2023 should have been the year of the smaller chips. However, a recent report in Digitimes claims that Apple’s main competitors in smartphone processors, Qualcomm and MediaTek, are likely to not to transition to TSMC’s new 3nm manufacturing process this year. TSMC reportedly charges a pretty hefty sum for products made using its state-of-the-art process (a figure of $20,000 per wafer has been thrown around), and the recent economic uncertainty has meant fewer high-end shipments are expected this year. Android phones will be sold for years.
For these companies, which have to make their own profit on the chips rather than the whole end product (as Apple does), the tight margins and lower sales volume make the 3nm process a hard sell, at least until prices drop.
This means Apple may be the only major high-end smartphone vendor this year to include a 3nm chip in its phones. (There have been conflicting reports about the Samsung Exynos 2300, which could use Samsung’s 3nm process, but isn’t expected to appear in the S23 or other high-end Galaxy phones.)
While this will certainly give Apple some benefit, it is unlikely to ultimately have a material impact on the smartphone market. Simply put, Apple has enjoyed an overall performance advantage before years and it’s not like those opting for Android phones will be put off. People’s phone choices are complex and have more to do with overall experience, ecosystems and brand reputation than benchmark scores.
The 3nm advantage
Apple’s current top-of-the-line A16 processor was almost certainly made using TSMC’s N4 process technology, “a performance-driven enhancement to the 5-nanometer technology platform.” Apple calls it “4 nanometers” and TSMC calls it “an improved version of N5 technology,” but either way, it’s essentially a 5nm chip. Moving from a souped-up 5nm process to the new 3nm process has a few advantages, but the big two are lower power consumption (a few percent better than N4P) and much higher density – perhaps 60 percent or more extra chip logic and cache in the same area.
This means Apple can build an A17 processor that is more powerful, with more features, while maintaining the same or better battery life. Of course, much of this boils down to other design considerations: battery capacity, display technology, how the SoC is cooled, and so on.
Broadly speaking, though, it’s safe to say that if the A17 is made with TSMC’s 3nm process and all the chips in Android phones are made with less advanced process technology, Apple will have a significant performance advantage in the iPhone 15 Pro.
Why it doesn’t matter
Do you know which high-end iPhones have outperformed the best Android phones? All. You have to look at Android phones – even the most recent Snapdragon Gen 2 – under the right light for them to outperform Apple’s.
And yet Android phones are still selling well. Cumulatively, they sell more than iPhones. People who buy Android phones choose them because they like the brand, the ecosystem, or the way the software works. Or they want to spend less than the cost of a new iPhone. Do we really think people are going to switch because that processor advantage is a bit bigger this year?
To be sure, there are people who switch. They have privacy issues that they think Apple can better address. Or they like the camera more (and camera features and quality are a combination of a lot of hardware and software wizardry). Or they’re interested in the iPhone-AirPods-Apple Watch ecosystem. Rarely do I talk to someone who buys an iPhone who says, “Well, it’s 15 percent faster than the Android phones.”
So maybe the iPhone 15 Pro will be the only flagship phone with a 3nm chip. But if Apple has a major advantage with this year’s phones, it will have little to do with the marginal increase in performance or power consumption gained by using a more advanced manufacturing process. As always, it’s all those other things that matter: software, services, ecosystem, design, camera quality and marketing.