Huawei’s Kirin 990 SoC Is the First Chip With an Integrated 5G Modem


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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.

Kirin-990-Comparison

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 AndroidSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce 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.

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Verizon Admits Your 5G Service Might Be More Like ‘Good 4G’


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All the major US carriers are deploying 5G of some sort right now, and you can expect to be bombarded with ads touting 5G soon. Verizon was the first to roll out a 5G network with phones for consumers, and now it’s admitting that the 5G many people get won’t change the world. According to Verizon Consumer Group CEO Ronan Dunne, 5G networks in rural areas won’t feel much different than 4G LTE. 

Verizon and AT&T started their 5G deployments with millimeter wave spectrum. That’s what all the early tests of 5G networks used, which is how phones like the Galaxy S10 5G can reach incredible multi-gigabit speeds. T-Mobile has also started a millimeter-wave rollout, but it has heavily criticized Verizon for its focus on that spectrum. Without lower band frequencies, T-Mobile executives claim, 5G is not a viable technology. 

Verizon does plan to use some lower-frequency 5G, but it’s downplaying the importance. Millimeter-wave networks in dense urban areas make 5G feel substantially different than 4G. These signals (20GHz and higher) don’t propagate far, but they pack in a lot of data. On the other hand, frequencies in the lower bands (1GHz and below) travel a long way and through obstacles. Devices will only get a few hundred megabits from low-band signals at most, which is within the realm of what you can do with 4G. 

Verizon’s early 5G efforts include home internet service.

5G is fast right now because no one is using it. As more devices connect, the average speed per user will drop. 5G should resist congestion better than 4G, but there will still be an impact, and Verizon says millimeter wave will handle it better. This part of the spectrum is also less congested, so carriers have larger blocks of frequencies allocated. While Verizon has about 1,000 MHz of millimeter wave spectrum, most rural communities will be making do with a tenth as much in the low-bands. 

So, maybe you don’t need to be getting your hopes up for 5G service. It’ll either be very fast and hard to find or barely faster than LTE. Carriers are very excited, though. Verizon’s Dunne talks excitedly about the possibility of creating different 5G “experiences” like a gamer plan or a day trader plan. The carrier will no doubt charge more money for more valuable services, and 5G allows more devices to share the network. Exciting, right?

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The Galaxy Note 10+ 5G May Have Very Limited 5G Band Support in the US


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Samsung has announced the Galaxy Note 10 and 10+ after many months of speculation, and this launch marks a new approach to 5G. With the Galaxy S10 launch, there was a completely different piece of hardware for 5G, but the Note 10 and 10+ both come in 5G variants. However, the band support is shaping up to be a complete mess with some carriers supporting one type of 5G and others using frequencies that barely exist on their networks. 

According to PCMag, Samsung is still scrambling to put the finishing touches on the 5G modems it will use in the Note 10. Verizon gets first dibs on the Galaxy Note 10+ 5G (the smaller Note 10 5G is exclusive to South Korea for now). It will have the same Qualcomm X50 5G modem we’ve seen in devices like the Galaxy S10 5G and 5G Moto Mod. It will run on millimeter wave 5G in eight cities just like previous 5G phones. We don’t know yet if it will overheat when the outside ambient temperature exceeds ~85F / 29C. The currently-available solutions, which do overheat, are also based on the Qualcomm X50. 

Verizon’s millimeter wave 5G network is very fast with speeds over 1Gbps. However, coverage is extremely limited because of the high frequencies involved (28 and 39GHz). It’s similar for the early millimeter wave networks operated by AT&T and T-Mobile. Those carriers are hoping to fill in the gaps with low-frequency 5G similar to LTE, but speeds will top out around 100Mbps. 

PCMag reports that T-Mobile and AT&T will have versions of the Note 10+ 5G that only operate on these lower frequencies via the new X55 5G modem — they plan to start rolling out low-band 5G late this year. The X50 lacks support for low-frequency, but it sounds like the X55 can’t do both low-band and millimeter wave at the same time. 

A 5G millimeter wave cell site in Minneapolis on a light pole.

Sprint is in a good place with 5G, which is why T-Mobile is acquiring the carrier. Its mid-band 5G (2.5GHz) is faster than low-band, but has much better coverage than millimeter wave. Sprint will have a Galaxy Note 10+ 5G later this year as well, but it will have to choose whether it wants low-band and mid-band (the X55) or millimeter wave and mid-band (the X50). 

Qualcomm has been pushing the X55 has a modem that can do both low and high-band 5G, but Samsung hasn’t been able to make that work yet. Perhaps it’s something to do with the antenna setup? There are a lot of unknowns, and the 5G situation may change by later this year when carriers get the Note 10+ 5G. 

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Apple Acquires Intel’s 5G Modem Business for $1 Billion


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As expected, Apple has acquired Intel’s modem business. The purchase is a definite win for Apple and for Intel as well, we suppose, inasmuch as the company has gotten rid of a business unit that never seemed to deliver the kind of improvements or capabilities it wanted. The deal, which covers the “majority” of Intel’s smartphone business, does not entirely block Chipzilla from developing its own products. Intel is allowed to develop modems for PCs,SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce IoT devices, autonomous vehicles, and other products — basically, everything that isn’t a smartphone. There’s probably some leeway around tablets or convertibles related to size, OS, or the like as well.

Approximately 2,200 Intel employees will now move to Apple, along with IP, equipment, and leases. The deal is expected to close in Q4 2019.

“This agreement enables us to focus on developing technology for the 5G network while retaining critical intellectual property and modem technology that our team has created,” said Intel CEO Bob Swan. “We have long respected Apple and we’re confident they provide the right environment for this talented team and these important assets moving forward. We’re looking forward to putting our full effort into 5G where it most closely aligns with the needs of our global customer base, including network operators, telecommunications equipment manufacturers and cloud service providers.”

Translation: “Get us the hell out of this market.”

5g-spectrum

5G is being deployed in two distinct sets of spectrum, with very different characteristics.

Selling off its old Infineon modem business is a relief for Intel. The company bought the business unit almost a decade ago, but it’s reportedly been losing a billion dollars a year, and its efforts in both LTE and 5G did not take off. It isn’t clear how Qualcomm’s anti-trust behavior impacted Intel’s modem business. On the one hand, Qualcomm has been found guilty of exploiting some of the same monopolistic tactics Intel was itself accused of exploiting against AMD back in the early 2000s. This may be part of why Intel’s smartphones struggled so hard to find a market. Even if this is true, however, Intel’s rumored failure to meet Apple’s required milestones for 5G modem development is an unrelated issue. Yet Apple just bought the same business unit, IP, and workers that had failed to hit their targets under Intel’s guidance — implying they think the problem can be solved.

One potential reason for this: There’s a longer roadmap to work with now. Apple wanted a 5G modem for the 2020 iPhone, which it can now secure via a new deal with Qualcomm. This gives them several years to bring up a new modem design of their own. That’s solid reasoning, but it’s also reasoning we’ve used before, with Intel directly. Once it became clear that LTE was a mature market, Intel was one of the first companies to start talking about its 5G plans. The reset from LTE to 5G was supposed to give them a leg up on overall product development that doesn’t seem to have happened.

Apple and Qualcomm have a six-year licensing agreement. We’d expect the company to have a modem of its own design ready before that deal expires.

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