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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  • sing_electric - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    At some point, Huawei (and other Chinese OEMs) need to decide whether they want to build their brands globally or just in their home market.

    "Other Chinese OEMs lie so we've got to as well" ends up doing nothing but providing ammunition for those that say that Chinese phones are "cheap," under-performing knock offs.

    The Nexus 6p showed many years ago that Huawei can make good hardware. HiSilicon's chips obviously aren't doing them many favors in the GPU department, but that just means they need to target appropriate segments where they are competitive (I'm convinced that there's a large niche of people who want stylish devices that feel premium but don't really care much about performance), rather than lying and perpetuating a stereotype that will hurt their brand long after they've abandoned those practices.
  • A5 - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    Calling the 6P "good" hardware is a bit generous. The battery subsystem has a devastating defect rate, especially since the phone is sealed.

    At one point Google ran out of refurbs and had to give out Pixel XLs to people as replacements.
  • ventrolis - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    Are the charts for Aztec Normal/High flipped? Somehow I imagine the 'High' test would be more difficult and have lower frame rates than 'Normal'.
  • Andrei Frumusanu - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    Thank you for pointing it out, indeed the labels were flipped.
  • CityZ - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    Why not simply do a combined performance & power test where you run the benchmark continuously until the phone shuts down? If a phone maker tries to cheat for the performance side, they'll look bad on the run-time side. If a phone throws up a "I'm running too hot" screen, consider that the end of the test. Such a test not only shows how fast your game may perform, but also for how long you can game.
  • Andrei Frumusanu - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    Screen resolution, V-Sync and other device differences makes this kinda hard. In my view there's no added value over just peak & sustained performance as well as just measuring power.
  • wow&wow - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    "A Cheating Headache"

    The worst one should be the "Intel's repeatedly not following the specs" that causes the problems of "Meltdown", requiring OS memory relocation, the industry's 1st and only, and "Foreshadow" that the mitigation can only "reduce" the risk but "not eliminated" it!
  • Xex360 - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    Because I don't consider phones to be gaming devices, for that I have a PC and a console, so benchmarks are worthless to me, the most important things in a phone are the OS (Unfortunately I'm stuck with android, iOS isn't well suited for my use), screen (high resolution and no notch) and finally battery life (around one day, an OLED screen).
  • A5 - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    Android increasingly uses the GPU to render the OS, and apps like Google Maps use it extensively as well. Sustained GPU performance isn't just relevant to gamers.
  • eastcoast_pete - Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - link

    First and foremost: Thanks Andrei and Ian! This kind of article is why I come to Anandtech again and again (and more frequently than other computer tech websites). Yes, those benchmarks are not only misleading, they also steer the manufacturers towards optimizing for an artificial use (benchmarking), often at the expense of actually optimizing their smartphones for real world use. Who knows just how much better Huawei's phones could have been for everyday use if the time and energy invested in cheating for benchmarks would have instead gone into optimizing their phones for productivity, real world applications, and battery live (Huawei gets a bonus for historically having large capacity batteries, though!). As they are, those benchmarking suites would probably come in handy if one needs to use the phone as a hand warmer in winter.

    One minor edit: the "High" and "Normal"labels on the the Aztec Ruins graphs are probably switched around. The fps numbers for "high" are really high for all devices. However, that is a very minor, cosmetic, point in an otherwise very good article!

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