TSMC can now make 3nm processors, and Apple is all in. Literally all in — it’s reportedly buying the Taiwanese foundry’s complete output of 3nm chips.
This will be in the form of the upcoming Apple A17 and M3 processors, which are expected to both be made with the new process. It will make them faster and more energy efficient.
All TSMC 3mn chips go to Apple
Apple designs its own processors but they’re made by TSMC. And the foundry has been able to shrink the components of Apple’s chips every year or two, allowing them to work faster while generating less waste heat.
But there were problems in the transition to a 3nm process. TSMC took an extra year to iron out bugs, which required the A16 and M2 series from 2022 to be made with a 5nm process, just as the A15, A14 and M1 were.
The foundry will produce the A17 to power the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max when they debut in September. The M3 is expected to start appearing in Macs later in 2023. That could start with an upgraded 24-inch iMac.
With the 3nm process now moving ahead, TSMC is already laying the groundwork for 2nm.
Size matters in chip production
There are two ways to improve a processor. One a better design, and the second is with an enhanced production process. When it comes to the chips that go into iPhone and Mac, creating better designs is up to Apple. Upgrading the production process is TSMC’s job.
And the Taiwanese company has been doing that job well for over a decade. It’s taken the A series from a 20nm process down to 5nm and soon 3nm.
By doing so, it’s shrunk the distance between the the components on the chips. This both makes them work faster and also create less waste heat. The same chip design made with a 3nm process would offer better performance and be more efficient than the same design made with a 5nm process, for example.
Or as a real-world example, the Apple M2 is a modest boost over the M1 because both were made with essentially the same 5nm process. Apple improved the design but the production process didn’t change.
But expect a more significant speed jump with the M3. It’ll have both a better design from Apple and be made with a 3nm process.