Next year’s iPhone SoCs (systems-on-chip) may make the leap to the 5nm process. This means potentially spectacular gains in processing and graphics performance. Why is that a possibility now? There are two reasons.
For starters, in the mobile space, Apple is almost always the first to move to a new process node. From iPhone to iPhone, generational performance sees large gains. One of the easiest ways to do this is by quickly moving to new process nodes: smaller transistors mean more speed and better efficiency.
Apple was the first to get to 7nm. The A12 processor in the iPhone XR and the XS line were the world’s first commercially available processors built on the 7nm fab process. Apple has very close relationships with major semiconductor fabs such as TSMC. Because of this, they are often able to get first pick on new silicon as soon as it’s readied by the fab.
TSMC is Getting “more aggressive” Ramping up 5nm Production
TSMC recently noted that they’re on track to achieve volume production of 5nm parts by 2020. At an event covered by Digitimes, TSMC CEO CC Wei said the fab has become “a little more aggressive,” when it comes to ramping up 5nm production. “An acceleration in the worldwide 5G development will lead to an increase in demand for TSMC’s 5nm and 7nm process,” Wei elaborated further. 5G’s almost certainly arriving on iPhones soon.
But who’s buying these chips? TSMC and Samsung are the world’s two semiconductor giants. Samsung, of course, uses its own silicon for its Exynos chips. And Nvidia, another major TSMC client, is only planning on releasing a 7nm product next year at the earliest. That leaves Apple as the sole large volume client for 5nm silicon from TSMC. TSMC’s own revenue forecast appears to anticipate the rollout of a 5G-enabled iPhone with an SoC on the 5nm process.
There are always positives in moving to a smaller process node. Power efficiency and transistor density can be increased. This means better performance with lower temperatures and less power consumption.
iPhones have always had an issue with sustained performance. For example, Fortnite on the 12nm iPhone X was limited to 30 FPS. This was because running it any faster would have caused excessive heating and battery drain. Only the iPhone XS and XR got a 60 FPS patch because the A12 processor was more efficient and could sustain a higher load for longer. With 5nm SoCs, 2020 iPhones could play console-quality games longer without draining too much battery.
This year, though, Apple will likely stick to the 7nm process for the soon-to-be-released iPhone 12. EUV–extreme ultraviolet lithography–will be used to maximize capabilities at the 7nm node. Unless Qualcomm does something radical with Snapdragon 865, this means that the next iPhone will outperform most Android flagships with ease, even if it’s still at 7nm.
2020 is expected to be an even bigger year for Apple. The market has moved away from display notches. Even budget flagships like the Zenfone 6Z and Redmi K20 Pro now have notchless designs. Concept renders all point to Apple going notch-free too in 2020, bringing an all-new iPhone design to the table. A notchless iPhone would be a real godsend. The ugly display notch is one of the reasons why many Apple fans have jumped ship recently.