Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC, is set to begin production on its 3nm node next year. TSMC’s current top-of-the-line node is 5nm so a jump to 3nm is expected to bring up to 15% performance gains and a 30% uplift in efficiency. Now, thanks to a report by DigiTimes, we know that Apple will be the very first client of TSMC’s N3 mode.
A Little Refresher
Nanometers here refers to the distance between two transistors on a die. The less distance between two transistors, the more efficient and performant a chip is. Therefore, a chip manufactured on the 3nm process is vastly superior to one manufactured on 5nm as it offers better performance and overall efficiency.
However, Vice President of Corporate Research at TSMC, Dr. Philip Wong has said that 7nm, 5nm, and 3nm are just numbers are don’t actually represent the actual transistor gate length anymore. That is partially true as the jump from 5nm to 3nm isn’t literally, it’s still a massive improvement, but just not as exciting as its marketed up to be.
It used to be the technology node, the node number, means something, some features on the wafer,” says Philip Wong in his Hot Chips 31 keynote. “Today, these numbers are just numbers. They’re like models in a car – it’s like BMW 5-series or Mazda 6. It doesn’t matter what the number is, it’s just a destination of the next technology, the name for it. So, let’s not confuse ourselves with the name of the node with what the technology actually offers. – Dr. Philip Wong
Apple already uses TSMC’s 5nm process in its latest iPhones, MacBooks, and iPads. The M1 chip is built on the same 5nm process that the A14 Bionic in iPhone 12 and iPad Air are built on. Apple is expected to use an upgraded version of the 5nm process to power this year’s iPhones. That being said, we’re about to see drastic changes in the technology under the hood of Apple’s devices next year.
Apple will be the very first in line to get its hands on the 3nm process by TSMC. TSMC will allocate all of its 3nm production for Apple initially and other clients, such as Nvidia, AMD, and Qualcomm will need to wait till 2023 to get access to the N3 fab. Production is set to commence as early as mid-2022 with the next MacBook potentially launching with Apple silicon based on the 3nm process.
iPhones are the least likely contender to introduce 3nm to the world as there is just too much inventory needed to be produced to keep up with demands. And, with the chip shortage still prevalent, it would make more sense to dedicate the coveted 3nm chips to MacBooks or even iPads instead where Apple has to make less units overall.
The 3nm fabrication process, while starting production next year, would still very much be in it’s infancy. TSMC will reportedly start off with 30,000 wafers each month and increase that number to over 105,000 in the span of a year. Hence, these 3nm chips will be a rarity, so powering them with something that sells less (MacBooks over iPhones) is the way to go.
On an interesting side note, Apple has also gobbled up initial production capacity for TSMC’s 4nm process node for next-gen Macs. With the upcoming iPhones still being fabricated on a 5nm process and next year’s MacBooks potentially having a 3nm chip, there is no saying as to when we will see the 4nm chips in use by Apple. All in all, the early-bird access to TSMC’s 3nm mode is sure to give Apple a competitive edge over its rivals.