According to The Register, 2017 will see Apple shift from the 14 or 16-nonometer chips made by Samsung and TSMC respectively and move to a 7-nanometer chip produced jointly by ARM and TSMC. Presumably, they will be based on an ARM designed chip and manufactured by TSMC.
iPhone 8 chips to slim down to 7-nanometers
While it’s expected that TSMC will slim its chips down to 10-nanometers sometime later this year, it’s likely that the expected iPhone 7 will still use 16-nanometer chips when released in September. TSMC will struggle to make the new 10-nanometer chips scalable for a production run sufficient for the expected demand that the iPhone 7 will see.
If Apple follows standard practice, the company will release an upgraded iPhone 7 (iPhone 7s?) in 2017 and that would be the first use of TSMC’s 10-nanometer chips. If ARM and TSMC are able to make 7-nanometer chips in a manner that they could be used for the iPhone 8 it will need to show that it can do it sometime in 2017 in order to be used in the iPhone 8 in 2018.
Shrinking the circuity to 7-nanometers would allow TSMC and ARM to increase performance and battery life while adding design space available inside the iPhone 8.
Today’s announcement from the two companies
7nm FinFETs chips is the goal according to a release from the two companies. The two are no strangers to each other as the Taiwan-based TSMC designs chips with ARM-designed processor cores for Broadcom, Marvell, Qualcomm, AMD and others.
While the chips featuring 7nm FinFET will surely be used in smartphones and tablets, the companies want to extend their work “beyond mobile and into next-generation networks and data centers.” Additionally, the two hope to achieve “low-power, high-performance compute system-on-chips.”
ARM is known for its processor cores which it designs and them licenses the blueprints to others like TSMC who make the system-on-chips. So this is likely to continue rather than seeing ARM move into a field that TSMC already knows well. Likely, this announcement simply means that ARM will work the design side for 7-nanometers while TSMC continues with the chip manufacturing.
Most in the industry believe that any work by TSMC at 7-nanometers will mean that the company will scrap EUV for manufacturing and look to multi-patterning lithography which sees manufacturers using 193nm ultraviolet light and firing it through a design mask, lens and purified water to make their chips.
Assuming that TSMC is able to succeed in getting from 14-nanometers down to 10-nanometers this year, 7-nanometers shouldn’t be that difficult within a year’s time. That doesn’t mean that the company will be able to get their production rates up to make 7-nanometer chips in 2017 but likely 2018.
While IBM has made 7nm gates, that was in a lab and could never be done on a scale suitable for mass-production. Intel is hoping to have 10nm processors ready in the summer of 2017.
It’s a race and the winner will be well-poised to provide for the phones of the future that enjoy more and more computing power and prowess but also extending battery life. While it may allow for smartphones to get a bit thinner, there is a limit to how thin you can go without approaching flimsy or simply unable to be serviced owing to the size of the components inside the tablet or phone.