The iPhone’s most important competitive advantage over Android rivals remains Apple’s custom silicon. Every year, benchmark and real-time use comparisons highlight the iPhone’s considerable advantage over same-year devices. And it’s often that the previous-generation iPhone version is the second-best alternative when it comes to power. For example, tests last year showed the iPhone 12’s A14 Bionic outperformed every other 2020 handset. But even the A13 chip inside the iPhone 11 models outclassed the 2020 Androids in the same speed tests.
This fall’s iPhone 13 models are expected to offer a faster, more energy-efficient System-on-Chip (SoC) than the iPhone 12 phones. That’s the A15 Bionic that TSMC will mass-produce for Apple. But the A15 Bionic will be built on the same 5nm process as the A14, albeit on enhanced technology. Making smaller and smaller transistors is increasingly more challenging, but news from Asia indicates that TSMC will soon begin manufacturing 4nm and 3nm chips. The latter might go into next year’s iPhones, and they’ll likely power Apple’s M-series SoC found inside Apple’s Macs.
A series of reports from Digitimes detailed several developments related to the new 3nm architecture. Applied Materials has unveiled a new way to engineer the wiring of logic chips that would cater to 3nm chips and beyond:
While size reduction benefits transistor performance, the opposite is true in the interconnect wiring: smaller wires have greater electrical resistance which reduces performance and increases power consumption. Without a materials engineering breakthrough, interconnect via resistance would increase by a factor of 10 from the 7nm node to the 3nm node, negating the benefits of transistor scaling.
“A smartphone chip has tens of billions of copper interconnects, and wiring already consumes a third of the chip’s power,” Applied Materials exec Prabu Raja told Digitimes. “Integrating multiple process technologies in vacuum allows us to reengineer materials and structures so that consumers can have more capable devices and longer battery life. This unique, integrated solution is designed to accelerate the performance, power and area-cost roadmaps of our customers.”
It’s unclear whether the Applied Materials technology will be used in any of the 3nm SoCs that TSMC will manufacture next year. A different Digitimes story says that TSMC will move to the N4 4nm mode later this year, with a risk production set for the third quarter of 2021. TSMC will then start volume production of 3nm SoCs in the second half of 2022.
The 3nm chips will offer 15% speed gains and consume 30% less energy than 5nm chips. Performance gains and energy-efficiency improvements are expected from each new A-series and M-series generation. It’s unclear whether the 3nm SoCs will be ready for the 2022 iPhones, but the schedule above suggests that it might be a possibility.
Whether next year’s iPhone 14 series makes the jump to 3nm or 4nm, TSMC’s ability to mass-produce these chips next year will put additional pressure on Intel, which can’t get there with its own silicon. That’s because Apple will likely use 4nm and 3nm M-series SoCs in future Mac models. Apple said last summer that it plans to transition all of its Macs to M processors within two years. The move should be completed by next year.