Unveiling the iPhone 15 Pro Max and A17 Pro Processor – The Chronicles by Yole SystemPlus

As usual, the launch of the latest version of the iPhone has received a great deal of attention. The integration of Apple’s newest processor into the smartphone is an event in itself. The A17 processor is the first chip for consumer applications that is based on TSMC’s 3 nm FinFlexTM, the most advanced FinFET-based technology node on the market. Revealed by TSMC in June 2022, the 3 nm FinFlex benefits from the DTCO (Design-Technology Co-Optimization) approach, which the company claims to be at the heart of its latest technological advances. Further PPA (power, performance, and area scaling) is thus achieved by pulling together both design innovation and process capability. With Apple being its first customer, TSMC’s announcement has almost made Samsung’s new gate-all-along (GAA) 3 nm processor, launched a few months earlier, fall back into second place.

The latest generation iPhone with a new A series processor using the most advanced technology node – what more was needed for Yole SystemPlus to delve into the iPhone 15 Pro Max and the A17 Pro Processor?

Global iPhone 15 Pro Max architecture

Although Apple utilizes a fabless production model, the company designs the processors and has complete control over their integration into the device. The configuration of the iPhone 15 Pro Max is typical of Apple designs and is similar to previous smartphone generations. As always, the processor is integrated with a PMIC (power management integrated circuit) which is also developed by Apple. The smartphone includes other PMICs provided by STMicroelectronics and Dialogue. The main changes lie in the use of the most advanced versions of the components.

It is quite common that the US and international versions of the smartphone contain different processor types. As far as the iPhone 15 Pro Max is concerned, both versions embed the new A17 Pro processor. Of note, the standard iPhone 15 is still supplied with the previous processor generation (A16).

What’s new under the A processor sun?

There are no big surprises on the supply chain side. The design of the main processor remains Apple’s business, and the manufacture of the SoC die and assembly of the processor chip are once again delegated to TSMC. In the iPhone 15 Pro Max, the processor includes a memory chip provided by SK Hynix. However, Yole SystemPlus does not rule out the fact that Apple could have called upon Samsung or Micron for the DRAM (dynamic random-access memory) chip integrated into other A17 versions.

The packaging technique employed has remained the same for years. TSMC’s InFO-PoP (Integrated Fan-Out Package-on-Package) technique involves stacking the DRAM package on top of the SoC die and using high-density RDL (Redistribution Layers) as well as TIV (Through InFO Via) to minimize overall chip size and maintain good thermal and electrical performance. This technique has the advantage of being flexible as the DRAM package is interchangeable.

The view of the backside of the processor package after chemical removal of the copper RDLs reveals nine IPDs (Integrated Passive Devices) used as capacitors. They are also manufactured by TSMC. The presence of IPDs at this level is very specific to Apple’s designs. Yole SystemPlus assumes that they may offer the advantage of more functionalities and enable easier integration because of their thinner form factor. SMDs (surface-mount devices) are more commonly used in competitors’ models. In comparison, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 SoC die features nine MLCCs (multilayer ceramic capacitors).

In the spotlight of Yole SystemPlus’s Apple A17 SoC in iPhone 15 Pro report is the description of the 3 nm FinFlex, TSMC’s most advanced technology node based on a fin field-effect transistor (FinFET) with optimized manufacturing structure. Yole SystemPlus completes the picture by providing the floor plan of the SoC die with the identification of the main IP blocks.

About the author

Ying-Wu Liu is a Technology & Cost Analyst at Yole SystemPlus, part of Yole Group. Ying-Wu ’s core expertise is Integrated Circuit technologies. With solid expertise in the physical and electronic analysis of devices and experiences in wafer manufacturing and technical support with international clients, Ying’s mission is to develop reverse engineering & costing reports. She works closely with different laboratories to set up significant physical & chemical analyses of innovative IC chips. Based on the results, Ying identifies and analyzes the overall manufacturing process and all technical choices made by the IC makers to understand the structure of the device and point out the link between cost and technology. Prior to Yole SystemPlus, Ying worked as a Technical Support Manager at KEOLABS, where she developed her ability to cooperate with clients from diverse cultures. Ying holds a master’s in Theoretical Physics from the National Tsing Hua University (Taiwan) and a master’s in Integration, Security, and Trust in Embedded systems from the Grenoble INP, ESISAR (France).