This year, Apple may be the only major smartphone manufacturer with a 3nm chip, but it will make little difference.
The year 2023 was expected to usher in smaller chips. However, according to a recent report by Digitimes, Apple’s primary competitors in the smartphone processor market, Qualcomm and MediaTek, are unlikely to adopt TSMC’s new 3nm fabrication process this year. Reportedly, TSMC is charging a hefty sum for products manufactured using the cutting-edge process (a figure of $20,000 per wafer has been bandied about), and recent economic uncertainty has resulted in fewer sales of high-end Android phones this year.
For these companies, which must make a profit on the chips themselves as opposed to the entire final product (as Apple does), the 3nm process is difficult to sell, at least until prices drop, due to the tight margins and lower sales volume.
This means that Apple may be the only major high-end smartphone manufacturer to include a 3nm chip in its devices in 2018. (There are conflicting reports regarding the Samsung Exynos 2300, which could use Samsung’s 3nm process but is not expected to appear in the S23 or other premium Galaxy phones.)
Although this will provide Apple with an advantage, it is unlikely to have a significant impact on the smartphone market. Simply put, Apple has enjoyed a performance advantage for years, but those who prefer Android phones are not deterred. Rather than benchmark scores, the overall experience, ecosystems, and brand reputation have a greater impact on people’s phone selections.
The 3nm advantage
Almost certainly, Apple’s current top-tier A16 processor is manufactured with TSMC’s N4 process technology, “a performance-focused enhancement of the 5-nanometer technology platform.” It is referred to as “4 nanometers” by Apple and “an enhanced version of N5 technology” by TSMC, but it is essentially a 5nm chip. The transition from an enhanced 5nm process to the new 3nm process will have several advantages, but the two most significant are lower power consumption (a few percent better than N4P) and much higher density–perhaps 60 percent or more additional chip logic and cache in the same area.
This allows Apple to create a more powerful A17 processor with additional features while maintaining the same or better battery life. This depends heavily on other design considerations, such as battery capacity, display technology, how the SoC is cooled, etc.
If the A17 is manufactured with TSMC’s 3nm process and all Android chips are manufactured with less-advanced process technology, it’s safe to assume that Apple’s iPhone 15 Pro will have a significant performance advantage.
Why it doesn’t matter
Do you know which high-end iPhones performed better than the best Android phones? Each of their Android smartphones, even the most recent Snapdragon Gen 2 models, must be viewed in just the right light to appear superior to Apple’s.
However, Android phones continue to sell well. They collectively outsell iPhones. People choose Android phones because they like the brand, the ecosystem, or the functionality of the software. Or they wish to spend less than the price of a brand-new iPhone. Do we believe that people will switch because the processor advantage is slightly greater this year?
Undoubtedly, some individuals switch. They have privacy concerns that they believe Apple addresses more effectively. Or they prefer the camera (and camera features and quality are a combination of a lot of hardware and software wizardry). Or they are interested in the ecosystem of the iPhone, AirPods, and Apple Watch. Seldom do I encounter iPhone purchasers who claim, “Well, it’s 15% faster than Android phones.”
Consequently, the iPhone 15 Pro may be the only flagship device to feature a 3nm chip. However, if Apple has a significant advantage with this year’s smartphones, it will have little to do with the marginal improvement in performance or power consumption attained by employing a more advanced manufacturing process. As usual, the most important factors will be software, services, ecosystem, design, camera quality, and marketing.