Apple’s custom silicon is expected to jump to 3nm, a next-generation manufacturing technology, later this year, but what exactly does the improved process for next-generation chips mean for the company?
Semiconductor manufacturing is the process used to make chips. A process “knot” is, in simple terms, a measure of the smallest possible dimension used in manufacturing, measured in nanometers (nm). The chip node helps determine transistor density, as well as its cost, performance, and efficiency.
The link to actual physical dimensions has blurred in recent years as progress has slowed and marketing has become more important, but it still broadly indicates how far chip technology has advanced.
What nodes does Apple currently use?
Apple made the last big leap in its manufacturing process in 2020, when it moved to TSMC’s 5nm process using the A14 Bionic chip and the M1 chip. Some chips, like the S6, S7, and S8 in the Apple Watch have continued to use the 7nm manufacturing process because they’re based on the A13 Bionic — Apple’s final 7nm chip designed for the iPhone.
Apple introduced the A16 Bionic chip with iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max last year. Apple claims it’s a 4nm chip because it uses TSMC’s “N4” process, but it’s actually made from an improved version of TSMC’s 5nm N5 and N5P processes.
What will 3nm bring?
At the very least, 3nm should provide the biggest jump in performance and efficiency for Apple chips since 2020. The increased number of transistors made possible by 3nm allows the chip to perform more tasks simultaneously and at a faster rate, while using less power.
The next generation production technology allows the chips to use up to 35 percent less power while delivering better performance compared to the 5nm process that Apple has used for all of its A and M series chipsets since 2020.
3nm chips could also allow for more advanced custom chip devices. For example, a 3nm chip can support more advanced AI and machine learning tasks, as well as more advanced graphics capabilities.
It was rumored that Apple designed a new CPU with ray tracing capabilities for the A16 Bionic but scrapped the technology late in the development process of the A15 Bionic, and reverted to the CPU from the A15 Bionic. As such, ray tracing support integrated with the first 3nm chips seems very likely.
It should be noted that moving to a smaller chip size can also present some challenges, such as increased power density, heat generation, and manufacturing complexity. This is one reason why leaps and bounds are increasingly occurring in manufacturing processes.
according to the informationApple’s future silicon chips built on the 3-nanometer process will feature up to four dies, which will support up to 40 compute cores. The M2 chip has a 10-core CPU, and the M2 Pro and Max both have 12-core CPUs, so 3nm can greatly enhance the multi-core performance.
When will the first 3nm chips come out?
TSMC has been ramping up its testing of 3nm production since 2021 but this year the technology is expected to be mature enough to be commercially viable. TSMC is expected to start full commercial production of 3nm chips in the fourth quarter of 2022. It is believed that the production schedule will be planned.
It is believed that Apple’s demand for 3nm chips is so large that it has occupied TSMC’s entire production capacity per node this year. Recent reports indicate that the supplier is struggling to produce enough 3nm chips to meet the demand for Apple’s upcoming devices.
Analysts believe that TSMC is facing tooling and yield problems, which will affect the production volume of the new chip technology. There is a possibility that some M3 devices may be slightly delayed due to these issues, but it seems unlikely that Apple would want to delay the launch of the A17 Bionic and iPhone 15 Pro models.
Once 3nm production is well established, TSMC will move to 2nm. Production on the 2nm node is expected to begin in 2025.
What upcoming devices will contain 3 nm Apple silicon chips?
This year, Apple is widely rumored to be introducing at least two chipsets made using TSMC’s 3nm process: the A17 Bionic chip and the M3 chip. The first devices featuring the A17 Bionic will likely be the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max, which are expected to launch in the fall.
The first M3 devices are expected to include an updated 13-inch MacBook Air, 24-inch iMac, and iPad Pro. The iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max are the only devices rumored to have the A17 Bionic chip, but it is likely to come to the iPhone 16 and iPhone 16 Plus next year, and possibly other devices like the iPad mini and Apple TV in the coming years.
Apple is working on multiple M3 chipsets codenamed Ibiza, Lobos, and Palma. Looking ahead, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo believes that the new 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro models coming in 2024 will have M3 Pro and M3 Max chips.