TSMC is now Apple’s primary processor manufacturing partner, churning out 7-nanometer A13 chips for iPhones – and may be producing 3-nanometer chips for iPhones by 2023.
What’s in a nanometer?
A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. It’s the unit of measurement used to show the distance between the transistors that comprise the processor.
The smaller the number of nanometers the higher the number of transistors you can squeeze onto one chip.
Faster processors that are also more energy efficient.
Apple’s chip designs have led the industry for years. It has been developing ARM-based processors since 2007, ramped this up with the A4 and again with its A6 chips and pushed it even further in 2016 with the A10 chip.
The company has achieved significant performance and power efficiency improvements with each iteration of these:
- The A10 Fusion processor in 2016 inside the iPhone 7 was the first Apple-designed SOC. It delivered 40% better processor performance and 50% better graphics than the Apple-designed 64-bit A9 chip (used in the iPhone 6S) it replaced.
- Apple achieved a 25 percent performance boost when it shifted from the 14-nometer A10 (2016, as used in the iPhone 7) to the 7-nanometer A11.
- Apple’s A12 processors provided significant performance gains on the A11 series chips in part because they were the first to adopt 7-nanometer process technologies.
- Apple’s existing (7nm) A13 series processors maintain the trend. These deliver 20% more performance and 40% better power efficiency than 2018’s A12.
- You can review performance increase between A6-A11 here.
It is thought that Apple will migrate to 5-nanometer processors in 2020 following comments from TSMC CFO Lora Ho, who revealed his company to have become “more aggressive” on the move to manufacture these chips.
This means that next year’s A14 processors may be built using 5-nanometer tech, which should deliver similar performance and power efficiency gains.
This should be useful as Apple attempts to handle the new power requirements of 5G solutions as it begins to field them in late 2020.
The future will be better tomorrow
That’s not the end of the road map. It has been revealed that TSMC has begun construction of a 3-nanometer fabrication facility at the Southern Taiwan Science and Technology Park, Tainan, Taiwan.
This is a huge investment – figures approaching $20 billion are being discussed – and mass production is expected to begin by late 2022 or early 2023 – right on schedule for a follow-up to next year’s anticipated 5nm A14 (if speculation matches reality).
Apple is, after all, one of TSMC’s biggest customers so it will inevitably be at least interested in what is made there.
What does this tell us?
In a sense, this tells us little new.
We only need to look at Apple’s track record to know that it is 100% dedicated to developing and distributing the world’s most advanced processors and to continued improvements in these architectures.
We also know wants its hardware to offer patented technologies its competitors cannot legitimately copy. It learnt this the hard way when it failed to win wars against imitators over design patents.
It also confirms that Apple is not working to any random rhythm but retains tight navigation along a clear road map:
- It shows that its road map for processor enhancements is solid all the way out to 2023 and beyond.
- It suggests Apple will be able to deliver significant improvements in processors and power efficiency every year until and beyond then.
This also suggests that if Apple’s processor road map remains on course then its wider company mission also remains on track.
What’s the big picture?
It’s pretty clear that Apple’s 64-bit chips are matching and now almost exceeding some desktop class processors.
That’s got to be significant in terms of Apple’s wider strategy to the computer industry, with iPads and iPhones designed to handle most tasks, and increasingly high-end Macs available to handle more complex tasks.
Will it also prove significant to Apple’s much discussed but never confirmed (and sometimes designed) wider plan to unify its platforms?
We don’t know for certain, but it makes the unthinkable thinkable, again. How fast will iPhones become before they can completely replace computers?
Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.