Electronics Manufacturing – M528

Not Made From Apples

A Look Inside the Ipod Nano

In February 2003, Apple Incorporated released its first ever mp3 portable music player, the Ipod. Since this time, Apple has enjoyed almost unrivalled success in this field, dominating the market, and come September 2005, Apple released its fourth digital audio player, the Ipod Nano. Entitled ‘Nano’ for its size, or rather, its lack thereof; the Nano is 40mm wide, 90mm long and 6.9mm thick. It weighs in at a featherweight 42 grams. When first released to the consumer market, the Nano sold 1 million copies in only 17 days, helping Apple to achieve a record billion-dollar profit in 2005. But who and what makes an Ipod Nano? Contrary to common belief, the Nano isn’t really made from Apples at all…

Interestingly enough, the Nano uses general-purpose integrated circuits (IC) to function instead of the smaller; low cost custom developed chips more common in mp3 players. Integrated possibly to reduce time-to-market, this method of design increased the number of electronic components and also increased the cost. Independant engineers estimated the component cost of the 2 GB Nano as between US$185-US$227, which is high compared to the US retail price of just US$183. So, looking inside the Nano, what are these components and where do they come from?

The Click Wheel – Forming the basis of the Nano navigation system (and many other Ipod systems), for the first time Apple took an in-house route to building the click wheel system. San Jose based company, Cypress Semiconductors, produced and provided the chip needed but compared to other Ipod models, the chip used cost Apple only 55 cents, allowing a total saving of 45 cents per chip over a previous supplier, Synaptics Inc. Synaptics had previously supplied the whole click wheel and chip, rather than just the chip. It was thought that Apple dropped them for the Nano project in order to reduce cost and boost margins. Ironically; Apple re-instated Synaptics to provide the click wheels in mid December 2003, after Cypress and Apple themselves were struggling to keep up with public demand.

The Audio Chip (Processor) – To provide the audio; Apple returned to old friends PortalPlayer in Santa Clara. The Californian based firm supplied previous chips for the Ipod range but missed out on the Nano’s predecessor, the Ipod Shuffle, to a Texan firm, called SigmaTel. With this in mind, the choice to use PortalPlayer came as a surprise to enthusaists and technologists especially given SigmaTel’s previous dominance of the flash-memory-based MP3 player segment. (Such as the Nano). PortalPlayer had previously only supplied audio processors for hard-disk-drive-based MP3 players, and not flash based devices, suggesting competition between these two firms may just be beginning. The chip itself is called the 5021C and is not a standard part. It is likely it is an Apple-specific derivative of PortalPlayer’s 5020 chips, and this fact may go some way to explain Apples decision.

The Audio Codec - Apple’s use of this 5021C chip, instead of newer chips that were on the market at the time was also a windfall for audio codec supplier Wolfson Microelectronics plc, who’s WM8975G Audio Codec, was also used in the Nano. Many new audio processors like the 5024 incorporate the functionality previously provided by separate chips like Wolfson’s WM8975G.

The Memory – Apples ongoing relationship with large memory supplier Samsung however, is perhaps the most interesting fact regarding the Nanos components. In 2005, Apple struck a deal with the South Korean giant, tying up 40% of their output of NAND flash memory at a discounted market price. This prompted a change in the memory supplier. Originally, Toshiba flash memory was used in some Nanos, notably the 2 GB capacity version. The flash drive in the 4GB Nano, and a good proportion of the 2GB versions, along with all the cache memory in both versions, were provided by Samsung. Since the deal, production has changed to solely use Samsung memory, with Toshiba now not a part of the Nano's production.

LCD Screen – The Nano uses the same screen as produced with the photo Ipod, the colour screen Renesas's HD66789R, which supports a 176- by 240-pixel display and 260,000 colors. Nano insideThis allowed the Nano to be among the first Ipods to offer photos as well as audio format in a colour display. However, Apple received millions of complaints regarding the Nano screens durability, with Apple eventually admitting to a flaw concerning how easily it can become scratched. It would seem the company who supplied the screen were not to blame, as Apple continued to use this screen supplier in Ipod variants to come. This is the only component that seems to have failed on a otherwise wholely successful project. The screen itself measures 1.5 inches accross and is made from a polycarbonate, strong enough to build reinforced bulletproof glass. Bulletproof perhaps, but not scratchproof. When the debacle began, the stock price of Apple fell by 4 points in one day, whereas the cost quoted for screen repair went up from $75 to $145.

There are also many other components that make up an Apple Ipod Nano, including a speaker designed to make the click noise whenever the wheel is moved, the power management unit (provided by Phillips), and the outercasing that also created from a polycarbonate resin. All these components discussed travel from all around the world to then be assembled by Apple and sold on the market as the Ipod Nano. The point remains however, that none of the components are actually made by Apple. The cardboard box the thing comes in isn't made by Apple either. It would seem that Apple sit back and watch as competitors battle it out to get their component included. In a time where design and style is an essential, Apple leads the way, and this is proven in the Ipod range sales and profit margins. No wonder so many other companies want a slice of the pie.


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