Apple's M3 chip is a bigger deal than you might think

The expected move to 3nm chips with Apple's upcoming M3 processor promises to turbo boost the company's hardware line-up.

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Apple Reality, India and security are emerging as three of the biggest stories for Apple in 2023, but there is another: Apple Silicon, principally the move to 3nm process technology in the upcoming A17 and M3 (series) processor upgrades. We’re beginning to hear whispers suggesting what those chip upgrades mean.

More computer for less power

We already know what to expect: more computational performance at lower wattage than before, essentially enabling Apple’s devices to do more work for less energy.

No, as the M1 to M2 migration showed, we’re not anticipating the same huge leap the company achieved on moving from Intel processors to its own chips in Macs, but the improvements are generous all the same.

How generous? According to claimed* Geekbench scores, we’re looking at a 20% performance boost on the upcoming iPhone chip, A17. That boost will evidence itself in useful features, such as swift image editing and even more beautiful visual effects.

*The claims appear to emanate from China so we've been unable to verify their veracity. But they seem reasonable, given the anticipated benefits of moving to 3nm process tech. It may be worth noting that this leaker also warned of an upcoming yellow iPhone, which was subsequently introduced.

Leaked A17 benchmarks seem promising

The leaker states single-core scores of 3,019 and multi-core score of 7,860 on Geekbench 6. That’s up on iPhone 14 Pro’s A16 Bionic, which achieves 2,504 and 6,314, respectively, but lower than earlier claimed leaked scores of 3,986 and 8,841.

Though these scores may not be accurate or genuine, but they do seem to marry closely to what’s expected from the shift to 3nm chips. The processors are around 35% more efficient, according to Digitimes.

That’s for the iPhone. Apple is also expected to introduce its first M3 Mac processors this year and most speculation suggests these will also be based on a 3nm process. Just as the M1 chips are a grown-up version of Apple’s mobile processors, the M3 will make use of some shared assets.

That means it’s reasonable to imagine Macs equipped with those processors will see similar performance gains.

A little contextual information

To put these anticipated benefits into context, think Photoshop. Adobe was thrilled with the huge 50% performance boost it experienced when it brought Photoshop to M1 Macs from Intel.

Introducing the MacBook Air running the M2 chip in 2022, Apple claimed this would run some key Photoshop transitions five times faster than on an Intel Mac — and 20% faster than on the previous M1 systems. Now we’re looking at another 20% or so improvement.

It’s quite clear Apple’s silicon teams are forging ahead, and as the computational performance per watt improves in every chip, this also means these new systems will compete even more aggressively with high-end systems.

That all this performance is wrapped in systems that require quantifiably less power continues to have big implications for business running large numbers of computers. The best recent insight came from MacStadium’s revelation that server centers hosting its Mac mini servers complained that the computers were not using as much power as MacStadium was paying for under its hosting plans. At scale, that’s good for energy bills as well as being good for the environment.

These performance gains are significant. They put Apple at the very top of the pack for low-power silicon speed and competing systems cannot seem to match them on energy consumption.

Strategic investments, steady road map

That strategic importance is reflected in Apple’s investment. TSMC held a ceremony Dec. 29 at its Fab 18 new construction site in the Southern Taiwan Science Park to announce mass production of 3nm chips had begun, estimating these would deliver $1.5 trillion revenue within the next five years.

Subsequently, Digitimes claimed Apple purchased chip manufacturer TSMC’s entire yield of 3nm processors, giving it a unique position as the only manufacturer able to ship mobile devices and computers equipped with 3nm chips in mass market quantities.

That investment matters because it also gives Apple access to a clear path toward future improvements in its chips. In a statement, TSMC said: “Compared with the 5nm (N5) process, TSMC’s 3nm process offers up to 1.6X logic density gain and 30-35% power reduction at the same speed, and supports the innovative TSMC FINFLEX architecture.”


FINFLEX delivers signature benefits to Apple by laying out a road map for future improvements to chips built under 3nm. That road map means we get M1, M1 Pro, M1 Max, M1 Ultra, M2, M2 Pro, and the M2 Max ,as FINFLEX architecture already lets Apple’s silicon teams accurately optimize performance and power consumption.

Nor is TSMC sitting still — previous reports have claimed the company is already preparing to introduce N3E, an enhanced version of its existing 3nm production technology by the end of this year. Apple is supposed to be the first customer for that as well.

So, what’s the takeaway from this dizzying series of facts, rumours and speculations?

Where is this puck going?

Not only is Apple about to carve out a unique advantage as the sole vendor with 3nm chips in quantity, but it is also in position to build incremental improvements on those processors, with an apparent road map for new processor designs next year.

We can’t know for sure if this means Apple plans to upgrade some or all its Macs with new chips every year, as it already does iPhones, but the frequency with which it introduces new chips says it might.

Maybe it intends on upgrading notebooks more frequently, while delivering the greatest relative improvement in less frequently updated desktops. But, whichever approach it chooses to take, the days in which Macs fell behind on performance increases are lost to us. There’s no AIM Alliance roadblock, no waiting for Intel. And TSMC’s preparing to build chip production in the US, which will help Apple secure future processor supply.

The upshot is that Apple seems to be in position to deliver powerful Mac, iPad, and iPhone upgrades as often as once a year. That means that if Macs don’t yet deliver the performance your business needs, it’s only a matter of (what seems likely to be a short) time until they do.

Apple’s processor story will inevitably translate into increasing Mac market share, even as overall PC market growth erodes. And that’s no virtual reality.

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Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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