iPhone 12 — just another smartphone or computing milestone?

The technology behind the A14 Bionic chip is instrumental to the evolution of the mobile technology market.
14 October 2020

Apple’s vice president of Platform Architecture Tim Millet debuts the new A14 Bionic chip of the all-new iPad Air during a special event at Apple Park in Cupertino. Source: AFP

  • Apple’s release of the iPhone 12 line marks the first use of its A14 Bionic Chip, which adopts 5-nanometer transistor tech
  • The tiny chips are produced exclusively by a Dutch company called ASML, which has innovated a complex means of production
  • With significant speed enhancements and power efficiencies, manufacturers will be racing to catch up

The launch of Apple’s new iPhone 12 line marks the first handsets in the world to be powered by the A14 Bionic. The “smartest ever smartphone chip” is, according to the Californian tech giant, “prepared to power pretty much anything that comes next.”

These chips are very small

The chip’s transistors have been shrunken as part of a ‘five-nanometer (5nm) process’. That 5nm is equivalent to one billionth of a meter. The tiny on-off switches (transistors) that control chip operations are now only about 25 atoms wide. You could lay around 171 million of them out over a single square millimeter — so, inconceivably small.

Because of this, billions more such transistors can now be packed in to operate at the same level of power consumption, and each Apple A14 chip boasts around 11.8 billion.

With this innovation comes the capability for users to capture and edit 4K video on-device, display staggeringly hi-res photos, and multi-task to their heart’s content (think, flicking from numerous messaging apps to playing graphically-intensive video games in ultra-quick speed).

The realization of the A14 Bionic leans largely on the ingenuity of Dutch company ASML, which has pioneered a way to create intricate chips at scale using extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography. Its machines are astronomically expensive, but it’s the only company making them. And with a low defect rate, they’re a good bet for firms as major as Apple.

Dr. Ian Cutress, tech reporter for Anandtech, compared ASML’s feat as “akin to hitting a stamp on the surface of Mars with a paper aeroplane.”

The complexity of the chip’s creation is almost mythical, too, with molten tin droplets targeted by high-power industrial lasers to create a plasma that shines UV light that, in turn (take a breath) allows for a blueprint of the chip’s design to be encoded. All at around 50,000 times a second. It’s highly specialist, and it’s instrumental to the evolution of the mobile technology market.

What is 5nm tech capable of?

5-nanometer technology means even more brainpower, more ‘machine intelligence’, and all-round quicker performance on the device it’s slotted into. As chips advance, more tasks that used to be sent to remote computer servers for processing can be done locally, so any minor lags are prone to fall by the wayside. In a world of instant gratification, technology is responding.

With 5nm tech – and the A14 Bionic in this instance – ‘artificial intelligence’ jobs become possible, potentially helping smartphones make better sense of the world around them. These smaller transistors use the same energy to deliver a speed boost of around 15% when set against the last 7nm generation. Apple claims its A14 chip can carry out machine learning tasks “up to 10 times faster” than the A13. Other such claims include:

  • Their new 5nm chip is 50% faster than any other smartphone chip in CPU and GPU performance
  • It’s 20-27% faster in CPU performance
  • It offers 72% faster graphics performance than last year’s A13 Bionic.

Beyond mobile, such machine learning speed boosts and processing enhancements marks an exciting time for numerous technology markets, from self-driving vehicles (the Lidar technology frequently used here is also present in the iPhone 12 range’s cameras) to AR and smart-glasses.

The 5nm game — who are the other players?

The new Apple devices are expected to kick off the mass adoption of both 5G and 5nm chip technologies.

Samsung is currently the only other firm making a new 5nm, ‘Qualcomm’ processor, with Android phones sporting the tech set to be formally unveiled in December. The US government blocked an attempted stakeholding/importation attempt by China’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), claiming its output might be exploited by the Chinese military. Huawei has also been rendered unable to get their own 5nm chip designs manufactured, with the Trump administration halting that, too.

For the time being, Apple’s relative monopoly will please customers of the iPhone 12, and bring the world the fastest smartphones ever.