DigiTimes today reported that TSMC is set to begin volume production for its 4nm process in the fourth quarter of 2021, rather than early 2022 as originally planned. The report also indicated that Apple has contracted initial production using this node for use in future versions of the custom silicon found in some of its Mac products.
TSMC announced in January that it planned to spend up to $28 billion in 2021 to increase production for its N5 and N7 processes while it started risk testing its N3 process. China Renaissance Securities then said in February that N5 capacity was at roughly 55,000~60,000 wafer starts per month (WSPM); that's expected to double this year.
N5 doesn't necessarily refer to a single process—it actually covers the N5, N5P, and N4 processes. The first two are 5nm processes and the last is the upcoming 4nm process. It gets bundled with its predecessors because it's expected to have a smaller impact than the 3nm process (N3) expected to debut in late 2022.
It seems the increased capital expenditure for 2021 is pushing N4 along faster than TSMC expected. The company said in August 2020 (opens in new tab) that its 4nm process was supposed to enter risk production in 4Q21 and volume production in 2022. According to DigiTimes sources, however, volume production should begin this year.
The first Apple chips based on that 4nm process shouldn't be too far behind. Apple is TSMC's largest customer by far, and its shift to custom silicon in the Mac lineup is expected to make it an even bigger part of TSMC's business. So it's no surprise that Apple has, per DigiTimes, already contracted initial production for the 4nm process.
DigiTimes reported that TSMC will begin production of the N5P-based A15 chip, which is expected to debut in the iPhone 13 later this year, sometime in May. An upgraded version of that SoC will likely be added to future iPad models later, but Apple is said to be jumping straight to N4 for the next SoC designed for Mac.
This accelerated timeline could allow Apple to switch every Mac over to its custom silicon earlier than anticipated. The company said in November 2020 that it wanted to have its own SoCs across the Mac lineup by 2022. TSMC's ability to begin volume production of the N4 process should make it that much easier to beat that goal.
In somewhat related news, Intel today released the latest CPUs based on its 14nm process, with plans to introduce the first desktop 10nm processors later this year and 7nm CPUs following in 2023. That should give it plenty of time to put out a commercial claiming that, when it comes to process nodes, bigger is better. Right?