Tiny and efficient 5nm chip with built-in 5G


Huawei Kirin 9000

Huawei has unveiled a new flagship processor alongside its new Mate series of smartphones. The Kirin 9000 powers the entire range of Mate 40 handsets, promising better efficiency and more powerful networking features than previous generations.

Headline features of the Kirin 9000 include a smaller, more energy-efficient 5nm manufacturing process. Apple is also on 5nm for the A14 chip inside the iPhone 12, Samsung is using it for its mid-tier Exynos 1080, and we’re also expecting Qualcomm’s upcoming flagship Snapdragon chip to be based on this node. For us consumers, it means higher performance and longer battery life than previous generations.

The Kirin 9000 also boasts an integrated 5G modem, making it the first 5nm chip to do so. Huawei didn’t give exact speed figures during the presentation, but the chip’s Balong 5000 modem supports up to 6.5Gbps downloads with 5G carrier aggregation. Huawei claims the modem is 5x faster at uploads and 2x faster at downloads in the real-world versus Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X55 modem. Feisty talk.

Also read: Huawei Mate 40 Pro hands-on

Kirin 9000 specs

  Kirin 9000 Kirin 9000E
CPU 1x Cortex-A77 @ 3.13GHz
3x Cortex-A77 @ 2.54GHz
4x Cortex-A55 @ 2.05GHz
1x Cortex-A77 @ 3.13GHz
3x Cortex-A77 @ 2.54GHz
4x Cortex-A55 @ 2.05GHz
GPU Mali-G78, 24 cores Mali-G78, 22 cores
NPU 2x big core
1x tiny core
1x big core
1x tiny core
RAM LPDDR5 / LPDDR 4X LPDDR5 / LPDDR 4X
Modem Balong 5000
5G, sub6Ghz and mmWave
Integrated
Balong 5000
5G, sub6Ghz and mmWave
Integrated
ISP quad-core, 6th gen ISP quad-core, 6th gen ISP
Manufacturing 5nm 5nm

What’s new with the CPU and GPU

At this point last year, the Kirin 990 raised a few eyebrows for sticking with a previous generation of Arm parts. At the time, Huawei’s Dr. Benjamin Wang evaluated that Arm’s Cortex-A77 was better suited to 5nm rather than 7nm manufacturing. Richard Yu also highlighted that efficiency and battery life were a key part of the reason to stick with the Cortex-A76. It wasn’t a wholly convincing argument then, but it wasn’t unreasonable either.

Here we are at 5nm with the Kirin 9000 and we indeed have Arm Cortex-A77 cores, but not the very latest Arm Cortex-A78 upgrade. Huawei seems to be lagging a year behind Arm’s last CPU tech now, but this isn’t an absolute deal-breaker for performance. Huawei claims a 10% performance win over Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 Plus. Although we should always take these in-house performance metrics with a pinch of salt.

On the graphics side, Huawei is using the latest Arm Mali-G78 in 24 and 22 core configurations for the Kirin 9000 and 9000E, respectively. Huawei is again very aggressive on the performance comparisons, promising 52% more performance than Qualcomm’s powerhouse Snapdragon 865 Plus in the GFXBench benchmark. We’ll certainly want to put that to the test ourselves and see if real-world performance stacks up.

Huawei Kirin 9000 chipset summary

Huawei also claims a 2.4x performance win for AI processing capabilities via its NPU over Qualcomm’s current best chip. Although AI performance is particularly workload sensitive, so we should be very careful about comparisons here. The Kirin 9000 also sees benefits to image processing with its sixth-generation quad-core ISP. The ISP has 50% more throughput than the previous generation and a 48% improvement to video noise reduction.

Finally, the Kirin 9000 boasts 25% CPU, 150% NPU, 50% GPU efficiency wins over the Snapdragon 865 Plus. Although remember that Qualcomm is set to refresh its high-end SoC in December 2020, which will also benefit from the efficiency gains of 5nm manufacturing.

What to expect from the Kirin 9000

After some stagnation with CPU and GPU specifications between the Kirin 980 and 990, the Kirin 9000 will offer a tangible boost to performance., particularly in gaming. Although the absence of a bleeding-edge Cortex-A78 CPU means that any performance leads over its rivals may be short lived.

But CPU grunt isn’t everything. Huawei’s latest SoC continues to offer highly competitive imaging, modem, and machine learning technologies that enable its hardware to stay on the cutting edge. However, unless things change with the US/China trade dispute, the Kirin 9000 is set to be the last in-house chipset from Huawei and HiSilicon. We’ll just have to wait and see what this means for Huawei phones and their cutting edge features going forward.

The Kirin 9000 debuts in the Huawei Mate 40 Pro and Mate 40 Pro Plus, while the Kirin 9000E powers the more affordable Mate 40 model. Stay tuned to see how the Kirin 9000 compares to other high-end mobile SoCs.

Next: Can Huawei survive without its custom Kirin chips?

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