Apple seems to have its eyes on the road (map) for iPhone processors

iPhone contract processor manufacturer TSMC is making a $19B bet on 3nm manufacturing – and that means faster iPhones are on the way.

Apple, iOS, Mac, iPhone, Apple, TSMC
Maico Amorim (CC0)

TSMC is now Apple’s primary processor manufacturing partner, churning out 7-nanometer (nm) A13 chips for iPhones – and it may be producing 3nm 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.

The result?

Faster processors that are also more energy efficient.

Rapid iMovement

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 things even further in 2016 with the A10.

The company has achieved significant performance and power efficiency improvements with each iteration:

  • The A10 Fusion processor 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% performance boost when it shifted from the 14nm A10 to the 7nm A11.
  • Apple’s A12 processors provided significant performance gains over the A11 series in part because they were the first to adopt 7nm 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 increases between the A6 and A11.

It's thought that Apple will migrate to 5nm processors in 2020 following comments from TSMC CFO Lora Ho, who revealed his company has become “more aggressive” on the move to manufacture these chips. This means that next year’s A14 processors may be built using 5nm 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. TSMC has begun construction of a 3nm fabrication facility at the Southern Taiwan Science and Technology Park, Tainan, Taiwan. This is a huge investment – figures approaching $20 billion are cited – and mass production is expected to begin by late 2022 or early 2023. That's 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 it wants its hardware to offer patented technologies that competitors cannot legitimately copy. It learnrf 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:

  1. It shows that its path for processor enhancements is solid all the way out to 2023 and beyond.
  2. It suggests Apple will be able to deliver significant improvements in processors and power efficiency every year until then and beyond.

This also suggests that if Apple’s processor road map remains on course, 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, 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 denied), 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?

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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