Apple iPhone 12: The chip advance set to make smartphones smarter
The new iPhones from Apple will be the first consumer gadget to be equipped with 5 nm chip technology
When Apple launches its new iPhones, expect them to be the first phones in the world to feature a new chip.
This will likely allow owners to edit 4K videos, enhance high-resolution photos, and play graphically-intensive video games more smoothly than before while consuming less battery power, for example.
The "five nanometer process" refers to the fact that the chip's transistors have been scaled down - the tiny on-off switches are now only about 25 atoms wide - so billions more can be packed up.
Effectively, it means more brain power.
Go back just four years and many industry insiders doubted the advance could be delivered that quickly.
This is in large part due to the ingenuity of a relatively obscure Dutch company - ASML.
It pioneered the use of a process known as extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography to carve circuit patterns into silicon.
The machines cost a cool $ 123 million (£ 92 million) each, which is high even when compared to other semiconductor industry tools.
But it is currently the only company that makes them. And they are still less expensive than alternative options, in part due to a low error rate.
"At such small scales, precision is key," said Dr. Ian Cutress, who reports on the sector for Anandtech.
"What they do is like hitting a stamp on the surface of Mars with a paper airplane."
ASML compares its technology to the leap from using a marker pen to a fine liner.
But instead of ink, it uses what it calls "dim light," which is created by a mind-boggling process.
The ASML process uses light with a wavelength of 13.5 nm, which is between visible light and X-rays
"We take a molten droplet of tin and fire a high-powered industrial laser onto it, which basically vaporizes it and creates a plasma," said spokesman Sander Hofman.
"And this plasma emits UV light.
"It all happens 50,000 times a second - so it hits 50,000 droplets - which creates enough light to catch in a series of mirrors - the flattest in the world."
A blueprint of the chip design is encoded into the light by passing it through a mask and then shrinking with lenses.
It then hits a photosensitive coating on a silicon wafer, which "prints" the chip design.
So far only two chip manufacturers have used this commercially:
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) - sole supplier of the A14 to Apple for its latest iPhones, iPads, and Mac computers
Samsung - which is making a new Qualcomm processor for Android phones - is slated to officially launch in December
In addition to Intel, the two companies each have a stake in ASML, which is expected to use the technology from 2021.
But one notable competitor was locked out.
China's Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) has reportedly placed an order, but the U.S. government has stepped in to prevent the ASML machine from being exported as its production may end up in Chinese military weapons.
SMIC is currently several generations back in 14nm chip technology, and experts believe it would have taken some time to master everything it would take to move to 5nm.
The fact that it couldn't even be tried leaves the company and Beijing's greater ambitions for the chip industry "in a difficult position," said Jon Erensen of research firm Gartner.
"That is the US intention," he added.
What exactly does 5nm refer to?
A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. This is roughly the rate at which a human hair grows every second.
In the past, transistors were measured by the width of a portion known as the "gate".
About a decade ago, a change in the way they were designed meant that the nanometer reference was no longer tied to a single geometry.
Today, the 5nm reference is little more than a marketing term, and two foundries with the same name may offer transistors with different performance levels.
To imagine how small the new Apple transistors are, about 171 million are laid out on each square millimeter.
Another Chinese tech giant, Huawei, was also unable to manufacture its own Kirin 5nm chip designs due to recent intervention by the Trump administration.
However, a batch made by TSMC is expected to be stocked shortly for use in the next Mate smartphones, which were made before the Taiwanese company was forced to cease production in September.
All of this is important as moving to 5nm is key to making our phones smarter.
As the chips advance, more tasks that were previously sent to remote computer servers for processing can be performed locally.
We have already seen that smartphones are able to transcribe voice memos and recognize people in photos without the need for an internet connection.
Now even more complex "artificial intelligence" jobs are becoming possible, which may help smartphones better understand the world around them.
Switching to smaller transistors helps because they use less power than larger ones, which means they can run faster. On this basis, TSMC has declared that its 5 nm chips deliver a speed boost of 15% compared to the last 7 nm generation with the same performance.
However, greater profits can be made as chip designers are given space to create more specialized sections called "accelerators".
"If you have a defined workload - such as image processing, audio signal processing, video coding, or cryptography - the math is very well defined," explained Dr. Cutress.
"And you can tailor the accelerator to get the job done as quickly as possible or to extend the device's battery life."
Apple has already claimed that its A14 chip will do machine learning "up to ten times faster" than the A13.
Expect other smartphone brands to make similar claims when they move to 5nm.
Of course, consumers will be more impressed with life-enhancing applications of the technology than with hypothetical speed gains.
But in the years to come, some uses of the 5nm and then 3nm technical promise beyond smartphones should become apparent - smart glasses that don't look too bulky, smartwatches that last longer between charges, and potentially affordable self-driving cars.
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