Apple A13 & Beyond: How Transistor Count And Costs Will Go Up

Apr 19, 2019
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Today we’ve got a detailed report for Apple’s future processor design and costs. The Cupertino tech giant became the second company in the world to introduce gadgets with TSMC’s advanced 7nm processors. Given Apple’s penchant for taking its time before being confident that new technologies will withstand the brunt of mass usage, the introduction of an iPhone with 7nm came at the right time.

The effects of the move to 7nm are compounded by the fact that Samsung has completely dropped the ball with its in-house Exynos processors. Estimates today from IBS Research hint at the future for the iPhone, as we move towards 5nm in 2020 should current reports bear fruit. Take a look below for more details.

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TSMC’s 5nm Process Might Allow The Apple A14* To Have 10.5 Billion Transistors, Cheaper Cost Per Transistor And $12,500/Wafer

The era of 7nm has allowed Apple to cram 7 Billion transistors inside the A12. This is an increase in density as the chip’s surface area is 4.39 mm less than its predecessor (87.66 mm2 for the A11; 83.27 mmfor the A12). Today’s research estimates suggest that with the A14, Apple will match the A12X’s transistor count on a smaller die (on 85 mm, as compared to the A12X’s 122 mm2)

Such performance on an iPhone will provide developers with a lot of leeway, but at the same time, it will increase the iPhone’s price. Costs all across the board for 5nm’s development will escalate. A wafer, for instance, will cost $12,500 in the largest increase since the jump from 16nm to 10nm. The boost in performance owing to more transistors offered by 5nm’s advanced etching, however, will be offset by reduced yield. As opposed to 7nm’s 545.65, NDPW (Net Die per Wafer) for 5nm will go down to 530.25 from 7nm’s 545.65.

As these figures are not directly from TSMC or Apple, do not expect them to materialize precisely. However, the end result will nevertheless deviate only slightly from the estimates. TSMC has commenced 5nm risk production, and the fab promises a 15% performance gain on a Cortex A72 core. Samsung is expected to implement GAAFET on 3nm after an agreement with IBM while TSMC’s plans for the node are unknown. GAAFET can squeeze 30 Billion transistors on 50 mm2, making today’s numbers look childish.

As you’ll see above, R&D costs for 5nm are through the roof. They’ve increased by 50% over 7nm, and now require significant capital infusions at every phase of the process design. Software implementations, for example, will now cost $225 million for 5nm as opposed to $145 million for 7nm. These costs will naturally be shared by every company that hopes to utilize TSMC’s next-generation process, yet the same companies (including Apple) will be forced to increase prices. These higher prices will not serve Apple well, as stiff competition in Asia will cut right through its operating margin.

Looking at the numbers, unless there’s a major breakthrough, performance for the iPhone will plateau in the near future. It’s at this time that Apple’s current move into services will matter the most. If the Cupertino tech giant waters this plant carefully by then, it will have fully capitalized on the iPhone’s singular advantage over Android a.k.a a strong iOS ecosystem. For now, let’s hope more details for the 2019 iPhone lineup leak soon.

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