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Huawei’s Kirin 980 Is The World’s First 7-Nanometer Mobile Chipset With 5G Support

The results for the heated race to release the first mainstream 7-nanometer mobile processor are in, and Huawei has edged Apple to come in first. At the IFA trade show in Berlin today, Huawei’s consumer head, Richard Yu, unveiled the company’s next flagship chipset, the Kirin 980, and it is, as rumored, a 7nm SoC (systems-on-a-chip). Apple will almost certainly announce its own 7nm chipset on Sept. 12 during its iPhone launch, but for the record books, Huawei introduced it to the world first.

So what is 7nm, and why does it matter? The “nanometer” part refers to the size of the transistors inside the processors, and the smaller the transistors are, the more of them you can pack inside a chipset, which naturally improves performance. So “nm” is that rare spec in tech in which the smaller the number the better. The Kirin 980 is said to pack 6.9 billion transistors into a chip the size of a fingernail.

Aside from Apple, Qualcomm is expected to announce its own 7nm processor, the Snapdragon 855, early next year.

And don’t think the famously confident and outspoken Yu is going to let that fact go unnoticed. “Qualcomm will probably release a 7nm chip next year, too, but by then, it’ll be five months after we did it.”

The Kirin 980 will first be seen in the company’s upcoming flagship phones, the Mate 20 series, set for unveiling on Oct. 16. In addition to being “the world’s first 7nm chipset,” it also claims several more world’s firsts, including the first chipset to run on Cortex-A76 cores, Mali G76 graphic processing unit, dual-NPUs, and a 1.4 Gbps LTE modem that Yu said will be ready for 5G structure. That’s a lot of techie terms and specs that may not mean much to 99% of the population. Just know that the Kirin 980 will be faster and use less power than the Kirin 970, and the latter two — dual NPUs and 1.4Gbps LTE modem — excite me the most and should bring the most real world benefit.

Let’s start with the two NPUs (neural processing unit), last year’s Kirin 970 was the first mobile chipset with a dedicated NPU, which allowed it to use A.I. to recognize scenes and objects on-device, without needing internet connection. I covered this in detail during my Huawei Mate 10 Pro review, but essentially the NPU let the phone’s cameras know exactly what it was looking at — it could tell the difference between a dog and a cat, a human from a tree, sunset from sunrise.

All the major Android phonemakers — Samsung, LG, Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo — have since implemented their own version of scene and object recognition algorithms, but because none of those phones were running on chipsets with an NPU, they are all noticeably slower and less accurate. The Kirin 970’s NPU also drove a Porsche in a showcase during the Mobile World Congress.

Kirin 980 is going to double down on the NPU — literally. The chipset will have two NPUs built-in, which Yu said will help ease the workload.

“Think of it like if we’re trying to lift this table up,” Yu said to me, pointing at the table we were sitting at. “If it’s just me trying to lift it up, it’d be difficult. But if you and I do it, it’s easier, because there’s two of us.”

The second part that’s exciting is that modem, which is the first to support to support LTE Cat.21 with the best peak download speeds. Yu said the chipset is 5G ready, though of course this is more future-proofing than of any practical use at this point.

Part of the reason Huawei has managed to climb up the rankings of the Android world in relatively short time is because in addition to making handsets, it also makes its own mobile processor on which the devices run, which puts the Chinese tech giant in rare company — only Apple and Samsung can make that same claim. Other phonemakers, whether it’s Xiaomi or LG, have to rely on third party suppliers such as Qualcomm or MediaTek for mobile processors.

The more parts of the smartphone production process a company controls, the easier it is to for it to optimize the whole package for peak performance. This explains why iPhones are routinely just as smoother than their current Android counterparts, despite running on much less RAM — because Apple not only makes the phone and processor, but also the operating system.

Unless Huawei becomes very ambitious one day and decides to leave Android behind, it will likely never match Apple on that hardware-software synergy. But Huawei could beat Apple in modem-chipset synergy. Apple is in the midst of a dispute with Qualcomm, and thus has had to switch modem suppliers for the new iPhones — which could affect what bands its next iPhones support. Samsung, meanwhile, has to jump between using its own Exynos silicon or Qualcomm’s Snapdragon because its Exynos doesn’t support the CDMA bands used in the U.S. and China. Huawei has no such concerns because it makes its own chipsets and modems. – Forbes

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