The Reality of Silicon And Market Pressure

Section By Andrei Frumusanu

In a sense, the Kirin 960 and Kirin 970 have been a welcome addition to our mobile testing suite. As a result of having devices powered by the two chipsets, we have switched over to a new testing methodology where we now always publish peak and sustained performance figures alongside each other. Without the behavior of these devices, we might never have changed our methods to catch these shenanigans.

But if we’re to go back to a paragraph in the Kirin 970 SoC piece:

Indeed, the Kirin 960 and 970’s vast discrepancies between peak performance and their inability to sustain those performance was one of the key reasons why for this year I opted change our mobile GPU performance testing methodology. All reviews this year were published with peak and sustained performance figures alongside each other, trying to unveil some of the more negative aspects of sustained performance among some of today’s smartphones.

The behaviour of this year’s Kirin 970 devices is, in a sense, not surprising. Huawei & Honor's power throttling adjustments are a great positive for the actual user-experience as they solve one of the key issues I had brought up about the chips in the review: they limit phone power consumption to reasonable levels, rather than burning through power and battery capacity like crazy. This new behavior on power throttling is essentially an aftershock to the Kirin 960’s awful GPU power characteristics. Somebody smart at Huawei decided that the high power draw was indeed not good, and they introduced a new strict throttling mechanism to keep temperatures in check.

This means that when we look at the efficiency table, it makes a lot of sense. Both chips showcase instantaneous power draws way above the sustainable levels for their form-factors, which the throttling mechanism keeps in check.

Competing Against Cheaters: Two Options

While I fully support Huawei in introducing the new throttling mechanisms, the big faux-pas here was in terms of them excluding benchmark applications via a whitelist. During the Kirin 950 days when we talked to HiSilicon’s managers, we discussed GPU power as an important topic even back then. Those generation chipsets had substantially lower GPU performance compared to the competition, however the GPU power was always within the sustainable thermal envelope of the phones – around 3.5W.

Now, when we look at total system power, we see that Huawei has made improvements:

GFXBench Manhattan 3.1 Offscreen Power Efficiency
(System Active Power)
AnandTech Mfc. Process FPS Avg. Power
Galaxy S9+ (Snapdragon 845) 10LPP 61.16 5.01 11.99 fps/W
Galaxy S9 (Exynos 9810) 10LPP 46.04 4.08 11.28 fps/W
Galaxy S8 (Snapdragon 835) 10LPE 38.90 3.79 10.26 fps/W
LeEco Le Pro3 (Snapdragon 821) 14LPP 33.04 4.18 7.90 fps/W
Galaxy S7 (Snapdragon 820) 14LPP 30.98 3.98 7.78 fps/W
Huawei Mate 10 (Kirin 970) 10FF 37.66 6.33 5.94 fps/W
Galaxy S8 (Exynos 8895) 10LPE 42.49 7.35 5.78 fps/W
Galaxy S7 (Exynos 8890) 14LPP 29.41 5.95 4.94 fps/W
Meizu PRO 5 (Exynos 7420) 14LPE 14.45 3.47 4.16 fps/W
Nexus 6P (Snapdragon 810 v2.1) 20Soc 21.94 5.44 4.03 fps/W
Huawei Mate 8 (Kirin 950) 16FF+ 10.37 2.75 3.77 fps/W
Huawei Mate 9 (Kirin 960) 16FFC 32.49 8.63 3.77 fps/W
Huawei P9 (Kirin 955) 16FF+ 10.59 2.98 3.55 fps/W

The Kirin 960’s GPU power and inefficiency was a direct response to market pressure, as well as negative user feedback regarding GPU performance. I don’t really blame Huawei; I highly praised the Mate 8 with its Kirin 950, irrespective of the lower GPU performance, it was an excellent device because the thermals and sustained performance were outstanding. Despite this, the very first comment of that review was a 'despite the GPU …'. Here the average user will just look at the benchmarks and see it’s ranked lower, and not think any better. It also shows that companies do care what users want, and do listen to requests, but might react in a way users were not expecting.

Unfortunately the only way we can avoid this situation of a perceived performance deficit as a whole is if we as journalists, and companies like Huawei, educate users better. It also helps if device vendors have a more steadfast philosophy about remaining within reasonable power budgets.

Huawei and Its Future

Last Friday Huawei’s CEO announced the new Kirin 980, which is set to be the centerpiece in the Mate 20 lineup coming soon. The big messaging for this new chip is that it is on a new 7nm manufacturing node, and the biggest improvements have been on the GPU side. Huawei has promised power efficiency increases of a staggering 178%. If the math checks out and Kirin 980 devices indeed deliver these figures, then it would mean the company would finally get back to sustainable ~3.5W for GPU workloads, and simultaneously be competitive to some degree.

I’ve already seen a lot of users dismiss the GPU performance of the new SoC. It seemingly, as admitted by Huawei, doesn’t beat the peak performance of the Snapdragon 845, the Qualcomm flagship announced last year. Yet this doesn’t matter, because the efficiency should be better for the new SoC. Because of this, real world sustained performance would be better as well, even if the peak figures don’t quite compete.

Here the only thing I can do is reiterate the balance between performance and efficiency as much as I can, in the hope to shift more people away from the narrative of only looking at peak performance. I’m quite happy with our new GPU testing methodology, because frankly it works – our sustained performance numbers were mostly unaffected by the cheating behaviour. Here I see the sustained scores as a good showcase of performance and efficiency across all devices.

The Honor Play: A Gaming Phone, or Just More Marketing?

Returning to square one, one of the reasons we’ve been analysing Huawei & Honor's phones in this level of detail again is because we've been trying to determine what exactly GPU Turbo is. We've addressed that technology in a separate article, and find that it does have technical merit. Here Huawei tried to compensate for its hardware disadvantages by innovating through software. However, software can only do so much, and Huawei tries to exaggerate the benefits of the new technology on devices like the Honor Play.

Unfortunately I see the reasons for the overzealous marketing of GPU Turbo, and the cheating behaviour of this article, as one and the same: the current SoCs are far behind in graphics performance and efficiency. The reality of things is that currently Qualcomm’s GPU architecture has a major advantage in terms of efficiency, which allows it to reach far higher performance figures.

So Honor is trying to promote the Honor Play as a gaming-centric phone, making bold marketing claims about its performance and experience. This is a quite courageous marketing strategy given the fact that the SoC powering the phone is currently the worst of its generation when it comes to gaming. Here the competition just has a major power efficiency advantage, and there is no way around that.

We actively discourage such marketing strategies as it just tries to pull the wool over user’s eyes. While the Honor Play is a quite good phone in itself, a gaming phone it is not. Here we just hope that in the future we’ll see more responsible and honest marketing, as this summer’s materials were rather, incredible, in the worst sense of the word.

Getting the Real Data: Kirin 970 GPU Performance Overview
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  • goatfajitas - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    I think it speaks directly to the subject matter. Far too many companies, tech sites, and users hang far too much on bench-marking. Does 1% better "geekmarks" actually make a difference in usage?
  • cfenton - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    But it's not 1%, or even close to that. The OnePlus 6 is 3x faster than the P20 Pro in most of the sustained performance benchmarks.

    I think it's important for users to know that the Kirin 970 has a significantly weaker GPU than the S845, especially when Huawei is marketing some of these phones as 'gaming phones'.
  • goatfajitas - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    Now you are comparing 2 different class phones (flagship OP6 vs mid-range P20) and CPU from 2 different years (2017's 970 vs 2018's S845). In most areas like vs. like is very close, and there is alot more complexity to it than just that. It's all way over-hyped and over-emphasized
  • R0H1T - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    No he's right, current QC flagship SoC vs reigning Hisilicon Flasghip. In case you din't know SD845 is available in phones priced as low as $300 lower than P20 in fact.
  • R0H1T - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    >reply meant for goatfajitas
  • goatfajitas - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    Fair enough, but the Kirin 980 is out in a month. It is last years product and when it came out it compared to the S835. Both on yearly cadence appx 6 months apart.
  • Cicerone - Friday, September 7, 2018 - link

    A phone price is not standing from it's SOC. Display, cameras quality, type of storage and software is accounted.
  • cfenton - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    The P20 Pro came out this year and actually cost more at launch than the OP6 (~700-800 euro vs ~500-600 euro). The P20 Pro also came out after the GS9, which has the S845. Even the P20 launched at 649 euro. If you'd prefer to compare phones that came out at the same time, then the GS9 is still over 2x faster. If you want to compare the Kirin 970 to the S835, since both came out in 2017, then the 835 is still 2x as fast.
  • goatfajitas - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    From a GPU perspective you aren't incorrect... If you are buying a phone as a gaming device you might want to look at GPU benchmarks more, but you do however seem to be overly obsessed with bench-marking... You are also not comparing like for like. The P20 is not Huawei's flagship, the Mate is. Oneplus is a crappy budget brand with massive quality issues and the price shows it. IF you want to buy one go for it.
  • cfenton - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    The P20 Pro is priced like a flagship and has their top-end SOC. Huawei just has two high-end models for some reason.

    Again, even if you insist on comparing only flagships from big companies, Huawei comes out looking bad. The Pixel 2 and Galaxy S8 are both significantly faster than the Mate 10.

    I'm not obsessed with benchmarks, but I think they have value. We aren't talking about modern SSD benchmarks where one brand reads at 3100mbps and the other at 3200mbps. That's a small difference. This is very different. We're talking about at least double the performance.

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