At IFA today, Huawei announced its newest system-on-a-chip, the Kirin 980, which boasts a number of world firsts. It’s the first 7nm mobile processor, the first one built around ARM’s Cortex-A76 CPU and Mali-G76 GPU, the first with a Cat.21 smartphone modem supporting speeds up to 1.4Gbps, and the first chip to support 2,133MHz LPDDR4X RAM. The Kirin 980 has 6.9 billion transistors, but I’ve seen it for myself and it’s no larger than a thumbnail.
The road to today’s announcement started three years ago for Huawei, with the company engaging more than 1,000 senior semiconductor design experts and churning through more than 5,000 engineering prototypes. The end result is roughly a 20 percent speed improvement and a 40 percent reduction in power consumption relative to Huawei’s previous generation.
But the product that Huawei really wants to compare the Kirin 980 against is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845, the chip that figures in practically every Android flagship phone not made by Huawei. It’s worth noting that the 845 has been out for many months now whereas Huawei’s 980 won’t be in any retail devices until next month at the earliest (Huawei let slip that it’s planning its Mate 20 announcement for October 16th). Still, the margin of improvement that Huawei is quoting over its major rival is impressive.
On the memory front, Huawei says the Kirin 980 has 20 percent better bandwidth and 22 percent lower latency than the Snapdragon 845. In practical terms, that means faster app launches across the full range of the world’s most popular apps. In gaming applications, the 980 has been shown to produce 22 percent higher frame rates than the 845, and its power consumption when gaming is said to be 32 percent lower.
Photography performance is another major upgrade for the Kirin chip, according to Huawei’s numbers. Using a new dual ISP (image signal processor), the Kirin 980 is 46 percent faster at camera processing than its predecessor, with a related 23 percent improvement in power efficiency while recording, and 33 percent improvement in latency.
Huawei has doubled down on its AI processing aspirations, adding a dual NPU (neural processor unit) to the Kirin 980, which performs AI-assisted image recognition tasks at a rate of 4,500 images per minute. By the same measure, the Snapdragon 845 reaches 2,371 and Apple’s A11, which enjoys performance leads in other categories, gets only 1,458. AI also aids the Kirin 980’s power efficiency, as Huawei says it’s using it to more accurately and intelligently predict load requirements, making it more responsive to the power needs of the user — both when the chip needs to power up more cores and when it’s done its task and can save energy by slowing down.
The architecture of the Kirin 980 has eight cores: two are for so-called turbo performance, two are for long-term performance, and the last and smallest four are used to maximize power efficiency when not much is going on.
The Kirin 980 will offer the world’s fastest smartphone Wi-Fi speed, clocking in at 1,732Mbps, which is substantially higher than the Snapdragon 845’s best of 866Mbps with a Qualcomm modem or 1083Mbps with a third-party modem. So, by all metrics that matter to an end user, the new Kirin chip is shaping up to be a winner.
Huawei, with the Mate 20, and its sub-brand Honor, with the Magic 2, are going to be putting the Kirin 980 into retail devices by the end of the year.