The iPhone 12 is Apple’s first smartphone with a 5nm chipset, the A14 Bionic. Apple designed the chipset, with production assigned to TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company) and it’s planning for the A16 Bionic. TSMC is currently the largest chip maker and according to report, the company will get the 60 percent market share in advanced chipmaking process in the end of 2021.
When we talk about the manufacturing process, we use the nanometre (nm) unit to measure the process node. The smaller the number, the more transistors that the chipmaker can pack into the chip. The A14 chipset has the same die size, compared to the A13 Bionic with 7nm manufacturing process. While the A13 Bionic only has 8.5 billion transistors, the A14 Bionic with 5nm manufacturing process has 11.8 billion transistors. With the lower process node and higher transistor density, A14 Bionic is efficient and powerful compared to its predecessors. The Apple M1 chipset for upcoming Mac and MacBook models contain 16 billion transistors with its larger die size. Apple claims that the CPU and GPU models of A14 Bionic are 50 percent more powerful compared to the competing chipsets.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 875 with 5nm manufacturing process won’t be available until 2021. TSMC has churned out Huawei’s Kirin 9000 chipset, but the effect of US restrictions is limiting its availability in the market. The Chinese company currently used the Kirin 9000 on the flagship Mate 40 series. We could expect that 5nm will become the manufacturing standard for both Samsung and TSCM foundries. TrendForce has reported recently that Apple is planning to release the A16 Bionic in 2022 with 4nm manufacturing process. This could mean that high-end Android smartphones will get 4nm chips in 2023, probably in the form of Qualcomm Snapdragon 895. In fact, TSMC has a plan to start producing chips with 3nm process with 300 million transistors per square mm. Theoretically, 3nm process will offer 75 percent higher density compared to 5nm technology.
What we are seeing is an impressive increase in mobile chip performance. Apple introduced the iPhone 4 in 2010 with A4 Bionic chipset, manufacturing with 45nm process. Gordon Moore estimated in 1965 that every nearly two years, transistor density on processors will double. The Moore Law is very popular in the chipmaking industry and Moore revised it by estimating the transistor density doubled every two years. When we recently migrated from 7nm to 5nm process, the increase was only 90 percent. Apple will still use the 5nm manufacturing process for the A15 Bionic, planned for the iPhone 13 next year. The transition from 5nm to 3nm manufacturing process will only result in 75 percent higher transistor density. It is probably to soon to say that it will be the end of Moore’s Law. At the moment, Samsung and TSMC have announced roadmap with 2nm manufacturing process. There’s also speculation that these companies are also working on 1nm manufacturing process. The EUV (Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography) technology makes it possible to consistently increase transistor density and there’s still a chance for Moore’s Law to stay relevant.