What we might expect from Apple’s A13 chip

We’re still a long way away from hearing anything official about Apple’s next system-on-a-chip. The A13 is likely to be unveiled in September, along with the new iPhones it will power. But the design, manufacture, and testing of these chips takes years, far too long for Apple to suddenly make radical changes. The A13 design is likely, for all intents and purposes, set in stone by now.

By looking at past A-series chips and extrapolating from what we know of the manufacturing process Apple will use this year, we can get a reasonable picture about what to expect from the A13 chip. It will almost certainly be the fastest SoC Apple has ever developed for iPhones, but exactly how fast can we expect?

Updated 08/19/19: Added details throughout based on further information about TSMC’s process roadmap and the latest rumors about the upcoming iPhones.

Built with an improved 7nm process

For the A13, we can expect Apple to stick with its manufacturing partner TSMC, which has a firm lead in chip manufacturing technology. But TSMC is not yet ready to make another leap to a new chip process node, as it did in jumping from 10nm to 7nm last year. That jump, to 5nm, will probably be ready in time for the 2020 iPhone, but this year’s model will still be built with a 7nm process.

That doesn’t mean we can’t expect any improvements on the manufacturing side. TSMC has two improved 7nm process nodes that Apple could employ. The base 7nm process used for the A12 chip is called N7. TSMC is now ready for its first customers using the N7+ process, which uses EUV (Extreme Ultraviolet) lithography for some of the chip layers. The company claims this will allow chips with better density (about 20 percent more logic in the same area) and power efficiency (about 10 percent better).

TSMC also has a “performance enhanced” 7nm node called N7P. It doesn’t use EUV at all, and is simply a tweaked and optimized version of the process 7nm process used in the A12. TSMC says it will allow for either 10% lower power at the same performance, or 7% higher performance at the same power.

TSMC

TSMC’s second-generation 7nm process is a bit more efficient, but the 7nm+ process is significantly better.

So N7+ is the superior TSMC manufacturing process, and Apple usually uses the best possible volume production for its chips. We think the N7+ node is likely to be what Apple uses for the A13.

Probably a larger processor

The A12 increased Apple’s transistor count to a surprising 6.9 billion, a 60% increase over the A11’s 4.3 billion. But the die area was around 83mm²—smaller than the A11 (about 88mm²) and far from the largest chip Apple’s ever put in an iPhone. In fact, it’s the smallest iPhone processor, in terms of area, in nine years. Past Apple SoCs were much larger, and the A5 and A10 were each over 120mm².