6 things you need to know about Apple’s A11 iPhone processor

Faster than the last fastest mobile processor....

Apple, iOS, iPhone, iPhone 7S, iPhone 8, A11 series processor, TSMC
Credit: Apple

TSMC will begin churning out Apple’s next generation A11-series processors for the next-generation iPhone in April, local reports claim, confirming December speculation from BlueFin Research Partners.

Speed and efficiency

Apple develops its own bespoke version of an ARM reference chip for iOS processors. Apple’s existing 64-bit A10 series chip is manufactured using 16 nanometer process, so it’s reasonable to assume the new A11 will deliver significant performance gains on the basis of the move to 10nm alone, presumably without impacting battery life.

In 2015, TSMC claimed its 10-nanometer technology will provide a "20% speed gain and 40% power reduction" relative to 16-nanometer technology.

Apple’s focus on making developers ship 64-bit apps reinforces the importance of performance on iOS.

FinFET

As well as a move to 10 nanometer process design, today’s report claims the A11 is assembled using TSMC’s  FinFET (fin field-effect transistor) process “packed with a wafer-level integrated fan-out” technology.

I did a little digging and note that TSMC has previously claimed the tech can deliver thinner chips that are at least 20 percent faster with 10 percent better power dissipation.

An Applied Materials report in 2015 called FinFET (which is also being deployed by other chip manufacturers), “the biggest thing to hit the semiconductor industry since immersion lithography and high-k dielectrics”.

This isn’t new to iPhone: Apple relied on TSMC’s FinFET process for the processors inside iPhone 7, iPhone 6s, iPhone SE, and iPad Pro, previous reports claimed.

Know your history

It is worth pointing out that Apple’s A10 series processor provided 40 percent greater CPU performance and 50 percent better graphics performance than we saw in the preceding A9 processor.

Look at Apple’s history and you’ll see impressive performance gains in each A-series chip transition:

  • A8 to A9: Apple claimed 70 percent improvement in CPU performance and a 90 percent in graphics performance.
  • A7 to A8: Apple claimed a 25 percent improvement in CPU performance and 50 percent improvement in graphics performance.
  • A6 to A7: Apple claimed the A7 delivered twice the CPU and graphics performance.

The A10 processor remains the world’s best mobile chip, and while there’s no way to predict what performance gains the A11 will provide, the potential seems promising – a transition to 10nm manufacturing alongside Apple’s customary architectural enhancements mean it’s becoming even less like hyperbole to call the processors inside iPhones “desktop class”.

iPhone’s 7s, 7s Plus, and 8

New chips will appear across Apple’s product range this year, though there are some who seem to think new iPads will simply use an A10X chip, a souped-up version of the processor used in current iPhones. The A10X is crazy fast – just look at these leaked performance benchmarks from last year and then think how much more you can expect from A11…

Testing?

It is worth noting that previous reports have claimed TSMC began shipping 10nm chips to clients in Q1 2017, and while we don’t know if Apple is one of these, it’s safe to surmise it has had at least a few of these new processors in for testing. It’s even possible that some of the iOS 11 Web traffic some Websites claim they’ve seen comes from A11 devices tested in Apple’s labs.

Scale

The report claims TSMC intends making 100 million of the new A11 chips this year, 50 million by July 2017. Apple typically shifts around 70 million iPhones across the holiday quarter.

Will its chip partners be able to cope if demand ramps up? Will the post iPhone 6 replacement cycle and high interest in the (potentially AR-capable) iPhone 8 deliver new sales records? What do you think?

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