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TSMC starts pilot production of the 2022 iPhone or iPad 3nm processor node

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TSMC’s 3nm Enters Pilot Production, but Advanced Packaging Faces Challenges
TSMC, the foundry that crafts Apple's A-series chipsets like the second-gen 5nm A15 that is now in the iPhone 13, basically resurrected the hopes that we may see a 3nm A16 in the iPhone 14 next year. Digitimes is reporting that the TSMC foundry has successfully entered the pilot production of the 3nm production process.

There have been tips that TSMC has pulled its production schedule forward, but the foundry basically reiterated that risk tapeouts of 3nm chipsets will commence in Q4 of this year, while mass production won't happen before the second half of 2022, and seems on track.

"We expect it [3nm] to be a big and long-lasting node," claimed TSMC back in April during its quarterly results conference, and since the timespan between the low-yield risk production and the actual chip shipping to phone makers is up to a year, Apple's iPhone 14 in fall '22 checks out as the rumored big 3nm customer. 

Besides Apple, TSMC said that there are several other big customers lining up for its 3nm silicon - Intel, AMD and Qualcomm. Given that Qualcomm just announced the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 that is made with Samsung's 4nm EUV node, we'd be curious to see which of its processors may be produced in TSMC's foundries with the 3nm process next year.

Apple A16 3nm processor performance in the iPhone 14 or 2022 iPads


This is the same schedule that TSMC has been advocating for a good while now, even though it announced a $100 billion capital expenditure spree into development and production of new chip production process nodes in the next few years. 


Thus, the first phones with processors built on the next-gen 3nm node could very well be the iPhone 14 series, just like the iPhone 12 was the first to offer a 5nm chipset. The iPhone 13, on the other hand, flaunts an improved second-gen 5nm A15 processor. Apple's focus with it is on improved efficiency rather than increased performance, given the high 120Hz refresh rate display on the iPhone 13 Pro series. 

As for the iPhone 14, the 3nm node will bring smaller footprint with slight 11% performance increase, and greatly increased power efficiency (-27%), as you can see from TSMC's slide above, which would most likely further cement Apple as the architect of the most powerful mobile chipsets around. Unless, of course, the 3nm process is for the next-gen iPads, as has been rumored, while the A16 gets built on some intermediate node like 4nm, just like Samsung will do with the Galaxy S22 processors.

Last we heard, due to "scheduling reasons" the iPhone 14 may arrive with... the horror... a 4nm A-series processor. Even so, it will still be a 3nm-adjacent process, just like Samsung released one Galaxy with both an 8nm Exynos and 7nm Snapdragon without a notable hit in benchmark scores between the two. In fact, the lower we get on the processor production nodes, the less we gain in terms of performance boosts, with TSMC stating only a rather humble increase in calculations per clock cycle for the 3nm process against the current 5nm.

The bigger design win, however, is in power draw reduction, so that each processor generation consumes less energy than the previous one and/or takes less space on the motherboard, depending on what mix of features the phone manufacturer has ordered. This is not exactly the case with the 4nm process, as TSMC considers it more of an extension to the second-gen 5nm nodes than anything else. Still, the foundry did say that the 4nm processors that may grace the iPhone 14 will have some worthy performance increase, power draw reduction and chip density improvements, but it hasn't really quantified them just yet, as it did for the upcoming 3nm node.

TSMC is also running into problems with the packaging of the 3nm and beyond chips. "Even though TSMC is already pursuing advanced manufacturing nodes beyond 3nm, when it comes to advanced packaging, it is still stuck at 2μm. Consequently, cost control and efficiency become a hurdle...," says the report and that could get in the way of mass production next year, leaving the iPhone 14 make do with a 4nm Apple A16, while equipping the lower volume iPad 2022 production with the 3nm goods.

In any case, the performance numbers show that the boosts from moving to new production nodes are becoming increasingly smaller, so the 5nm and 3nm nodes will be with us for the foreseeable future, as mobile processors are already powerful enough for most any task you can throw at them and don't leave us longing for much more.

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