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In recent years it’s become hard to fathom how powerful the A-series chips Apple uses in its iPhones have really gotten, but it’s clear that the company isn’t standing still as it gets its next-generation chip ready to go — and it’s even ahead of schedule this year.
We’re talking, of course, about Apple’s ‘A15’ chip that’s going to power this year’s “iPhone 13” (or whatever Apple actually plans to call it). While it’s not clear yet exactly how much more the A15 will bring to this year’s iPhone, if the past few years are any indication, we can expect it to be another big leap forward.
According to a new report from DigiTimes shared by MacRumors, Apple’s chip manufacturing partner, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) is already preparing to begin mass shipments of the new A15 chip by the end of May. This is earlier than usual and bodes well for reports that this year’s iPhone will be coming on time in September once again.
For comparison, last year TSMC didn’t begin mass production until the end of May, which would have had shipments not starting until June. However, the 2019 A13 chip was on a similar schedule, which suggests that delays in iPhone 12 production last year were likely held up by other components.
As for the A15 itself, it doesn’t look like Apple is going with any revolutionary new processes this year. Instead, the A15 is expected to use the same 5nm process that Apple and TSMC pioneered last year for the A14 chip, which was enough to push the chip into the same performance realm as a MacBook Pro — at least an Intel MacBook Pro, that is.
In fact, it’s Apple’s new M1 chip, which made its debut in last fall’s MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini, that’s probably given us the best example of how insanely powerful Apple’s own silicon truly is. After all, while Apple’s 2018-era A12 Bionic was already in the same class as the best desktop CPUs, and left competing Android smartphones in the dust, it was still hard to truly appreciate what that meant until we actually had an Apples to Apples comparison (pun intended) that saw it entirely demolishing Intel.
What’s All This Power For?
What’s interesting about these quantum leaps that Apple has been making in chip manufacturing technology is that we’ve long moved past the point of diminishing returns — at least from the perspective of delivering a faster user experience.
It was actually sometime around the 2016 iPhone 7 era that we first reached peak user-facing performance with Apple’s A10 chip. Despite this, however, Apple has continued to build faster and faster chips. By doing so, it’s been ushering in a new era where it’s no longer about how fast the iPhone loads apps, but how many much more powerful things it can accomplish in the background — without the user even realizing what’s going on under the hood.
We saw the first glimmer of this with the A10 chip, which had enough extra processing power that Apple was able to introduce its first major computational photography feature — Portrait Mode — on the iPhone 7 Plus. This was also the year that the Photos app first gained the ability to perform facial recognition and object recognition entirely on the iPhone, rather than in the cloud computing farms used by other services like Google Photos. This allowed Apple to provide an unprecedented level of privacy.
Following that, Apple went all-in on machine learning, to the point of adding a dedicated “Neural Engine” to each of its A-series chips, which had led to a wealth of other really exciting features like single-lens Portrait Mode, Night Mode, ProRAW, and native Dolby Vision HDR recording.
These last two features, which are exclusive to the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, are obviously a result of the extra power offered by Apple’s A14 chip and its 5nm process that’s allowed it to cram nearly 12 billion transistors into a space the size of a fingernail.
In fact, to give you an idea of just how big of a deal this is, the iPhone 12 is the first camera in the world to natively record in Dolby Vision HDR. Not just the first smartphone, but the first camera of any kind. It’s something that even professional studio cameras can’t do, and it comes as a direct result of the mind-blowing amount of computational power packed into the A14 chip.
With that in mind, it’s amazing to even think of what kind of features and capabilities Apple’s A15 chip is going to bring to this year’s iPhone. We can’t even begin to imagine the possibilities, but it’s a safe bet we can expect even greater things.