Huawei alongside Samsung is one of the few smartphone manufacturers who don’t rely on Qualcomm for their chips. This of course gives them more control over their SoC design, but if the products turn out to be lackluster then this strategy backfires.
HiSilicon, Huawei’s silicon design division has been hard at work to alleviate the weaknesses of it’s previous chips, namely the Kirin 960 and 970, and yesterday at IFO that labor bore fruit. During the Huawei keynote, company CEO Richard Yu announced the new Kirin 980 SoC that is set to succeed the Kirin 970.
The Kirin 980 is the first 7nm SoC based on ARM’s Cortex 76 design which in a way is a repetition of history. The 950 was also the first chip to pack the Cortex A72 cores. The devices using the Kirin 950 were well position against Huawei’s competitors thanks to a strong showing both in terms of performance and battery consumption.
The 950’s predecessors were less successful mostly due to a dated 16nm manufacturing process and mediocre GPU performance. Where the Qualcomm and Samsung chips leveraged the latest A75 cores, the Kirin 970 was stuck with the older A73 design. This is Huawei and HiSilicon’s attempt at getting back to the top of the performance rug.
Kirin 980: CPU Cores and Specifications
With the Kirin 980, the Cortex A76 cores take care of the CPU performance while the Mali G76 handles the GPU responsibilities including gaming, rendering and multimedia. The Kirin 980 features the DynamIQ CPU cluster configuration comprising of 4 Cortex A76’s and 4 Cortex A55s.
Contrary to previous Kirin designs, the 980 adopts a new cluster design, where the same A76 cores are separated into two stacks as per the peak clocks and voltages and the A55 stack forms the third one. The highest performance A76 cores max out at 2.56 GHz. The second pair of A76 cores run at 1.92 GHz.
This should improve both battery efficiency as well as performance. The earlier SoC designs only included a high performance and a low TDP cluster. By including a medium performance cluster capable of running at a separate speed asynchronously maximizes the SoC efficiency in varied multi-threaded tasks.
Traditionally when a complex operation required a bunch of moderately performing threads, depending on the CPU governor, the task was either assigned to high performance cores, needlessly increasing power consumption or relegated to the low performing A5x cores essentially limiting the CPU. The Kirin 980 with it’s medium performance cluster should address these issues which are often seen in most real world applications.
Lastly, the worker cores, aka, the A55 cores run at 1.8 GHz and should take care of most mundane tasks and save a lot of power in the process.
Moving to the CPU cache, the Kirin 980 boasts a whole 4 MB of L3 cache, double the amount found in the Snapdragon 845. Furthermore, each core gets its own L2 cache. Individually, all the Cortex A76 cores have their recommended 512KB L2 cache while the A55s employ 128KB caches.
When it comes to raw CPU performance, the Kirin 980 is promising a 75% faster chip than it’s predecessor. Compared to the SD 845, expect 25-35% better computing performance. As for efficiency, this is where the eyebrows go up, Huawei says the 980 will be 32% and 58% more efficient than the SD 845 and Kirin 970, respectively.
Now, while the 32% faster compared to the 845 part is more easily believable, the latter is a bit too stretched in my opinion. Looking at the older chips, the TDP didn’t reduce by anyway near that figure. So till some third party benchmarks show up, take it as a marketing number.
Another important aspect of the Kirin 980 is a new type of CPU scheduling called Flex-scheduling. This has been developed to work in tandem with the new tri-cluster CPU config. In the end, how efficient the SoC is in day-to-day tasks will eventually be determined by it’s CPU scheduler.
The Mali G76MP10 GPU
The Kirin 980 is also the first SoC to employ ARM’s new Mali G76 GPU. The G76 in practice doubles down on resources compared to it’s predecessor. With twice as many texture units, render units, and arithmetic pipelines, a G76 core is essentially equivalent to two G72 cores. On paper, it shows a 66% increase in raw GPU resources compared to the G72. The Kirin 980 runs the new GPU at 720MHz and promises a 46% performance boost.
As for power consumption, Huawei proclaims a 178% boost in efficiency, but just like all their marketing campaigns take it with a grain a salt as it is highly unlikely in real world applications.
New Memory Controller
With the 980, Huawei and HiSilicon’s are going for the “everything is spanking new” rule. In another first, the Kirin 980’s memory controller is the first in the industry to be able to run at 2133 Mhz, a 13% boost in bandwidth.
In the GeekBench 4 tests, the Kirin 980 measures 138ns. Comparatively, the Snapdragon 845 comes in with a latency of 176ns. However, this can’t be really called an improvement as the Kirin 970 had a latency of 138ns as well.
However, the 970’s memory controller maximized the power draw at higher frequencies. Hopefully that issue has been alleviated here. Looking at the bandwidth, it peaks at 23.1GB/s versus 19.2GB/s for the Snapdragon 845.
ISP, Modem and WiFi
HiSilicon is promising a 46% increase in camera processing speed and a 23% more efficient recording capability. Two features that are already present in current flagship devices are also introduced- a 10-bit pipeline for HDR capture and multi-pass noise reduction for sharper noise-free images.
A new video encoding pipeline with a 33% shorter delay has also been integrated. However, there is one major letdown- the video encoder is still 4K30 which is a kind unfortunate for an upcoming flagship SoC, considering that most competitor chips already support it.
The Kirin 980 packs a new modem that increases download speeds by up to 1400Mpbs. This is achieved by up to 3x carrier aggregation in combination of 4×4 MIMO, all the while supporting 2×2 MIMO and new 256-QAM in the upload link (Category 18), and achieving 200Mbps upload speeds.
The reveal of the new Hi1103 WiFi chipset is another whopper. The new WiFi chip supports 802.11ac with up to 1732Mbps speeds and 2×2 MIMO of up to 160MHz wide channels. Only time will tell how HiSilicon’s WiFi chipset stacks up against Broadcom’s leading offerings. Nevertheless, it is an encouraging step for Huawei, as it further reduces outside dependency.
(Another) New 2x Dual NPU
The Kirin 980 takes Huawei’s AI expertise a step further with a new dual NPU. Just like the GPU, the NPU also gets a massive resource boost of 2x. The new NPU is 2.2x faster than it’s predecessor, boasting up to 4500 inferences/min, or 75 fps in Huawei’s test. A very noticeable delta can be seen between the SD 845’s and the Kirin 980’s NPU performance in the test.
Conclusion: Many Firsts For The First 7nm ARM SoC
With the Kirin 980, Huawei and HiSilicon find themselves in a very favorable position. The SoC mitigates most of the drawbacks of the older Kirin chips while also gaining solid leads over competitors, all the while achieving those “First SoC To” milestones.
This was all achieved while increasing the transistor count to an insane 6.9bn, 25% more than the Kirin 970 (5.5bn).