Smartphones are Huawei’s bread and butter, and business is booming — the Chinese juggernaut is currently the world’s second-largest smartphone vendor. But it has its fingers in lots of pies (like set-top boxes and laptops, for instance), and despite fierce competition domestically and abroad, it has nurtured quite a few of those efforts into revenue drivers. Consider its chip venture.

HiSilicon, Huawei’s Shenzhen-based, wholly owned fabless semiconductor division, has grown to become one of the largest integrated circuit designers in China over the last 14 years. Its Kirin series competes against the likes of Qualcomm, MediaTek, and other ARM offerings, and the newest member of the family — the Kirin 980 — is its strongest showing yet. Not only is it the most powerful system-on-chip Huawei has ever created, but in key benchmarks it leapfrogs Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line Snapdragon 845.

“Last year, we showed the world the potential of On-Device AI with the Kirin 970, and this year we’ve designed an all-around powerhouse that not only features outstanding AI capabilities, but also brings cutting-edge raw performance to consumers,” Richard Yu, head of Huawei’s consumer business group, said during the company’s keynote presentation at IFA 2018. “Equipped with all-new CPU, GPU, and Dual NPU, the Kirin 980 is the ultimate engine to power next-generation productivity and entertainment applications.”

A new architecture

The Kirin 980 is the world’s first mobile chip fabricated on a 7nm process. In partnership with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), Huawei managed to shrink the die size down from 10nm while boosting the number of onboard transistors. There’s a whopping 6.9 billion in all, the company claims, or about 1.6 times what’s on Kirin 970. (Huawei said it took a team of 1,000 senior engineers 36 months and more than 5,000 prototypes to get it right.)

That’s significant for two reasons: It has led to a 40 percent reduction in overall power consumption and a 20 percent improvement across metrics like app load times, machine learning workloads, and media post-processing. (More on that later.)

Huawei Kirin 980

The Kirin 980 is also the first out of the gate with ARM’s Cortex-A76, a new core architecture built on the company’s DynamiQ technology. DynamiQ, which debuted in 2017, offers fine-grained speed and power management controls, and Huawei’s taken full advantage of them. The Kirin 980 has an eight-core architecture with two Cortex-A76 2.6GHz “high-performance cores” for demanding tasks, two Cortex-A76 1.92GHz “middle cores” that juggle everyday processes, and four 1.8GHz Cortex-A55 “efficiency cores” that step in for light workloads like music playback.

Rarely are all eight of the Kirin 980’s cores used simultaneously. Instead, a “flexible scheduling mechanism” ramps them up individually, as needed — one efficiency core for music decoding, for example, or three middle cores for turn-by-turn navigation. Demanding apps, like high-end games, lean on four efficiency cores and two middle cores or some combination of high-performance cores and middle cores.

It’s this chip-level intelligence that helped Huawei achieve gains not only in app launch times (Facebook launches 0.3 seconds faster on the Kirin 980 than on the 970 while Snapchat spins up 0.2 seconds quicker), but in energy efficiency. Huawei claims the 980 sucks down 33 percent less power than Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845.

Contributing to the overall uplift is support for 2133MHz RAM, which confers a 20 percent bandwidth advantage, and a powerful new graphics chip — the Mali-G76 — that’s 46 percent faster and 178 percent more efficient than the Kirin 970’s Mali-G72.

Other enhancements come in the form of a dual ISP that processes photos up to 46 percent faster and 23 percent more efficiently than the previous model. The improvements don’t come at the cost of quality — in fact, Huawei claims it’s capable of capturing “better contrast” and “finer details,” thanks to a new high dynamic range (HDR) color reproduction technology and a multi-pass noise reduction algorithm. Also in tow: motion tracking. The ISP can recognize subjects with 97.4 percent accuracy and track them across a frame, and it shoots clips with 33 percent shorter delay, thanks to a new video processing pipeline.

AI inside

Huawei’s Neural Processing Unit (NPU) made its first appearance at IFA 2017, where it debuted in the Kirin 970. Boiled down to basics, it’s a coprocessor optimized for the sort of vector math that’s the lifeblood of machine learning frameworks like Facebook’s Caffe2 and Google’s TensorFlow. Microsoft’s Translator app taps into it for tasks like scanning and translating words in pictures, and Huawei says its heterogeneous computing structure — HiAI — automatically distributes voice recognition, natural language processing, and computer vision workloads across it dynamically.

The Kirin 980 isn’t the only chip on the block to accelerate machine learning — Qualcomm’s AI Engine and Apple’s A11 Bionic achieve the same ends through different means — but Huawei claims it’s far and away the fastest. The chip‘s two NPUs (up from one in the Kirin 970) can recognize up to 4,500 images per minute, compared to the Snapdragon 845’s 2,371 images and the A11 Bionic’s 1,458. And it boasts superior object recognition, real-time image processing, and real-time object segmentation, achieving up to 135 percent better performance in benchmarks like ResNet and Inception v3 while consuming 88 percent less power than the Snapdragon 845.

Huawei’s making the most of these advances, using AI to intelligently ramp up the GPU’s clock speed during intense gaming sessions, minimize system lag, and deliver “smoother outdoor gaming experiences” in areas with weak signals. In the coming months, it plans to make the dual NPU’s capabilities available to third-party developers through its HiAI library and API.

Faster modem

The Kirin 980’s flagship components extend to the modem, which Huawei claims is the fastest it’s ever produced. The modem can hit speeds up to 1.4Gbps (LTE Cat. 21) and supports carrier aggregation across frequency bands, allowing it to hop between operators with relative ease.

Cellular performance isn’t the only highlight on the wireless side of things. The Kirin 980’s modem has the “world’s fastest Wi-Fi,” according to Huawei, with top downlink speeds reaching 1,732Mbps. (That’s thanks to the company’s in-house Wi-Fi module.) And its GPS receiver taps a new frequency — L5 (1575.42 MHz) — that helps it deliver 10 times better positioning accuracy than the previous generation.

Availability

There’s no doubt about it: The Kirin 980 is Huawei’s most ambitious chip yet. In fact, the company’s claiming nearly a dozen world’s firsts.

Only time will tell how it performs in the real world, of course, but we shouldn’t have long to wait. Honor, Huawei’s budget-oriented subbrand, announced this week that its upcoming Magic 2 smartphone will pack the Kirin 980. And in a pre-briefing with reporters on Thursday, a Huawei executive all but confirmed that it’ll feature prominently in the company’s upcoming Mate 20 series (which is set to be announced at an event in London on October 16).

One thing’s sure, however: Huawei has Qualcomm firmly in its crosshairs. And if Huawei can deliver on its promises, it might just best its San Diego rival at its own game.