Chip-binning, or why Intel, Apple and AMD are launching lines of weak processors

Chip-binning, or why Intel, Apple and AMD are launching lines of weak processors

Most experienced computer users probably have experience with overclocking their computers. After all, there is a great temptation to increase the frequency of the processor or video chip and thus improve its performance. Sometimes fortune favors and you can get a significant acceleration. But skeptics are able to cloud the joy a bit by claiming that you have a chipped chip on your hands.

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What are binning processors?

The word bin itself means "cube." But what does your new chip, which works even a little better than expected, have to do with a known defect? In fact, the cause is in the technology of the electronic components itself.

The term "binning" refers to the categorization of components, including processors, graphics chips, and memory chips, based on quality and performance criteria. Modern chip manufacturing involves the use of very complex manufacturing processes. The basis are discs made of ultrapure silicone, which are coated with layers of components.

To ensure the final product is exactly as advertised, the highest quality tools and material are needed. In addition, production facilities are protected as much as possible from dust and employees wear protective suits to prevent microscopic particles from their skin or hair from reaching materials or equipment.

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The result is a finished round plate, which is very expensive. Its honeycomb structure resembles a wafer. The plate is diamond cut into finished crystals, with the edge pieces immediately becoming waste. Its quota can oscillate between 5% and 25% of the total area.

The 11,8-inch (300mm) wafer of the 9th generation Intel Core processor

The remaining crystals are mounted on circuit boards and placed in the case, providing a heat sink if necessary. This is how the processors we know are born. But now is the time to test and select them.

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Slow processors = faulty fast processors

There are several key building blocks in a modern processor: cores, cache, memory controllers, video core, and others. An architecture for the whole family has been created. But are there other wafers created to produce the younger models? Of course not, it's just not profitable. The manufacturer has certain standards for the performance of each processor.

If a chip doesn't perform as well as it should during a test, one or more blocks go dead. The result is a slightly slower processor. The more blocks are disabled, the slower the processor will be.

For example, an Intel Core i9 die can lead to almost two dozen models running at different frequencies, with different core counts, levels of heat dissipation, GPU disabled or not. In fact, all of these chips are high-end picks and have not been tested. This is how the lines of processors i7, i5, i3, etc. are obtained:

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Why is this happening?

The manufacturer understands that neither technology nor materials can be 100% perfect. It is almost impossible to achieve absolute perfection from a wafer. When working in the nanometer range, accidents and noises that we cannot see begin to reveal themselves. And a speck of dust is a real mess. And the defects are not always visible. For example, one part of the chip may simply be hotter than the other. The printed circuit board is checked before cutting and problem areas are marked. And after cutting and reassembly, the processors are tested again.

In the hard stress test phase, the chips operate at a given voltage with a base frequency. It carefully checks how much power the processor consumes and how much heat it generates. This reveals which component meets the set parameters and which does not. Some chips need more voltage and some get hotter. There are also some who cannot pass the tests at all. Chips that have already been marked as defective are also checked to see which blocks are still valid.

As a result, all useful production is divided into different groups. The chips they contain differ from each other in their capabilities. This sorting process is called chip building. For example, if in a high-end XNUMX-core processor one of them seems to be faulty, then either it or a couple of cores are turned off at the same time. This is how a low-end quad-core processor is born. The manufacturer plans the chip architecture in advance to be able to deactivate certain blocks and get a junior model.

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That's what Apple has done with the launch of the new M1 processor. If you look at the 2020 MacBook Air specs, you'll see that the 256GB version of the laptop has a 7-core GPU, while the 512GB device has an 8-core one: binning in action.

Interestingly, vendors sometimes engage in chip binning. Sometimes the demand for a certain cheap model exceeds the demand for a more expensive model presented in excess. So, the manufacturer simply disconnects a part of the known work blocks in a high-end processor, turning it into a "junk" model. And the buyer does not even know that he has initially received a better token. Of course, it is prepared to work at higher frequencies and generates less heat. There have been cases in history where even by software, users have managed to unlock additional cores and computing blocks. For example, a dual-core Athlon X2 5000 could get two more cores, and an Athlon II X3 with a Deneb/Rana core would get a cache boost on top of the extra core. These cases are inspiring, but today such "magic" is nearly impossible due to manufacturer hardware limitations.

After you've marveled at your processor's overclocking capabilities, you'll now understand why this is so. Sorting is a prerequisite for modern chip manufacturing. And your processor will be exactly as advertised, but hopefully it will be able to show off a little more.

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