The new Kirin 970 from Huawei’s in-house chip manufacturer, Hisilicon, is truly an SoC with integrated artificial intelligence. The mobile AI housed in the new NPU is likely to bring some advantages, but Huawei has also taken it a step further elsewhere, too. We spoke with Ai Wei (Fellow, Chipsets and Hardware Technology Strategy) and Eric Zhou Chen (Planning Director, Kirin Team) about the new processor.
People currently know what a CPU and GPU are. The Kirin 970 sees the introduction of the NPU - the Neural Network Processing Unit, which makes up the AI portion of the SoC and gives the chip the ability to learn through neural networks. The artificial brain in the Kirin 970 combined with the CPU and GPU will bring 25x greater performance than the current computational and graphics processing unit combo and furthermore be 50 times more power efficient - yes, you read that right, fifty times. Impressive figures, although we won’t see its real-world performance until the October release of the Huawei Mate 10. But, it’s not just the NPU that may have other chip manufacturers worried.
Huawei has significantly leapfrogged Qualcomm and Samsung in the LTE module department. While both competitors have only announced their own LTE Cat. 18 modules with uncertain dates in the coming year—placing heavy emphasis on these announcements—Huawei is practically coming out of nowhere with Cat. 18 and twice the max. data rate at 1.2 Gbit/s. This is technically possible via a combination of 4x4 MiMo antennas that bring carrier aggregation via LTE to a whole new level, as Ai Wei emphasizes.
Of course, the 1.2 Gbit/s value is only a theoretical maximum, but Huawei’s LTE Cat. 18 module also promises higher data throughput for day-to-day use. Furthermore, the various antennas should be a boon for reception quality, but it will depend on the Mate 10’s specific design and cannot be assessed in a generalized and premature way.
Huawei radiates its confidence
As usual, Huawei CEO Richard Yu was confident when presenting the Kirin 970 at the IFA keynote and did not shy away from making direct comparisons with the competition either. Not only does the new Hisilicon chip have significantly more transistors than competitors’ counterparts, it will also leverage its qualities during use. According to Huawei, the Galaxy S8 achieved a value of 95, the iPhone 7 Plus 487, and its proprietary chip a full 2,005 points in a benchmark where 2,000 image recognitions per minute were performed.
Image and video processing will naturally become part of the new SoC’s strengths; it seems that the NPU actually does much better work than a classic CPU, and it’s not everywhere you see such improvements. And yet: Image and video processing is truly a critical area for a smartphone, and whoever shines in this department has already done a lot of things right. Even its fast RAM—the Kirin 970 supports LPDDR4X RAM with UFS 2.1—is a huge plus.
Not new, but improved
However, not everything about the Kirin 970 is new. Rather, it leaves the Cortex A53 and A73 cores from the Kirin 960 unchanged; Huawei has eschewed switching to the new Cortex A75. During a conversation with Eric Zhen Chen, he stated that this is due to ARM and Huawei’s differing schedules and the long development time of AI chips. It actually took more than two years to bring the Kirin 970 to market in the coming month.
The graphics processing unit is also similar. Huawei has increased the number of cores from eight to twelve, but it has also reduced the clock speed. There is one new technology that won’t be used in the Mali G72MP12, although there are still advantages: Graphics performance for the Kirin 970 has increased overall by 20 percent, while power efficiency has improved a full 50 percent in day-to-day use.
The competition is feeling the heat
It will be exciting to see how well the NPU works in day-to-day use, although you may hardly notice a difference, but that’s mainly because existing apps have not been adapted to the new capabilities. However, if Huawei manages to make the benefits of AI tangible in things that are important in everyday usage, mainly in the camera and overall performance, then the Chinese manufacturer may have taken a significant leap ahead of the competition. Qualcomm and Samsung will be watching this development very closely and pressuring their in-house specialists to develop a response to the Kirin 970, which is good for the entire market.