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Apple wants to stack circuits on its chips

Intends to build up not out
Fri Aug 27 2010, 13:17

A RECENT PATENT FILING indicates that Apple wants to put a whole computer on a chip.

Not content with current system on chip (SoC) designs that merely put a CPU, GPU and some communications logic into one package, Apple filed a patent application to stack a chip with memory, accelerometers and a load of other brick-a-brack. The idea is to shrink everything down, making it not only more power efficient but also reduce the physical footprint and, in theory, lower manufacturing costs.

The move marks the latest chapter for the firm as it tries to get into the chip design game. The A4 chip that powers the Ipad and Iphone 4 has been successful for the cappuccino company, although the British outfit ARM designed the core. This patent is unlikely to change ARM's dealings with Apple, however, as its main concern is with the packaging of various other components into one package along with the CPU core.

The patent filing could be a rare case of Apple actually showing that it can think up truly innovative technologies. The notion of chip 'stacking' is not particularly new, with ARM having promoted it in the past as a way to achieve multi-core chips. However the idea of using stacks for other components could result in Apple fitting a hybrid chip based on the A4 into more devices.

While the patent certainly makes for interesting reading and crystal ball gazing, it is not known whether the so-called "system on a substrate" technique would be economically viable at this point. Another problem for Apple is that in this domain it is up against semiconductor powerhouse Samsung, which not only makes the chips for Ipads and Iphones but also has a wealth of experience in getting clever semiconductor designs to market.

Still, it goes to show that Apple does indeed have a few engineers who are capable of coming up with good technological solutions. All that's left is for the firm's CEO, device designers and marketing departments to cripple it with a stylish but duff antenna. µ


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