A Chinese-language Commercial Times report claims that TSMC will begin volume production for Apple’s (presumed) A14 SoC in Q2 2020, using its 5nm, EUV-enabled process. This is a major step forward for semiconductor manufacturing as a whole. While EUV technically debuted at TSMC and Samsung on 7nm, it’s only being used in a limited way for this node. 5nm is expected to see it introduced more widely.
The following graph from WikiChip shows the relationship between various TSMC nodes:
N5’s advantages are expected to be relatively modest, as far as increased performance or decreased power consumption, with 15 percent additional performance at the same power or a 30 percent reduction in power consumption with identical performance. Keep in mind, of course, that these are projections based on standardized metrics rather than a formal measure of the improvement to any specific SoC. Density is expected to improve substantially at 5nm, at least in theory, but increased transistor density is also the enemy of effective thermal dissipation at this point.
Put simply, 5G didn’t have a great 2019, and the handful of devices that sold with the capability were mostly extremely expensive alternatives to existing LTE products. This year, that’s expected to change, partly because Qualcomm is requiring OEMs to purchase a 5G modem if they want to use its highest-end Snapdragon 865. That means every device with a Snapdragon 865 is going to ship with 5G, regardless of whether you can actually use it in your geographic area. Apple isn’t going to miss shipping its own 5G iPhone this year; the company called off a lawsuit against Qualcomm and bought Intel’s 5G modem business because it wanted to both ship a 5G solution as soon as humanly possible and to reduce or eliminate its dependence on Qualcomm over the long term.
It’ll be very interesting to see if Android manufacturers manage to deliver a better 5G experience than Apple (or vice-versa). The difficulty of integrating new 5G modems and the associated heat and power consumption may make it harder for manufacturers to offer improvements in other areas, or spur them into finding those improvements, regardless of cost. Whether those prices would be passed on to consumers is another question. After several rounds of price increases, there’s evidence that consumers aren’t willing to tolerate them indefinitely. Apple’s iPhone XR has been the top-selling Apple device every full quarter since its introduction, and the launch of the iPhone 11 at a lower price point doesn’t seem to have changed that.
The implication here is that Apple buyers are more concerned about price than about the modest feature improvements the iPhone 11 offers over the XR. A great deal of marketing is being spent on 5G to convince people that the capability is worth investing in, but unless you live in very specific urban areas, that’s not going to be true even through 2020. Rollouts will continue, but the lower-spectrum 5G service that can actually propagate for any distance offers only a modest (10-20 percent) improvement over LTE performance. So-called “mmWave” 5G offers much higher performance but is currently only available at those speeds if you have line-of-sight on a transmitter and are standing outside.
In short, this is going to be a big year for SoCs, cell service, and Apple, for various reasons. The cell phone industry is much more mature than it was a decade ago, but the introduction of 5G is still going to make waves thanks to the marketing being dumped into that effort, if absolutely nothing else.
Top photo credit: Micron
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