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Huawei Kirin 980 preview: Everything you need to know about Huawei’s latest smartphone chip

Huawei unveils its latest flagship smartphone chip – the Kirin 980 looks an absolute beast

Huawei’s smartphone chip division has been slowly but surely catching up with Qualcomm in recent years. So far, however, it’s lagged behind all-out graphics speed and power efficiency. This year might just be different, if the specifications of its latest smartphone processor – the Kirin 980 – are anything to go by.

It’s an octa-core chip running at clock speeds of up to 2.6GHz, making it the fastest, most power-efficient processor the company has ever produced. The best news is that fans won’t have long to wait to get their grubby mitts on one. The Kirin 980 is likely to find its way into the firm’s flagship phones as early as October 2018 with the launch of the rumoured Huawei Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro.

But why exactly is the Kirin 980 so interesting? I’ve put together a quick list of the chip’s six most exciting features to get your pulse flowing.

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1. The Kirin 980 is the world’s first 7nm smartphone chip

Huawei is claiming a lot of firsts for the Kirin 980 but the biggest and most important is that it’s the first full SoC (system on chip) to be manufactured on a 7nm manufacturing process. Essentially, this means Huawei can squeeze more components in, which should lead to better performance.

In fact, Huawei is claiming a 20% speed improvement over the Kirin 970, and faster performance than the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845. That’s impressive on paper considering the Snapdragon 845 is the current market leader for speed. The new chip also supports fast 2,133MHz LPDDR4X RAM, which should give it another small bump in performance.

Impressive, but the one major caveat here is that we’re expecting Qualcomm to announce its own next-generation flagship smartphone chip in December, which should level the playing field once more and could push Qualcomm back into the lead.

2. Better battery life

There are other advantages to the smaller manufacturing process aside from pure performance, however. Typically, the smaller the process, the more efficient the chip, so the Kirin 980 also brings with it lower power consumption and, therefore, improved battery life. Specifically, Qualcomm says there’s a 40% reduction in power consumption over the Kirin 970, which is a substantial improvement.

In addition, the Kirin 980 has a new way of implementing what’s known in smartphone processor circles as “big little” processing. Normally, this is done by assigning different types of task to different types of CPU core. Power-hungry jobs such as gaming go to the faster CPU cores and less intensive jobs like audio playback to slower, more power efficient CPU cores. The idea is to save battery life.

In the Kirin 980 the CPU architecture works in the same way, but instead of simply fast and slow cores, there are three types of CPU core on the chip: two high-power 2.6GHz cores; two middle performance cores running at 1.92GHz; and four lightweight cores running at 1.8GHz for what Huawei calls “extreme power efficiency”.

It’s important to remember that the SoC isn’t the only power hungry component in a smartphone; the screen also sucks up a lot of juice, so don’t expect revelatory benefits. Every little helps, though.

3. Higher quality camera images and better video recording

The SoC’s role in camera quality is generally underestimated, but it shouldn’t be. Image processing performed by the CPU has at least as big a part to play in modern smartphone image quality as the sensor and the optics. That’s why Huawei’s new Camera ISP, for which Huawei is claiming a 46% improvement in performance, is important.

A throwaway slide at the presentation showed supposedly better detail capture than the Snapdragon 845, which if true should result in seriously good photos from Huawei’s next flagship phone. The P20 Pro and its three cameras, coupled with the Kirin 970, are already an amazing combination, so anything that improves image quality could make future Huawei phones unassailable on the picture front in future.

(Above: The Huawei P20)

Another interesting thing about the camera ISP chip is that it has 23% better video recording power efficiency, which (I’m speculating here) should enable 60fps 4K video recording, or allow Huawei phones to use stabilisation in 4K footage. Both features were sorely missing from the Huawei P20 Pro, where rivals such as the Samsung Galaxy S9 and OnePlus could do so without missing a beat.

4. Faster graphics performance

In yet another “world first”, the Huawei Kirin 980 will employ the next generation Mali-G76 GPU in a bid to match Qualcomm’s gaming performance.

Huawei has, yet again, put some numbers on this, claiming 46% better performance than the Kirin 970 and 178% better power efficiency, which should go some way to push the Kirin in front of the Snapdragon, at least for now. That’s important with mobile gaming increasingly becoming more sophisticated.

5. Even faster 4G and Wi-Fi speeds

Another area where Huawei is leading the way, at least when it comes to making its capabilities available in production silicon, is the speed of its 4G modems and built-in Wi-Fi.

Inside the Kirin 980, the modem part of the SoC is rated at Cat.21, which means theoretical download speeds of up to 1.4Gbits/sec and support for 4×4 MIMO. This year’s flagship phones have “only” been able to reach 1.2Gbits/sec. Although this might sound stupidly fast, any improvement in performance when it comes to cellular connectivity usually means improvements across the board, not just in peak download speeds.

The Wi-Fi chipset – the Hi1103 – is also pretty slick, reaching speeds of up to 1.7Gbits/sec, assuming you have it connected to the right hardware, of course.

6. Quicker, more accurate processing of AI tasks

Last, but by no means least, the Kirin 980 also has updated AI smarts, with dual NPUs (neural processing units) enabling faster processing of machine-learning based operations. I’m yet to be convinced of the true benefit of having discrete CPUs for handling these sorts of operations. After all, Qualcomm doesn’t have one and the Snapdragon 845 delivers fantastic all-round performance.

However, the Kirin 980 now has two of them and Huawei says this lets it carry out faster, more precise image recognition, and real time video recognition, too. We presume this will enable some sort of funky scene recognition for video recording in the camera app in future phones, but whether or not that will benefit image quality in any way remains to be seen.

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