Today I would say that there’s only two truly vertically integrated mobile OEMs who have full control over their silicon: Apple and Huawei – and of the two one could say Huawei is currently even more integrated due to in-house modem development. Huawei’s semiconductor division, HiSilicon, has over the last several years been the one company which seems to have managed what the others haven’t: break in into the high-end market with solutions that are competitive with the current leader in the business, Qualcomm.

I remember the Honor 6 with the newly branded (Previously not having any “halo” line-up name) Kirin 920 SoC as the first device with the company’s in-house SoC that we reviewed. These and the following generation the Kirin 930 suffered from immaturity with problems such as a very power hungry memory controller and very disappointing camera processing pipeline (ISP/DSP). The Kirin 950 was in my opinion a turning point for HiSilicon as the product truly impressed and improved the quality of the product, catching many eyes in the semiconductor industry, including myself in the resulting review of the Huawei Mate 8.

Over the last several years we’ve seen great amounts of consolidation in the mobile semiconductor industry. Companies such as Texas Instruments which were once key players no longer offer mobile SoC products in their catalogue. We’ve seen companies such as Nvidia try and repeatedly fail at carving out meaningful market-share. MediaTek has tried providing higher end SoCs with the Helio X line-up with rather little success to the point that the company has put on hold development in that segment to rather focus on higher margin parts in the P-series.

Meanwhile even Samsung LSI, while having a relatively good product with its flagship Exynos series, still has not managed to win over the trust of the conglomorate's own mobile division. Rather than using Exynos as an exclusive keystone component of the Galaxy series, Samsing has instead been dual-sourcing it along with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon SoCs. It’s therefore not hard to make the claim that producing competitive high-end SoCs and semiconductor components is a really hard business.

Last year’s Kirin 960 was a bit of a mixed bag: the SoC still delivered good improvements over the Kirin 950 however it was limited in terms of what it could achieve against competing flagship SoCs from Samsung and Qualcomm as they both had a process node advantage. Huawei's introduction of flagships with new generation of SoCs in the fourth quarter is more close to the release time-frame of Apple than the usual first quarter that we’ve come accustomed of Qualcomm and Samsung.

As such when pitting the Kirin versus Snapdragon and Exynos’s we’re looking at a product that’s more often than not late to the party in terms of introduction of new technologies such as process node and IP. The Kirin 970 fits this profile: as a 10nm Cortex-A73 generation-based SoC, it lagged behind Qualcomm and Samsung in terms of process node, yet being too early in its release to match up with ARM’s release schedule to be able to adopt DynamiQ and A75 and A55 based CPU cores for this cycle. That being said the Kirin 970 enjoys a few months with technical feature parity with the Snapdragon 835 and Exynos 8895 before we see new Snapdragon 845 and Exynos 9810 products later in the usual spring refresh cycle.

Nevertheless, the article today is a focus on the Kirin 970 and its improvements and also an opportunity to review the current state of SoCs powering Android devices. 

HiSilicon High-End Kirin SoC Lineup
SoC Kirin 970 Kirin 960 Kirin 950/955
CPU 4x A73 @ 2.36 GHz
4x A53 @ 1.84 GHz
4x A73 @ 2.36GHz
4x A53 @ 1.84GHz
4x A72 @ 2.30/2.52GHz
4x A53 @ 1.81GHz
GPU ARM Mali-G72MP12
746 MHz
ARM Mali-G71MP8
1037MHz
ARM Mali-T880MP4
900MHz
LPDDR4
Memory
4x 16-bit CH
LPDDR4 @ 1833 MHz
29.9GB/s
4x 16-bit CH
LPDDR4 @ 1866MHz
29.9GB/s
2x 32-bit
LPDDR4 @ 1333MHz 21.3GB/s
Interconnect ARM CCI ARM CCI-550 ARM CCI-400
Storage I/F UFS 2.1 UFS 2.1 eMMC 5.0
ISP/Camera Dual 14-bit ISP Dual 14-bit ISP
(Improved)
Dual 14-bit ISP
940MP/s
Encode/Decode 2160p60 Decode
2160p30 Encode
 
2160p30 HEVC & H.264
Decode & Encode

2160p60 HEVC
Decode
1080p H.264
Decode & Encode

2160p30 HEVC
Decode
Integrated Modem Kirin 970 Integrated LTE
(Category 18/13)

DL = 1200 Mbps
5x20MHz CA, 256-QAM

UL = 150 Mbps
2x20MHz CA, 64-QAM
Kirin 960 Integrated LTE
(Category 12/13)

DL = 600Mbps
4x20MHz CA, 64-QAM

UL = 150Mbps
2x20MHz CA, 64-QAM
Balong Integrated LTE
(Category 6)

DL = 300Mbps
2x20MHz CA, 64-QAM

UL = 50Mbps
1x20MHz CA, 16-QAM
Sensor Hub i7 i6 i5
NPU Yes No No
Mfc. Process TSMC 10nm TSMC 16nm FFC TSMC 16nm FF+

The Kirin 970, isn't a major IP overhaul as it continues to use the same central processing unit IP from ARM that was used in the Kirin 960. The new SoC even doesn't improve the frequency of the CPU clusters as we still see the same 2.36GHz for the A73 cores and 1.84GHz for the A53 cores. When ARM originally launched the A73 we had seen optimistic targets of up to 2.8GHz on TSMC 10nm, but we seem to have largely missed that target, a sign of ever increasing difficulty to scale frequency in mobile SoCs as the diminishing returns from process node updates become worse and worse.

The Kirin 970 does bring a major overhaul and change in the GPU configuration as we see the first implementation of ARM’s Mali G72 in a 12-cluster configuration, a 50% increase in core count over the Kirin 960’s G71-MP8 setup. The new GPU is running at a much reduced frequency of 746MHz versus the 1033MHz of the Kirin 960. In Matt Humrick’s review of the Kirin 960 we saw some disastrous peak average power figures of the Mali G71 outright exploding the thermal envelope of the Mate 9, so hopefully the architectural improvements of the new G72 alongside a wider and lower clocked configuration in conjunction with the new process node will bring significant improvements over its predecessor.

The new modem in the Kirin 970 now implements 3GPP LTE Release 13 and supports downlink speeds of up to 1200Mbps thanks to up to 5x20MHz carrier aggregation with 256-QAM, making the new Kirin modem feature equivalent to Qualcomm’s X20 modem that’ll be integrated in the Snapdragon 845.

The big story surrounding the Kirin 970 was the inclusion of a dedicated neural processing unit. The NPU, as HiSilicon decided to name it, is part of a new type and generation of specialised dedicated acceleration blocks with the aim of offloading “inferencing” of convolutional neural net (CNNs). Many will have heard buzzwords such as artificial intelligence surrounding the topic, but the correct term is machine learning or deep learning. The hardware acceleration blocks with various names from various companies do not actually do any deep learning, but rather are there to improve execution (inferencing) of neural network models while the training of the models will still remain something that will be done either in the cloud or by other blocks in the SoC such as the GPU. It’s still the early days but we’ll have a proper look at the NPU in its dedicated section of the article.


SoC die shot image & labels courtesy of TechInsights Mate 10 teardown

As aforementioned one of the bigger improvements of the Kirin 970 is the switch to a TSMC 10FF manufacturing node. While 10nm is supposed to be a long-lived node for Samsung's foundry – where indeed we’ll see two full generations of SoCs produced on 10LPE and 10LPP – TSMC is taking a different approach and sees its own 10FF process node a short-lived node and stepping-stone to the much anticipated 7FF node, which is to be introduced later in 2018. As such the only TSMC 10FF mobile products to date have been the low-volume MediaTek X30 and Apple 10X in summer and the high-volume Apple A11 and HiSilicon Kirin 970 in Q3-Q4, a 2-3 quarter after Samsung had entered high-volume production of the Snapdragon 835 and Exynos 8895.

HiSilicon’s expectations of the new process node are rather conservative improvement of only 20% in efficiency at the same performance point for the apples-to-apples CPU clusters, below ARM’s earlier predictions of 30%. This rather meagre improvement in power will be likely one of the reasons why HiSilicon decided not to increase the CPU clocks on the Kirin 970, instead focusing on bringing down power usage and lowering the TDP when compared to the Kirin 960.

The SoC does enjoy a healthy die size shrink from 117.72mm² down to 96.72mm² even though the new SoC has 50% more GPU cores as well as new IP blocks such as the NPU. Our colleagues at TechInsights have published a detailed per-block size comparison between the Kirin 960 and Kirin 970 and we see a 30-38% decrease in block size for apples-to-apples IP. The Cortex-A73 quad-core cluster now comes in at only 5.66mm², a metric to keep in mind and in stark contrast to Apple which is investing twice as much silicon area in its dual-core big CPU cluster.

SPEC2006 - A Reintroduction For Mobile
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  • jjj - Monday, January 22, 2018 - link

    Well the chip and LTE (LTE means hardware+ licensing costs) does not add hundreds of dollars to the retail price but the extra cost forces them to position these as high end.
    A mobile SoC has actually some costs positives too as it offers more integration, thus slightly reducing costs but with a high end SoC and LTE things go sideways.
    I was telling people before these got release that they'll be high specked with high prices but even I wasn't expecting things to be this bad and thought they'll at least have higher res displays at current prices.

    Give me a laptop with SD670 (yet to be announced) and no LTE at 300$ and I might consider it. Oh well, at least we have Raven Ridge now.
    Reply
  • lilmoe - Monday, January 22, 2018 - link

    Raven Ridge is where it's at. Let's hope it doesn't disappoint. Reply
  • Manch - Monday, January 22, 2018 - link

    Maybe Huawei is late to the party bc they need time to integrate "features" at the behest of the Chinese govt? Reply
  • StormyParis - Monday, January 22, 2018 - link

    If you mean "move all their servers to a gov'-owned and operated facility", that's Apple China. Reply
  • Manch - Tuesday, January 23, 2018 - link

    Right now the US gov is very concerned about Huawei to the point theyre pressuring ATT to stop using their products. In addition they don't like them being involved in next gen wireless bc the security risk involved. To be fair the company is top down filled with Chinese Government Official.

    As for Apple, they're not the only US or EU company that has given up IP to the Chinese government in order to play in their backyard. Of course that comes at a cost in the long run.

    It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years between China, the EU & US ovwer this issue.
    Reply
  • fteoath64 - Thursday, January 25, 2018 - link

    At the rate China is pouring money into AI with little to zero oversight, they are the first country to be pawned by SuperAI (first AGI that is superhuman), from there, the democratization of rights and freedom will accelerate. Maybe a bit turbulent in the adjustment period but will prevail. The process is already in motion for some months .... Reply
  • jospoortvliet - Saturday, January 27, 2018 - link

    What is in motion? Democracy? With Xi in power out is rather going the other way around. The progress chins had made inn the decades since tianmen square is going to be wiped out soon...

    Meanwhile the current AI is as far from the type of generic AI you talk about as we were from useful neural networks in the early '80s... Don't count on it soon.
    Reply
  • french toast - Monday, January 22, 2018 - link

    Nice article Andrei.
    Just demonstrates how much Qualcomm is killing it right now, gpu is nearly twice as efficient as Mali, likely much more efficient in area also.
    Even the hexagon 680 DSP, which is not a special AI processor on its own but can match the efficiency of likely the best AI processor in smartphones... Huawei NPU.
    Aside from the horrible mistakes of the Snapdragon 810 & 820...they seem to have got their CPU/SOC decisions in order.

    9810 Vs 845 is going to be a battle royale, Samsung M3 might well turn the tables around.
    Reply
  • StormyParis - Monday, January 22, 2018 - link

    If the Modem IP is Huawei's one true in-house part, why didn't you at least test it alongside the CPU and GPU ? I'd assume in the real world, ti too has a large impact on batteyr and performance ? Reply
  • Ian Cutress - Monday, January 22, 2018 - link

    The kit to properly test a modem power/attenuation to battery is around $50-100k. We did borrow one once, a few years ago, but it was only short-term loan. Not sure if/when we'll be able to do that testing again. Reply

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