Pushing the limits: The nanometer plateau and the future of phone chipsets

The silicon chips that power our phones and many other devices are, for the most part, the main driving force behind their evolution. Of course, there are other innovations that make up the typical user experience you get from a modern phone nowadays, such as its cameras or the display, but at the base sits a tiny powerhouse that makes all you do with your phone possible.So far, the best method to ramp up a chip’s processing power has been to increase the number of transistors packed inside of it, which inherently means making said transistors smaller. The first transistors were invented in the 1950s and were measured in millimeters. Nowadays, however, we have improved this process to such an extent that transistors are measured in nanometers. That’s why you sometimes hear phone manufacturers boast about their latest model having, for example, a chip made on the 4nm process (like the Galaxy S24 series) or even on the 3nm process (like with the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max).It is important to remember that it is not the chip itself that is being described when the nanometer measurement is mentioned, but the width of the transistors’ gates that make up said chip. The smaller the transistor gates are the more advanced, powerful, and power-efficient the chip is (check graphic for visual representation).

Major players in the chip industry and the road so far

There are currently three leading manufacturers in the chip industry and those are Intel (U.S.), TSMC (Taiwan), and Samsung (South Korea). There is also the Chinese company SMIC, but it is lagging behind the rest of the pack and is about two generations behind for the moment.

The three leading manufacturers mentioned above have all been pushing strongly to advance chips with the more significant leaps starting in the 2000s. Here’s a quick overview starting with 2013 up until now, the year we are in at the moment, and what to look forward to in the near future.

Top row has the year, with the corresponding transistor gate width measured in nanometers below. The empty spaces represent no newly released generation for that year.

“*” stands for “expected” as the information is yet to become official.

Now take a look at the transistor nanometers for each generation of Samsung’s Galaxy and Apple’s iPhone flagship phones throughout the last decade.

“*” stands for “expected” as the information is yet to become official.

You can probably tell for yourself that throughout the years, the nanometers have been steadily decreasing by about half of the previous generation’s size. In other words, the number of transistors included in a chip has been doubling, and a closer inspection reveals that it has consistently taken the industry roughly a couple of years to go to the next stage.

Moore’s Law: A misleading term

The consistently similar amount of time it takes manufacturers to jump from one generation to the next in a chip’s evolution is no coincidence. In fact, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore himself stated as early as 1965 that every eighteen months the number of transistors inside chips will double, which nowadays is known as Moore’s Law.This tendency in chip evolution has remained true for so long now, that it almost seems like we are talking about a natural law, one that doesn’t change no matter the circumstances. But the truth is different. Moore presented his thoughts on the subject as a mere observation and not a “law”. In fact, he did not foresee his prediction to continue any more than a single decade.

It is nothing short of impressive that Moore’s observation has continued to be true throughout all of these years, but there are physical limitations to how long this can continue.

Current transistors are made out of silicon, and a silicon atom is 0.2nm in size. In other words, even if we do manage to continue shrinking transistors, we cannot make them any smaller than that.

Visual aid for nanometer measurement

Before we continue talking about nanometer this and nanometer that, it is probably best if we first understand how big a nanometer actually is. Now, just like it is difficult for a human brain to grasp the size of the universe, so it is to understand the size of one nanometer, but the following examples should put things into perspective (and will likely blow your mind).

Are we nearing the end of chipset evolution?

So the natural question to ask ourselves is whether chip innovation will come to a halt, or if there are other avenues the chip industry can turn to. Well, thankfully, there’s always a way to grow and make a product better. Here are a few glimpses into the future of computing.

Advanced chip packaging

Advanced chip packaging refers to stacking multiple chips onto wafers, which can help achieve levels of performance said to be comparable to chips made on the 5 or even the 3nm process.

This method is also less expensive, as it does not require the same amount of precision and delicate equipment necessary for shrinking transistors.

Popular companies such as Intel and Nvidia have already implemented this method into their latest chipsets.

Making transistors out of a different element

So, as we have already established, transistors are made out of silicon. There’s a reason we have the so-called Silicon Valley in California. But as we stated earlier, silicon can only take us so far before we reach its limitations.One example is gallium. Now, gallium’s atomic radius is not smaller than that of silicon so you cannot fit more transistors made out of it. Gallium Nitride, however, produces less heat, which means there is less cooling required to keep them at maximum performance.

This is just one example though. There are other materials manufacturers can experiment with to achieve better results from a chip.

Quantum computing

Another road we can take to continue increasing our technological horsepower is quantum computing. Quantum computers have the potential to help us delve into completely new territories, but the chances that they will power our phones anytime in the future are extremely slim as they require extreme cooling (15 millikelvin to be exact, which is colder than outer space), which in itself requires very complex and large components.So, in other words, quantum computing is an option, just not one that would affect mobile tech in a meaningful way. At least not for the foreseeable future.

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