Huawei’s year has been anything but good, but the company has pushed ahead with new technology introductions and smartphone designs. The Chinese firm has now announced its latest SoC, the Kirin 990. The new chip will ship in two flavors — the Kirin 990, and the Kirin 990 5G. These two chips are based on the same SoC design, but there are some significant differences between them.
First, the Kirin 990 5G is built on TSMC’s 7nm+ process node, which utilizes EUV. The Kirin 990, in contrast, is a standard 7nm design. It seems as though Huawei will be the first customer to ship a part that uses EUV for manufacturing. Huawei’s stated reason for using EUV for the 5G variant is that it allowed for a smaller die. Die size on the 5G part is larger than 100mm2, while the LTE chip is less than 90mm2. Transistor counts are also significantly different, with the LTE chip at 8B and the 5G chip at 10.3B.
One interesting fact that Anandtech mentions is that the Kirin 990 was originally expected to use ARM’s Cortex-A77 CPU, not the Cortex-A76. Apparently the Huawei team didn’t like how the Cortex-A77 clocked on TSMC’s 7nm process node. The A77 had higher peak performance, but overall power efficiency between the A76 and A77 was practically identical on 7nm and the A76 design was capable of hitting much higher clocks. Supposedly the A77 tops out around 2.2GHz on 7nm at the moment and the design may not be used widely until 5nm CPUs are available.
The new ARM Mali-G76 implementation is substantially wider than the 10-core implementation used on the previous generation Kirin 980. GPU power efficiency can often be improved by using a wider GPU clocked at lower frequencies, and Huawei believes the new GPU design will still be more power-efficient than the old Kirin 980, despite being substantially wider.
The NPU design is a homegrown Huawei effort. Where the company previously licensed an NPU from Cambricon, the new Kirin 990 uses Huawei’s Da Vinci architecture. Huawei intends to scale this AI processing block from servers to smartphones. It supports both INT8 and FP16 on both cores, whereas the older Cambricon design could only perform INT8 on one core. There’s also a new ‘Tiny Core’ NPU. It’s a smaller version of the Da Vinci architecture focused on power efficiency above all else, and it can be used for polling or other applications where performance isn’t particularly time critical. The 990 5G will have two “big” NPU cores and a single Tiny Core, while the Kirin 990 (LTE) has one big core and one tiny core.
Huawei’s Balong modem will support sub-6GHz 5G signals with a maximum of 2.3Gbps download and 1.25Gbps upload. Overall CPU performance improvements from the Kirin 980 to the Kirin 990 are modest — Huawei claims single-threaded gains of 9 percent and multi-threaded boosts of 10 percent. Power efficiency, however, has improved significantly. The top-end cores are supposedly 12 percent more efficient, the “middle” cores of Huawei’s Big.Little.littlest are supposedly 35 percent more efficient, and the low-end Cortex-A55 chips are 15 percent more efficient. Most workloads are supposed to run on the middle cores for maximum performance/watt.
It seems unlikely that these devices will come to the US market in any numbers, though you may be able to buy them from third-party resellers if the Trump Administration doesn’t take further action against the company. While devices are going to start carrying 5G modems from this point forward, I’ve yet to see a 5G phone I’d actually recommend. While it’s true that the first generation of LTE devices didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory, the first generation of LTE devices didn’t overheat and shutdown when summer temperatures rose above 85F / 29.4C. They didn’t require you to be literally standing underneath an LTE access point in order to see faster service, either. Verizon has already stated that outside city centers, its 5G network will closely resemble “good 4G,” which raises the question of what, exactly, consumers are paying all this money for.
The first LTE devices were the HTC Evo 4G, the Samsung Craft, and the HTC Thunderbolt. They sold for $200, $350, and $250, respectively, though this was in the era of two-year contracts. Apple’s first LTE device was the iPhone 5, which cost $649 if purchased without a contract. Assuming Apple and the other Android manufacturers continue to offer 5G as a luxury feature, we’ll likely only see it on devices at or above the $1000 price point for the next 12 months. I wouldn’t pay $1000 for a phone under any circumstances, but I definitely wouldn’t step up to a $1000+ device to buy a feature that I’ve got no chance of using at any point in the next few years.