we find out more.
Update: Based on the space between the chip's transistors, Chipworks is now reporting that the new A5 is still made on Samsung's 32nm process. It seems likely, then, that despite being labeled as an A5, this chip won't have the same design (and may not have the same performance) as past chips with the same name.
Update 2: And we have our die shot. The new A5 includes just one CPU core, along with a dual-core Imagination Technologies PowerVR SGX 543MP2 GPU. This doesn't account for the entirety of the die size reduction, but we're not yet sure what else is changed.
The third-generation Apple TV's A5 has always had one of its CPU cores disabled, so performance of these revised Apple TVs should still be the same as the older models. Engineering the chip to be this much smaller will save Apple money in the long run—it can get many more of these single-core A5s out of the same silicon wafer. Designing this new chip would also take a fair amount of time, money, and effort, though.
It may be that the Apple TV is now selling in high enough numbers (and that margins on it are low enough) that the redesign was justifiable for that reason alone. It could also be the case that Apple has another product in its pipeline that needed a small, relatively inexpensive chip—of the rumors making the rounds currently, the fabled iWatch and a new, cheaper iPhone could both fit this description. We suspect this isn't the last we'll hear about this new, smaller A5.