Fermi A3 silicon is in the oven

Real launch possible in February

Nvidia world iconIT LOOKS LIKE Nvidia has put the A3 stepping of Fermi in the oven, it happened some time last week. That means that you may see cards as early as February, depending on two or three other factors.

If you assume that A3 went in the oven on Dec 1, that means Nvidia will likely get the first hot lot silicon back in house on Jan 1, 2010 give or take a few days. It looks like Nvidia testing staff are going to have very happy holidays. In their cubes. What does that mean? Sit back and enjoy the numbers.

If you assume that A3 will fix all the problems, and that it will be the launch stepping, there are two main things that will affect the launch date from there. First are the risk wafers. If they are still valid, then that will probably shave a few weeks off the time until production silicon will start rolling off the lines. Lets call the savings about four weeks, or six weeks versus ten weeks if the risk wafers had to be scrapped.

The next variable is based on how sure Nvidia is that A3 worked out the way it wanted that to. If it is 100% sure that A3 is the one it will launch, Nvidia could have started running wafers at the same time it put the A3 hot lots in.

Since the problems that we hear about on A2 silicon are related to bin splits and clock speed problems, and general yield in the good versus bad chip sense, this might be a fairly large risk for Nvidia to take. Given that, six weeks out from Dec 1 if it put A3 in on day one and the risk wafers are still valid, ten weeks if not. If it waits, that is +6 and +10 weeks from Jan 1 or so.

Last we have the time it takes to make boards, put them in boxes, and ship them. A good guesstimate is two weeks for the initial boards, including air freighting them from Taiwan or mainland China to get them ready for the big party. This assumes the prep work has been done, and the PCBs are simply waiting for chips.

The first take home message is that Nvidia can likely show hot lot early A3 silicon at CES, but we doubt the company will launch it there. Tegra 2 is probably a better fit for that, but don’t be shocked if it has A3 silicon floating here and there.

If all goes well, risk wafers valid, A3 production went in on Dec 1, and all the stars align, you are looking at Dec 1 +6 weeks +2 weeks, or about Feb 1 for real availability. More realistically, if it waits until the A3 hot lots get back, that would be Jan 1 plus eight weeks, or March 1 for a hard launch. Basically, the best case is Feb 1 for a real launch.

The negative view is that the risk wafers are invalid, and Nvidia waits for A3 to come back before it puts in production wafers. That would be the outer bound, Jan 1 +10 +2 weeks, or April 1, Q2 of 2010. If you have a really negative outlook and think there will be an A4 stepping, add about four to six weeks for every stepping past A3. That is really unlikely to happen – really, really unlikely.

Toss into the ring that multiple Nvidia partners are telling SemiAccurate that they have been promised silicon in February, with volume some time after that. Realistically, we would estimate mid-February for real parts hitting the shelves, in VERY limited volumes.

The last open question is what A3 will be. We are told bin splits for A2 would put the top clock for Fermi at about 500MHz, and yields were described as “alarming”. Last spring, insiders told us that initial targets were 750MHz , 50% up on A2. Nvidia PR drones were, note the past tense, claiming that it would beat Cypress by 40%, so a 500MHz version is likely to be a tad slower than an ATI Radeon HD5870. Not a convincing launch message there.

A3 will almost assuredly up the clocks quite a bit, but where they end up, and what percentage ends up in the top bin will be the make or break questions. We will know when A3 silicon comes back in a few weeks.S|A

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group. FullyAccurate