Cheap Chips

ASICs for the Rest of Us

by Dick Selwood

We all know the story: ASIC starts are falling as the costs of the design tools, the mask sets and the manufacturing process are all going through the roof. Don't even think about starting an ASIC design unless your budget is measured in millions of dollars. The development process is going to require a large team of engineers. The only way you can make money with an ASIC is to sell many hundreds of thousands of devices, and that normally implies consumer markets. But ASICs take months to years of development – a development cycle that can be longer than the product life of a consumer product, which is typically measured only in months.

But over the last few weeks, I have been talking to people who will happily talk about ASICs that cost only tens of thousands of dollars to design and begin to manufacture, and have a return on investment measured in months. How come there is such a huge difference?

 

Using Accelerometers to Check for a Fever

A Look at One Side of Vibration

by Bryon Moyer

The People’s Polyharmonic Posse had a sound. Of course, all serious choruses have a signature sound, but these guys took it further than most. Their leader, Sirius Lee Aihurdthatt, had an incredible ear. He auditioned newcomers by recording them and then seeing how well they blended in with the rest of the group. Heck, after a while, he didn’t even have to do that; he simply knew when he heard someone whether or not they would work.

You see, he was blind, and, yes, it’s cliché to talk about how the absence of one sense might heighten the others. But this guy was uncanny. The group had tried to mess with him here and there – all in good fun, of course. One of the tenors might start singing the soprano line falsetto. One of the altos might lip synch only. It didn’t matter: the director could hear the slightest flaw. He couldn’t always tell exactly what was wrong, but he knew that it was wrong.

 

A Horse of a Different Color

Advanced vs. Established Process Geometries

by Amelia Dalton

It's time to saddle up and ride into the semiconductor sunset! Whether you're hitchin' your wagon to a young whipper-snapper node, or lassoin' a long-in-the-tooth workhorse process, the time it takes to get your IC design up and out of the corral may depend more on the software you use to verify your design than on the silicon itself. In this week's Fish Fry, Mary Ann White (Synopsys) and I get down to the very heart of semiconductor design: process geometries. We have ourselves a good ol' time chatting about challenges of FinFET designs, the tricky bits of working with both advanced and established process nodes, and how the right tools can make all the difference when it comes to winning the big product-to-market rodeo.

 

Assault on Batteries

The Internet of Things is Going to Need a Lot of Juice

by Jim Turley

I had dinner with a real venture capitalist the other evening, and lived to tell about it. I can’t tell you everything we discussed that night (wink, wink), but I can say that we had a good talk about batteries. No, really.

The VC in question is a partner at one of the primo Sand Hill Road firms and, as usual, he was the smartest guy in the room. Or at least, at my table. The conversation ranged from food, to wine, to rusty cars, to a recent acquisition by Apple. He talks very fast, uses his hands a lot, and compulsively checks his phone during lulls in the conversation. I guess if I could make (or lose) millions of dollars on one call, I’d check my messages a lot, too.

 

Middle Child Syndrome

Is 20nm the Forgotten FPGA Node?

by Kevin Morris

28nm is a calm, mature node. Sure, everyone was excited when it was the first to reach modern price, performance, and cost levels. We applauded when ARM processing subsystems were integrated into 28nm FPGAs, creating a new class of device. And there were accolades when 28nm debuted interposer-based 2.5D packaging techniques. There is even a nice page in the scrapbook where 28nm SerDes transceivers hit 28Gbps speeds - a nice 28/28 symmetry that made everyone feel all warm and fuzzy.

We all know and love 28nm. It’s out there - proven and in full production, making our real-world designs really work today. It’s great! You really can’t go wrong with any of Xilinx’s or Altera’s robust 28nm offerings - from cost-optimized, higher-volume Kintex and Arria chips up to the biggest, fastest, most feature-laden Virtex-7 and Stratix V devices, 28nm FPGAs have you covered.

 

Life Under 20

New Equipment for the “1X” Process Nodes

by Bryon Moyer

We’re shrinking again. We’re moving past the 20-nm node into the 16 or 14 realm (depending on how you or your marketing team counts it). In fact, according to KLA-Tencor, some companies are skipping the 20-nm node altogether and moving directly into the teens.

It’s always been the case that new nodes spur new tools, but there are some trends underway at 16/14 that are more than just “smaller,” and they are providing yet more challenges to the semi equipment guys.

Tools for Building

3D NAND probably provides the biggest change, and it introduces a new layer cake onto the wafer. For those of you that are new to 3D NAND, Applied Materials (AMAT) provides a simple description of what it consists of: tipping a string of bits on end.

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