Huawei Mate 9/Kirin 960 Early Testing & Comparison with Pixel XL/Snapdragon 821
Huawei has ambitious plans for itself, as the Chinese giant that aims to eventually beat Apple also wants to be the second largest smartphone maker within the next two years. At the heart of this mammoth effort is Huawei’s flagship lineup, which now includes the Huawei Mate 9.
Despite all of the technology that the Mate 9 packs inside, the SoC is one of the most alluring aspects for performance junkies, and the Kirin 960 has a lot to live up to in the world of ever-increasing competition. So, the question is: how does the Kirin 960 compare to the Snapdragon 821? We took the Huawei Mate 9 through an early set of benchmarks to get a feel for the SoC’s CPU and GPU performance, although we still have a lot of testing to do regarding real-world UI performance, thermal throttling, thermals, and real-world gaming performance. But those are topics for another day, so let’s look at what we’ve found so far.
Huawei’s HiSilicon Kirin 960
The Kirin 960 inside the Huawei Mate 9 is the latest flagship-grade SoC to debut in a device in 2016. Manufactured by Huawei’s semiconductor subsidiary, HiSilicon, the Kirin 960 employs a big.LITTLE octa-core configuration: four Cortex-A73 cores operating at a peak frequency of 2.36GHz and four Cortex-A53 cores operating at a peak frequency of 1.84GHz. The GPU on the Kirin 960 is handled by the newest ARM Mali-G71MP8 GPU clocked at 900MHz and based on the ‘Bifrost’ architecture.
When compared to the Kirin 950, the Kirin 960 offers a few notable improvements. While the Kirin 950 employed four Cortex-A72 cores for its performance cluster, the Kirin 960 bumps this cluster to four Cortex-A73 cores. Despite the similarity in their nomenclature, the design used in the A73 is more similar to the Cortex-A17 Sophia µarch family while the A72 is closer in design to the A57 and A15 Austin µarch family. ARM claims that the new architecture is faster (by up to 30%), smaller, and more efficient (by up to 30%) than the A72, making the A73 a definite improvement in the performance department.
The GPU, though, is a different ball game altogether. The Mali-G71 is the first GPU from ARM built on the newest ‘Bifrost’ architecture. When compared to the Mali T880, the Mali-G71MP8 doubles the number of shader cores (from a maximum of 16 to 32). Couple this with the move to the new architecture, and you get a GPU that is more powerful and more efficient than the GPU in the predecessor, while still remaining scalable. Over the T880, ARM claims that the G71 offers 20% better energy efficiency, 40% better performance density, and 20% external memory bandwidth savings.
To put all of this in context, let us remember how the 2015 HiSilicon Kirin 950 performed. In our review of the Honor 8, we found that the Kirin 950 had great performance while demonstrating decent thermal efficiency, especially during sustained performance. However, the GPU was the weakest link in the Kirin 950, so Huawei had to step up their efforts this year. The Kirin 950 was the first flagship SoC to employ CPU cores based on the Cortex-A72 architecture when it was deployed in the Huawei Mate 8 in late 2015, but while other SoCs began utilizing Cortex-A72 cores this year, Huawei had to introduce something better to remain ahead of the curve. And they did just that with the Kirin 960 which improves the peak and sustained CPU and GPU performance.
While the HiSilicon Kirin 960 is expected to be better than the Kirin 950, how does it fare against the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821, the SoC used in some recently released flagships? To compare, we put the Kirin 960 in the new Huawei Mate 9 to the test against the Snapdragon 821 Pro-AB found in the Google Pixel XL and ran both devices through a few benchmarks. Keep in mind that the Pixel Xl’s Snapdragon 821 runs at the same clock speeds as the regular Snapdragon 820, but we’ll update our findings as soon as we get our hands on a device running on a different variant of the Snapdragon 821 within the next few weeks. Each benchmark below was performed three times to weed out outlier results, and the three results for each benchmark were averaged to provide a more accurate score for each device. In addition, to reduce the effects of thermal throttling on our peak performance testing, we allowed each device to cool down between each testing iteration before proceeding with the next benchmark. With that being said, keep in mind that again these results are only representative of theoretical peak performance and not sustained performance, which we will be testing in the future.
Starting off with GeekBench 4, a benchmark that mainly tests the CPU’s prowess (single and multi core) we find the following results:
In single core performance, the Kirin 960 on the Mate 9 performs better than the Snapdragon 821 on the Google Pixel XL. The multi core performance is where the dual-cluster octa-core setup and the A73’s on the Kirin 960 shine against the dual-cluster quad-core Kyro setup on the Snapdragon 821, offering around 30% better results. The margin of theoretical difference is significant, albeit applications would need to properly utilize multi-threading to make the best use of the CPU superiority, and the scheduling solution that Huawei implements will greatly affect real-world results as well.
Even the Kirin 950 on the Honor 8 with the CPU profile set to “performance” outperforms the Snapdragon 821, despite the significant generational gap between the two. The Mate 9 widens the gap further by healthily building upon the Kirin 950’s lead, but arguably not as much as could be expected out of a full-year improvement.
Moving on to AnTuTu, a benchmark that holistically tests all major SoC keypoints (as well as other components), we find:
The Huawei Mate 9 loses out to the Google Pixel XL in 3D performance, but remains marginally ahead across UX and CPU performance. RAM is where the score of the Mate 9 is about double that of the Pixel XL. Due to the deficit in 3D performance, the Pixel XL just about comes out on top of the Mate 9. Keep in mind we aren’t fond of AnTuTu and we usually abstain from showcasing its results in our in-depth performance analysis, but we also recognize it’s one of the most popular benchmarks out there for quick and easy testing, so we thought these numbers would be relevant to some readers.
BaseMark OS II, another holistic benchmark that tests overall performance in key areas paints a similar picture:
In this benchmark, the Mate 9 and the Pixel XL run neck-to-neck in system performance, while we see the same deficit where memory is concerned, with the Mate 9 outputting a score more than double that of the Pixel XL. However, the Pixel XL is superior in graphical performance. Since Basemark OS II weighs each score differently than AnTuTu’s simple sum of scores, the Mate 9 comes ahead of the Pixel XL in this benchmark by a healthy margin.
The Adreno 530 in the Pixel XL is still notably faster than the Mali-G71 BiFrost GPU on the Kirin 960, and GFXBench confirms the same story. GFXBench 4.0 focuses mainly on 3D Graphics performance across various tests, so the results from this benchmark help shed some light on the differences in GPU prowess of the devices.
Next up is PCMark, another holistic benchmark that tests system performance by putting it through simulations of common tasks such as web-browsing and video editing:
Finally, we’ll move on to 3DMark, which we feel gives a better perspective of a device’s gaming performance by testing the SoC with both high-level graphics and physics tests:
Here, too, we see that the Adreno 530 offers superior graphical performance compared to the Mali-G71.
While we should keep in mind that these are just a few benchmarks and we haven’t put the Kirin 960 through more rigorous tests, we can already begin seeing trends and inferring some results. First, we see that there is indeed a noticeable CPU performance bump: Geekbench 4 scores have gone up by a healthy amount over what we measured with the Kirin 950 on the Honor 8, which itself was already outperforming the Snapdragon 820 (and the Pixel XL’s 821) with its Cortex-A72 core setup. The biggest leap forward is in the GPU department, however: while the late-2015 Kirin 950 and its Mali-T880 MP4 offered graphical performance similar to that of the Snapdragon 805’s Adreno 420 (a late 2014 GPU), the results from the Mali-G71 are notably closer to what we see in the Mali-T880 MP12 of the Exynos Galaxy Note 7 and the Adreno 530 in the Snapdragon 820 and 821.
Overall, our first run through the standard benchmarks gives us an early but promising look at the Huawei Mate 9’s peak performance and what the Kirin 960 is capable of. We’ll be testing the chipset and the real-world performance in the coming days to offer better insight into aspects such as performance over time (which is reportedly one of the A73 cores’ key improvements) as well as gaming performance (which is an aspect Huawei has allegedly prioritized with the Kirin 960). While the improvements to the Kirin 960 does put it ahead of other 2016 chipsets in many aspects, its lead is not substantial enough for the SoC to hold its ground once the next generation of flagship SoCs arrive. The next wave of processors from Qualcomm and Samsung will most certainly up the ante, but for now and in its own regard, the HiSilicon Kirin 960 found in the Huawei Mate 9 is a more than capable chipset.