Apple’s processors are exclusively made by TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation), and Apple pays top dollar to make sure its A-series chips in the latest iPhones and iPads (and soon Macs) are manufactured with the very bleeding edge of what TSMC has to offer.
So when TSMC announced the improvements it is making to its chip manufacturing processes at its annual Technology Symposium, we gain some insight into what to expect from Apple’s future chip roadmap.
Naturally, the actual design of Apple’s silicon is the primary indicator of performance and efficiency. But manufacturing process technology plays a huge role; it helps determine how large and complex a chip can be, how fast it can run, and how much power it uses at a given speed.
Anandtech recently broke down the latest announcements from TSMC. Here’s what the company announced and what it could mean for Apple silicon over the next two years.
Apple’s A12 processor was built on TSMC’s then-brand-new 7nm process. The A13 chip in the iPhone 11 uses an enhanced “second generation” version of that process.
But this fall, Apple is expected to have the first large-scale mass produced 5nm processor with the A14. We previously made some predictions about what we might expect to see from that processor. Odds are that when Apple starts producing its first Macs with Apple silicon later this year, their processors will be based on TSMC’s new 5nm process, as well.
As a refresher of what we can expect from 5nm chips this year: TSMC says the process will let designers fit 80 percent more chip logic in the same area, along with a 30 percent reduction in power (at the same speed) or a 15 percent improvement in speed (at the same power).
This year, TSMC said it is working on an enhanced “N5P” process node to be ready for use next year. Think of it as an enhanced version of the 5nm process shipping in Apple’s products this fall—a small 5 percent improvement in performance at the same power, or 10 percent less power at the same performance.
This is likely to be the process Apple uses in the A15 chips for iPhones and iPads next fall, and it doesn’t really improve transistor density, allowing Apple’s designers to cram more logic into the same space. In other words, Apple is going to have to make its iPhone chips larger and more costly in order to deliver a significant performance boost in the fall of 2021.
A look ahead to 3nm
In addition to a peek at its tuned-up 5nm process for 2021, TSMC divulged a few details about how its next big process technology leap is shaping up.
After 5nm comes 3nm in 2022. And it’s another big leap forward like 7nm was in 2018 and like 5nm will be this year.
TSMC estimates it will deliver a reduction in power use of 25 to 30 percent at the same speed or 10 to 15 percent faster speed at the same power, compared to the 5nm process we’re going to see for the first time this fall. It also is estimated to improve transistor density by about 70 percent, so a same-size chip will be able to cram in a lot more processing power.
That means Apple’s processors for products shipping in the fall of 2022 (the iPhone 14, Apple Watch Series 8, and future Macs) are likely to be much more powerful and efficient than what we have today. By the time Apple finishes its two-year transition to make all Macs with Apple silicon, we’ll have chips with three times the density of those in the products on shelves today and more than 50 percent better energy efficiency. These improvements will help Apple make better iPhones, iPads, and Macs, but more importantly, they’re exactly the sort of changes necessary to make some really amazing wearable products like an AR headset.