What is a nanometer and what does that mean for us?

A12z Bionic chip
A12z Bionic chip (Image credit: Apple)

Each Apple device includes a chip, such as the A13 Bionic found on the iPhone 11 series and the A12Z Bionic on this year's iPad Pro models. Each chip consists of a nanometer configuration, although this isn't usually advertised, at least to the everyday device buyer. What are nanometers? It's time to find out!

About Nanometers

Machine CPUs use billions of tiny transistors that perform calculations. The smaller the transistor, the less power that's involved. Looked another way, smaller electronics are more power-efficient, which means they can do more calculations using less energy.

For many years, Moore's Law successfully showed that the number of transistors on a chip doubled every two years just as the costs were halved. In recent years, transistor sizes are no longer following this schedule, although they are still shrinking.

For example, in 1987, leading semiconductor companies manufactured 800nm chips. By 2001, that number had dropped significantly to 130nm. Today, you'll most likely hear about 7nm and 10nm chips. The former typically refers to TSMC's process, while the latter defines Intel's newest fabrication process. Within two years, we could see our first 3nm chip.

Why it matters

Without getting stuck in the weeds, understand that smaller transistors are more power-efficient, which means they can do more calculations using less energy. Because this leads to smaller die sizes, they are also less expensive to produce and can lead to more cores per chip.

Better performance isn't the only benefit of smaller transistors. Longer battery life is also expected, and speed increases significantly from generation to generation.

What about iPhones?

Apple-designed processors for iPhones have naturally improved significantly over the years as the size of the transistors on chips has shrunk. The first iPhone (2007) and iPhone 3G, for example, used a 90nm fabrication process by Samsung. By 2009 and the iPhone 3GS, Samsung was using a 65nm fabrication process.

Here's a breakdown of the chips used on every primary iPhone since 2010:

2010, iPhone 4, A4, 45nm (Samsung)

  • This was the first system-on-chip (SoC) integrated chip used by Apple on a mobile device.

2011, iPhone 4S, A5, 45nm (Samsung)

  • Cupertino noted the A5 did twice the work as the A4 and offered nine times the graphics performance.

2012, iPhone 5, 5C, A6, 32nm (Samsung)

  • Twice as fast as it's predecessor with twice the graphics power.

2013, iPhone 5S, A7, 28nm (Samsung)

  • Again, Apple said this chip was twice as fast and had up to twice the graphics power compared to the Apple A6.

2014, iPhone 6, A8, 20nm (TSMC)

  • The first chip that didn't come from Samsung, the A8, offered 25% more CPU performance and 50% more graphics performance than the previous model. It also draws 50% less power.

2015, iPhone 6s, A9, 14nm (Samsung), 16nm (TSMC)

  • Dually produced, the Apple A9 processor offered 70% more CPU performance and 90% more graphics performance.

2016, iPhone 7, A10 Fusion, 16nm (TSMC)

Apple said the chip offered 50% more graphics performance on this one.

2017, iPhone X, 8, A11 Bionic, 10nm (TSMC)

  • Twenty-five (25%) percent faster than the A10 Fusion, and 30% faster graphics.

2018, iPhone XS, XR, A12 Bionic, 7nm (TSMC)

Here, you'll find a 35% faster single-core and 90% faster multi-core CPU performance than its predecessor.

2019, iPhone 11, A13 Bionic, 7nm (TSMC)

  • Apple says the two high-performance cores are 20% faster with a 30% reduction in power consumption, and the four high-efficiency cores are 20% faster with a 40% reduction in power when compared to the A12.

iPad tweaks

Over the years, Apple has slightly tweaked existing chipsets for iPad use. For example, the 2020 iPad Pro includes an Apple A12Z Bionic chip. Before this, iPad chips were largely denoted by an "x" after the name. In all cases, the nanometer process remained the same, as you can see here:

2012, A5X, iPad 3, 45nm

  • Offered twice the graphics performance of the A5.

2012, A6X, iPad 4, 32nm

  • Provided twice the CPU performances and up to twice the graphics performance of the A5X.

2014, A8X, iPad Air 2, 20nm

  • Featured 40% more CPU performance and 2.5 times the graphics performance as the A7.

2015, A9X, iPad Pro, 16nm

  • Offered 80% more CPU performance and two times the GPU performance of its predecessor, the A8X.

2017, A10X Fusion, 10.5-inch iPad Pro, second-generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro, 10nm

  • The chip provided 30% faster CPU performance and 40% faster GPU performance compared to the A9X.

2018, A12X Bionic, 11-inch iPad Pro, third-generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro, 7nm

  • Featured 35% faster single-core and 90% faster multi-core CPU performance than its predecessor, the A10X.

2020, A12Z Bionic, second-generation 11-inch iPad, fourth-generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro, 7nm

  • The Apple A12Z Bionic processor is the same as its predecessor, the A12X chip, but with an extra GPU core enabled.

Looking Ahead

The 2020 iPhone 12 lineup is almost certainly going to contain an Apple A14 chip. Rumors suggest the chip will include TSMC's latest 5nm process. By as early as 2022, we should see the world's first 3nm in commercial devices. From there, it won't be long before we drop below the 1nm mark.

The bottom line: History tells us the smaller the nanometer fabrication process, the better the speed, performance, and battery life, and lower the price. Look for this trend to continue in the coming years.

Bryan M Wolfe
Staff Writer

Bryan M. Wolfe has written about technology for over a decade on various websites, including TechRadar, AppAdvice, and many more. Before this, he worked in the technology field across different industries, including healthcare and education. He’s currently iMore’s lead on all things Mac and macOS, although he also loves covering iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. Bryan enjoys watching his favorite sports teams, traveling, and driving around his teenage daughter to her latest stage show, audition, or school event in his spare time. He also keeps busy walking his black and white cocker spaniel, Izzy, and trying new coffees and liquid grapes.