Sometimes it’s the really small things that fail and even such a small, quite unknown cog in the gearbox can stop a whole machine in its tracks. The chip shortage is not a new topic, but now the whole notebook manufacturers are threatened by new trouble from a quite unexpected corner. Intel had not only launched a new notebook CPU with Tiger Lake (TGL), but also introduced Thunderbolt 4 (TBT4) and USB 4.0 in the matching devices at the same time. Only the support by the CPU is one thing, the technical implementation outside is completely different.
We are talking about the so-called USB Type-C and power delivery (PD) controllers with integrated source power switches. Typical representatives are from Texas Instruments (e.g. TPS65994AD as dual controller) and from Cypress. These controllers monitor the connections, detect whether and which connection is being used, manage the power supply for the externally connected devices and enable communication with them.
For a better understanding of what it’s all about, I have a short simplification of the whole thing for you: In the device, the process runs so that after plugging in the cable of an external device, a cable detection is performed according to the USB Type-C specification. In addition, the controller communicates with the external device on the CC channel via the so-called USB-PD protocol. When the cable detection and USB PD negotiation are successfully completed, the PD controller activates the appropriate power path and configures the so-called alternate mode settings (USB 4, DisplayPort video, or Thunderbolt) for external multiplexers. It is well known that USB 4 and also Thunderbolt 4 require increased demands on communication and the scope of the power supply.
I have now received information from various sources (notebook OEMs/ODMs, hardware brokers, wholesalers) that a major supply shortage of these chips is on the horizon, up to and including complete supply freezes. Ti (Texas Instruments) even delivered a small foretaste themselves, since also their own store has not been offering any chips for days, no matter how large the purchase quantity might be. We can also see on the screenshot where the prices for the components are currently:
I don’t want to go into the further technical details here, but it is not possible to simply replace these controllers with older models if the range of functions is to be guaranteed. Or you already have to bend plenty as a buyer and manufacturer. In this context, the following slide that Intel sent to several regarding shortages and possible alternatives to OEM/ODM does smack of something. You really need to read through this, especially the advice to OEMs regarding possible alternatives:
So they recommend to either leave out the mention of USB 4 completely or at least only mention the products as “USB 4 compatible” as long as the controllers in question (in this case the TPS65994AD) are not available. That may be all well and good in the end, including that there are (a few) alternatives through older controller models (which can, however, at most, be spruced up through temporary certificates in the firmware). But how will a customer know later on in the store whether the product in question has a full TBT4/USB4 port or is a temporary one or does not have the TBT4/USB4 capability advertised by Intel in connection with TGL? Quickly look for a manual or read an optional instruction leaflet? And the whole thing maybe even in the online shop?
The problem is now known to the manufacturers of the notebooks, you can ask who you want. The answers are always the same. Even Apple could get into trouble here, even if it is rumored that the manufacturer from Cupertino has already secured a large amount of PD chips or corresponding options, which could once again lead to a further shortage for the rest of the market. But I’ll certainly stay tuned, because this topic is far from over.