Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why basic logic chips are bad for beginners

For a while I was making a big push to try to decode a basic logic chip such as a CD4001 or a 7402/74HC02 sort of thing. The justification was that they would be very simple to analyze because:
  • Feature size is large
  • Simple logic function
  • Many examples of the same chip to compare
  • Inexpensive
  • Non-CMP: can help to see layers
However, I've come to the conclusion they are actually rather difficult to analyze over larger chips for the following reasons.

Highly irregular transistor size

On modern chips transistors have to be cookie cutter sized in certain processes not to mention they are often used in standard cells. Even a more custom chip like the Intel 4004 has somewhat irregular transistors but they still tend to be pretty limited in size.

Basic logic chips have irregular transistors for several reasons. First, due to low transistor count, every transistor gets loads of attention. They will be molded and shaped almost like an analog chip instead of a digital chip

Less data to work with

Having fewer logic functions that you need to figure out also means that you have fewer to use as examples. I did mitigate this a bit by decapsulating several since decapsulation time / photography time isn't too bad for SMD versions.

Use of less common technology

This isn't necessarily bad in itself as it gives you more breadth, but it can still get in the way. For example, CD4000 uses metal gate which are interesting for historical reasons but not used on typical modern chips. 7400s are similar since most modern digital chips don't use bipolar logic.

To hammer on this point a bit more, lets move on to...

Use of power transistors

This one is really the killer since it makes the chips really different. Even microcontrollers will beef up output transistors, but nothing like you'll see on these chips. Heres something more or less like a textbook MOSFET:

Metal gate which isn't quite so common, but you have a clearly visible source gate and drain. This is what I was hoping to see and to be fair I did find two chips like this (above is from a Fairchild CD4011). Heres an example of a transistor for a Texas Instruments CD4001:

Top metal:

And delayered with HF (same chip, not the same die):

I saw some structures like this and thought they might be diodes since I figured they were forming a PN junction. However, if you read this you'll see that these are probably actually power MOSFETs and in particular Vertical Diffused MOS (VDMOS / Double Diffused MOS (DMOS)).

Its also worth pointing out the first image was taken on a Unitron N + Aus Jena (Zeiss) objectives with 3.2 MP point and shoot while the latter was taken on a Mitutoyo microscope + Mitutoyo Plan Apo objectives with an 8.1 MP AmScope eyepiece camera in case you are wondering why the latter looks so much better.


So what would the best chip to learn on be? The Intel 4004 is a really great example since it has so much documentation and Flylogic has provided very nice images. On the downside its not something you'd want to do yourself since a 4004 might cost you $150 or more. There are plenty of similar less expensive chips of that scale though that should have similar value.


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