There was a time when each new generation of smartphone performed a lot better than the previous iteration. Like the general performance increase in iPhones till the iPhone 7. This was true for many of the flagship Android devices too, like the Note and the Galaxy series.
A big part of this can be attributed to mobile processors. The iPhone 5s had a single core score of 1400 in GeekBench and a multi core score of 2500. There was a big increase coming to the iPhone 6s, it scored 2536 points in single core and 4383 points in multi core on GeekBench. But with the iPhone XS and the iPhone X, there isn’t a very big difference. The iPhone X has a single core score of 4210 and Multi-Core score of around 10125, while the iPhone XS scores around 4795 in single core and around 11149 in multi core score. The difference is around 10% in Multi-Core performance. The gains have slowed down in Qualcomm Snapdragon side too, compared to previous generations.
This can be attributed to the difficulty in shrinking the processor die further. The Snapdragon 810 was on a 20 nm process, then we had the Snapdragon 820 on 14nm. The current flagship, the Snapdragon 845 is on the 10nm process. Although both the A12 Bionic and the Kirin 980 this year are on the 7nm process.
But the real problem will be shrinking them below 6nm. TSMC, a chip manufacturing company stated that they had plans to shift to 5nm by 2020 and 3nm by 2022, using a new method called extreme ultraviolet lithography. So it’s certainly possible, but it won’t be cheap. Like for any new standard, the manufacturing cost goes up and this will be happening here too.
Lithography figures are quite important as they signify the distance between transistors and how closely packed they are. Lower figures mean shorter distances between the transistors, which means electrons can transverse faster. Along with performance improvements, there’s also significant improvements in efficiency. Moores Law has been an amazing tool for predicting computational performance increase with time, but with the current transistor stagnation, it might not align, unless there’s shift to a new standard.
According to some sources, the shift from 10nm to 5nm will increase power efficiency by 4 times, along with a significant performance increase. It will be interesting to see which way Apple goes next year, they might shift to 6nm or just improve their current 7nm platform.
So even though processor performance might not see surprise every year, there are other places manufacturers can look for big improvements, like battery tech. Several other companies like Samsung, Global Foundries and TSMC are competing to get to 5nm, but it will be interesting to see who gets there first.