Apple aims to be the first company to use an updated version of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co’s latest chipmaking technology next year, with plans to adopt it for some of its iPhones and Mac computers, sources briefed on the matter told Nikkei Asia.
The A17 mobile processor currently under development will be mass-produced using TSMC’s N3E chipmaking tech, expected to be available in the second half of next year, according to three people familiar with the matter. The A17 will be used in the premium entry in the iPhone line-up scheduled for release in 2023, they said.
N3E is an upgraded version of TSMC’s current 3-nanometer production tech, which is only starting to go into use this year. The next generation of Apple’s M3 chip for its Mac offerings is also set to use the upgraded 3-nm tech, two sources added.
Nanometre size refers to the distance between transistors on a chip. The smaller the number, the more transistors can be squeezed on to a chip, making them more powerful but also more challenging and costly to produce.
N3E will offer better performance and energy efficiency than the first version of the tech, TSMC said in a recent technology symposium in Hsinchu, Taiwan. Industry sources said the upgraded production tech is also designed to be more cost-effective than its predecessor.
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As TSMC’s largest customer and the biggest driver for new semiconductor technologies, Apple is still its most loyal partner when it comes to adopting the latest chip technology. The US tech giant will be the first to use TSMC’s first generation of 3-nm technology, using it for some of its upcoming iPads, Nikkei Asia reported earlier.
Previously, Intel told TSMC that it would like to secure 3-nm production by this year or early next year to be among the first wave of adopters like Apple, but it has since delayed its orders to at least 2024, three people told Nikkei Asia.
However, 2023 could mark the second year in a row that Apple uses TSMC’s most advanced chipmaking technology for only a part of its iPhone line-up. In 2022, only the premium iPhone 14 Pro range has adopted the latest A16 core processor, which is produced by TSMC’s 4-nm process technologies, the most advanced currently available. The standard iPhone 14 range uses the older A15, which was used in the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro models released in the second half of 2021.
Meanwhile, the race is on among chipmakers to roll out ever more advanced production tech. TSMC and Samsung each hopes to be the first to put 3-nm tech into mass production this year. This technology is suitable for all types of central and graphics processors for smartphones, computers and servers, as well as those used in artificial intelligence computing.
Apple, meanwhile, is likely to use the different levels of production tech to introduce greater differences between its premium and non-premium models, according to Dylan Patel, chief analyst with SemiAnalysis. Previously the biggest differences have been in screens and cameras, but this could be expanded to include processors and memory chips, he said.
According to the analyst’s estimate, there is a cost increase of at least 40 per cent for the same area of silicon when moving to 3-nm chips from the 5-nm family, which includes 4-nm chips.
TSMC, Intel and Apple declined to comment.
A version of this article was first published by Nikkei Asia on September 14 2022. ©2022 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved