We test Huawei's Mate 8 smartphone to see how its Kirin 950 SoC performs. This is also our first look at ARM's Cortex-A72 CPU core and new Mali-T880 GPU. How does A72 compare to the A57 and Snapdragon 820's Kryo cores?
Huawei is not a household name in North America, but if the Chinese company's performance in other markets is any indication, this will soon change. Best known for selling telecommunications equipment, Huawei is quickly making a name for itself in smartphones, too. According to IDC, it is now the third largest smartphone vendor in the world by volume. Its success is centered in China, where its smartphone shipments increased 81 percent year-over-year in Q3 2015, but Huawei is expanding into emerging markets, such as Latin America and Africa, too. The company is also experiencing solid growth in the established European market, where smartphone shipments nearly doubled over the same period, according to Huawei.
Huawei recently pierced the North American market after being selected by Google as the manufacturing partner for the Nexus 6P. Looking to capitalize on this significant design win, Huawei is shipping another flagship phablet, the Mate 8, across the Pacific. We recently spent some time with this new device and were generally impressed (see Huawei Mate 8 Hands On). Its aluminum construction and minimal bezels give it a premium look and help hide the size of the large 6-inch screen. It comes with most of the features we've come to expect from a premium phone, including a fingerprint sensor, 3 to 4GB of RAM, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, NFC, and a decent camera. And while the battery is not removable, it's at least a generous 4000mAh.
In addition to being the first Huawei branded phone available globally, the Mate 8 has a couple of other firsts hidden inside its aluminum chassis, starting with HiSilicon's Kirin 950 system on a chip (SoC). Like MediaTek and Marvell, HiSilicon, a Huawei subsidiary, is an ARM processor licensee, which allows it to build SoCs using stock ARM cores. This approach differs from architectural licensees such as Apple and Qualcomm, who design custom CPU cores compatible with ARM's architecture.
Inside the Kirin 950 is an octa-core CPU with four ARM Cortex-A72 cores at up to 2.3GHz and four Cortex-A53 cores at up to 1.8GHz in a big.LITTLE arrangement. This makes HiSilicon only the second vendor behind MediaTek to ship a product using A72 cores, and the first to implement them on a current process node running close to its target frequency (the quad-core MT8173 is made using TSMC's older 28nm HPm node).
ARM's Mali-T880 GPU also makes its debut appearance in the Kirin 950, offering higher performance and up to a 40 percent improvement in energy efficiency over the Mali-T760 GPU. HiSilicon's implementation differs from other recent SoCs by opting for fewer, higher frequency cores. Specifically, it uses four GPU cores (MP4) that ramp up to a rather high 900MHz max frequency. In contrast, Samsung's Exynos 7420 uses the previous generation Mali-T760 GPU in an eight core configuration clocked at 772MHz. It will be interesting to see if the Mali-T880's architectural enhancements, combined with a higher clock frequency, can make up for the core count deficit.
Unlike previous Huawei devices that relied on external ISPs provided by outside vendors, the Kirin 950 benefits from Huawei's increasing vertical integration by incorporating its brand new, custom 14-bit PrimISP and IVP32 DSP into the SoC. We do not know much about these new blocks other than they enable up to 1080p60 H.264 encode/decode and 4K H.265 decode. Oddly missing is a 4K encode option.
Internally, the Kirin 950 uses ARM's CCI-400 Cache Coherent Interconnect. It's a bit odd that the newer CCI-500 interconnect is not used considering it was announced alongside the A72. This could potentially limit bandwidth between the CPUs and memory, since CCI-400 lacks a snoop filter on the interconnect itself.
Speaking of system memory, the Kirin 950 uses a hybrid LPDDR3/LPDDR4 memory controller. The Mate 8 takes advantage of LPDDR4's higher bandwidth and lower operating power, but other OEMs have the option of using less expensive LPDDR3 RAM. This feature, along with the smaller die from using only four GPU cores, should make the Kirin 950 a good fit for mid-range phones, an intriguing possibility considering the performance it should deliver.
With all of these new components, it's only fitting that the Kirin 950 is manufactured on a current generation process node, specifically TSMC's 16nm FinFET+. We've already seen FinFET's power and performance gains in our testing of Apple's A9 and Samsung's Exynos 7420 SoCs. More than a mere die shrink, FinFET is a new technology that fundamentally differs from the planar processes that came before it. It significantly reduces leakage current and power density, increasing battery life and reducing the amount of thermal throttling.
This performance preview is a bit different than some of our others, because we're comparing not just the Kirin 950 SoC -- and its A72 CPU and Mali-T880 GPU cores -- to its peers, but also the Mate 8 to some other flagship phones.
We'll be comparing the Mate 8 and Kirin 950 to a range of different phones and SoCs, including the dual-core Apple A9, quad-core Intel Atom Z3580, and big.LITTLE octa-core designs using a combination of A57 and A53 cores. We're also including Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 820 with its new, custom Kryo CPU. These results were collected from Qualcomm's smartphone MDP, which is its own internal development hardware, so they are still preliminary. Our comparison devices also contain a variety of Mali, PowerVR, and Adreno GPUs. With this range of hardware, spanning from mid-range to high-end, we should get a good feel for where the Mate 8, Kirin 950, and A72 fall.
All of these devices, other than the Qualcomm smartphone MDP, were evaluated using our standard testing procedures. Do note, however, that the Mate 8's software build is not final yet, so there could be some differences once it starts shipping.
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