A report from Nikkei Asia (opens in new tab) says that Apple will debut a new cutting-edge way of making processors in an iPad model releasing in late 2022, and this has been reported as being likely for an iPad Pro (for example, here at MacRumors (opens in new tab), and here at 9to5Mac (opens in new tab)). However, the original Nikkei report does not mention the iPad Pro specifically at all, and the idea that it would be the Pro doesn't fit for me.
The story revolves around the use of a 3nm fabrication process for the processors. All chips are created with a certain fabrication process, and these are often identified by a size measurement: 3nm means '3 nanometres'. More advanced ways of building chips feature smaller sizes – the current Apple A14 chip that debuted in 2020 is built on a 7nm process. The iPhone 13 is expected to use a 5nm process here in 2021.
The advantages of building chips on smaller processes are that a) they're more efficient and so tend to run faster even without any design changes; b) they also use less power, because they're more efficient; and c) they're physically smaller, which means you can actually add features or complexity to them and take up the same amount of space as a chip made on a larger process.
So, the Nikkei report says that 3nm chip fabrication won't be ready in time for the 2022 iPhone 14, but instead will debut in another product coming late that year, which its sources say will be an iPad.
The iPad Pro might seem like a natural fit, because it's the most advanced in the iPad line-up, so it should get the new advanced chip right? Well, there's a reason this doesn't make sense to me: the M1 chip.
The M1 chip powers the current iPad Pro (2021), having previously debuted in the MacBook Air (M1, 2020) and MacBook Pro 13-inch (M1, 2020). And now that Apple has put the M-chips into the iPad Pro, I don't think it will be going back – the next version of the Pro will surely run the M2 chip that Apple is expected to unveil either later in 2021 or early in 2022.
With the M2 chip likely arriving long before the 3nm process is ready, it doesn't make sense for the iPad Pro to include a 3nm chip. Apple likes to make full use of economies of scale, putting the same chips in as many places as possible – not only is this cheaper than creating lots of different chips for every device, it's also much easier to produce a lot of them in a given time, which Apple needs to do, because it sells a lot of products. I think the iPad Pro will use exactly the same M1 chip that you find in the next MacBook Air, and that will probably be a 5nm process.
So what does that leave us with? The most likely candidates are the iPad Air and iPad mini if Nikkei's sources are accurate, though to me the timing of the whole thing feels off.
The current iPad Air (2020) uses the same A14 processor as the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, and I would expect Apple to want to do the same thing again – as I said, it's good for business, and it's good for reliability.
It's certainly possible that Apple could use the iPad Air to debut a 3nm version of the A15 chip, or it could even produce a tweaked A15X, like it used to do for its iPads. But it doesn't pass the smell test for me – both approaches feel like unnecessary hassle, and that's not how Apple tends to do things.
The idea of a special 3nm version of the chip going into a 2022 iPad mini makes a bit more sense, because at least the small size of the iPad mini directly benefits from having a smaller and more efficient processor… but then, if the regular A15 is good enough for the even-smaller iPhone 13, then really it's good enough for the iPad mini. So again, why bother doing this?
My guess is that we won't actually see a 3nm processor from Apple in 2022, at least based on current prediction of the timeline involved. We'll get 5nm processors in 2021, 4nm in 2022, and that leaves Apple plenty of time to get 3nm absolutely nailed for its 2023 launches, rather than rushing something out at the end of 2022 just because it can.