Computing

Here’s why a 5nm iPhone A14 chip would be such a big deal

New generation iPhones are always exciting, but the iPhone 12 could have the first of a new breed of processor under the hood. According to a recent report, the A14 processor that’s expected to land in the next iOS devices will be the first to use a 5nm process. It’s not confirmed yet, but if it’s true, it could have big implications for the future of performance.

Devices built with a 5nm processor at their hearts could mean these future-generation gadgets would make today’s smart devices look like dinosaurs in comparison. Shrinking the process node from 7nm to 5nm means a significant leap forward in the size, speed, and efficiency of the transistors on the chip.

It also means more transistors. Using a combination of technologies to shrink everything down, the A14 chip could pack as many as 80% more transistors inside than the A13 chip that powers the iPhone 11.

If MacWorld’s expectations of Apple keeping its chips around the same size turn out to be true, that could mean close to 15 billion transistors in Apple’s new chip. That’s as many as you’d find in high-end desktop PC processors and means that the next-generation iPhone could be as powerful as some of Apple’s best MacBooks. Such a change in performance capability throws some more fuel on the fire that this could be the year Apple ditches Intel and brings its A-series chips to the MacBooks.

All that is exciting in its own right, but it means a hell of a lot for the future of tablets, laptops, and desktop PCs too.

iphone-11-pro
Corey Gaskin / Digital Trends

2019 was the year that desktops and laptops finally started to catch up to phones when it comes to just how small their internal components are. While phones, like Apple’s iPhone, have been using sub 10nm processes for years, AMD introduced the first 7nm chips just last year. It’s no surprise then, that just as desktop fans are getting excited for a modified 7nm process, phone manufacturers are looking ahead to what’s next.

While we’ll need to see if such speculative glances to the future hold much water, if they do, that’s not only extremely exciting for potential next-generation iPhone owners, but for every other technology that comes after them. AMD is expected to bring its CPUs and graphics cards to the 5nm process in 2021, so we could see similarly giant leaps in performance that pedestrianize the best technology of 2019.

The scale won’t be linear as there are heaps of options different manufacturers can pick from when it comes to building on a new process node. They can use the additional transistor space to add more cores, to increase clock speeds, make a chip more efficient, or physically smaller. Some combination of all of these is likely to make its way into future AMD chips, as well as those of other manufacturers, and that means good things for anyone remotely interested in buying new gadgets in the next few years.

Better yet, Apple’s use of the 5nm process would prove it’s viable. Any shrink to a new process node is fraught with concern as there’s a chance that the manufacturing processes won’t hold up. Chip giant Intel has famously struggled for years to get its 10nm process technology working right and though we’ve started to see it appear in some laptops in 2019 and 2020, yield is reportedly still a problem. So much so that Intel is alleged to be skipping 10nm on desktop entirely to move to its own 7nm instead.

That doesn’t matter a whole lot for the hardware going into future iPhones, as Intel is doggedly internal when it comes to fabricating processors. But for everyone else, a move to 5nm for one of the world’s largest tech companies would herald an exciting first step on the road to bringing super powerful and efficient processors to all.

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