Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 vs Kirin 990 vs Exynos 990: How do they fare on paper?

We saw the first 5G phones emerge earlier in 2019, but 2020 promises to be the year when 5G devices truly go mainstream in many markets. The newly announced Snapdragon 865 processor is expected to lead that charge, in the same way as the Snapdragon 855 powered many 5G flagships earlier this year.

There’s more to a chipset than 5G though, with system performance, multimedia, photography, and a host of other factors to consider. So with that in mind, we’re comparing Qualcomm’s latest chipset to Huawei’s Kirin 990 and Samsung’s Exynos 990.

  Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 HiSilicon Kirin 990 5G Samsung Exynos 990
CPU Config 1x semi-custom Cortex A77 @ 2.85GHz
3x semi-custom Cortex-A77 @ 2.4GHz
4x semi-custom Cortex-A55 @ 1.8GHz
2x Cortex-A76 @ 2.86 GHz
2x Cortex-A76 @ 2.36 GHz
4x Cortex-A55 @ 1.95 GHz
2x Mongoose 5th gen
2x Cortex-A76
4x Cortex-A55
GPU Adreno 650 Mali-G76 MP16 Mali-G77 MP11
AI/DSP Hexagon 698 Da Vinci NPU Dual-core NPU
Process 7nm EUV 7nm EUV 7nm EUV
Camera support 200MP snapshots / 64MP single / 64MP and 64MP dual 64MP 108MP single / 24.8MP and 24.8MP dual
Video capture 8K @ 30fps
4K UHD @ 120fps
720p @ 960fps
4K UHD @ 60fps 8K @ 30fps
4K UHD @ 60fps
Charging Quick Charge 4+
Quick Charge AI
Huawei SuperCharge Adaptive Fast Charging
Modem X55 5G & RF system (external)
7500 Mbps down
3000 Mbps up
SA/NSA
mmWave
Sub-6GHz
Balong 5000
4G / 5G (integrated)
2300 Mbps down
1250 Mbps up
SA/NSA
Sub-6GHz
Exynos Modem 5123 (external)
7350 Mbps down
N/A up
SA/NSA
mmWave
Sub-6GHz

When it comes to CPU power, it’s clear that all three brands are offering similar approaches. Qualcomm, Huawei, and Samsung have all adopted heavy, medium, and light CPU cores. This theoretically allows for a better balance of power and efficiency for a given task.

Qualcomm is the only company here to utilize Arm’s latest and greatest Cortex-A77 CPU core (as its heavy and medium cores). Meanwhile, Samsung uses its fifth-generation Mongoose cores for heavy duty and Cortex-A76 cores for middleweight tasks. Huawei’s Kirin 990, meanwhile, uses Cortex-A76 cores as its heavy and medium CPU cores, upping the clock speeds over the Kirin 980 instead. All three sport four Cortex-A55 CPU cores for lightweight tasks.

Read: Arm Cortex-A77 — Everything you need to know

Arm says the Cortex-A77 offers a performance boost of up to 20% over the Cortex-A76, assuming identical clock speeds. But Huawei reasoned that the Cortex-A77 used more power than the Cortex-A76 for the same performance. We don’t know much about the fifth-generation Mongoose cores used in the Exynos 990 though, but Samsung says it yields a 20% improvement over the heavyweight core seen in the Exynos 9820.

The Exynos 9820 actually delivered better single-core benchmarks than the Snapdragon 855, and if both Arm and Samsung are claiming 20% gains for their new CPUs, that suggests Samsung could still be ahead. Then again, Samsung’s Achilles’ Heel has been throttling due to heat, dropping performance below Qualcomm’s chipsets.

Otherwise, Qualcomm and Samsung both tout support for LPDDR5 RAM, while Huawei tops out at LPDDR4X. All three support UFS 3.0 storage for faster read and write speeds.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 vs Kirin 990 vs Exynos 990: Graphics

Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 in hand back

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon flagship processors usually deliver fantastic GPU performance, and the Adreno 650 looks very capable on paper. The Snapdragon 865 GPU touts a performance boost of up to 25% over the Adreno 640 in the Snapdragon 855.

Qualcomm also released the Snapdragon 855 Plus in July, with the firm touting 15% better graphical performance than the vanilla 855 (and coming pretty close to that figure in benchmarks). The real comparison might be between the Snapdragon 855 Plus and the 865, and we’re likely looking at a difference of roughly 10% in the Snapdragon 865’s favor.

Samsung and Huawei traditionally use Arm’s Mali GPU cores in their chipsets, and it’s no different for the Exynos 990 and Kirin 990, respectively. The Exynos 990 uses a brand-new Mali-G77 MP11 GPU. Huawei, meanwhile, is sticking with the Mali-G76 GPU seen in the Kirin 980 and Exynos 982x series, albeit with 16 cores.

Qualcomm is expected to retain its graphical lead over Huawei, owing to previous benchmarks.

Samsung says we can expect a 20% performance boost with the Mali-G77 MP11 compared to the Mali-G76, which means the Korean firm can afford to use fewer cores to achieve the same level of performance. In fact, it’s using one fewer core than the Mali-G76 seen on the Galaxy Note 10‘s Exynos 9825 chipset.

Huawei, however, has been forced to increase the core count of its older, Mali-G76 GPU in order to remain competitive (going from 10 to 16 cores). We’ll need to wait for Exynos 990 benchmarks to figure out if this strategy has worked for Huawei. For what it’s worth, the Huawei is using a lower GPU clock speed as well, which should theoretically result in less thermal-induced slowdown.

We’ve already compared the Snapdragon 855 and 855 Plus to the Kirin 990 in graphical benchmarks, so what’s the takeaway? Huawei’s latest chipset is neck-and-neck with the Snapdragon 855, but falls behind the Snapdragon 855 Plus. And with the Snapdragon 865 making more strides, expect the 865 to pull ahead in gaming.

A big feather in Qualcomm’s cap is the ability to update GPU drivers via the Play Store. This opens the door for more frequent GPU driver updates, as Qualcomm and OEMs don’t have to wait for carrier approval to push them out. Frequently updated GPU drivers are also a boon for niche use cases like emulation (e.g. the Dolphin emulator). This could further solidify Qualcomm’s position as the chipset vendor of choice for gaming phones and mobile gamers in general.

A great GPU is also important due to the push for high refresh rate screens, and Samsung tops out at 120Hz while Qualcomm hits a massive 144Hz for Quad HD+ screens. There’s no word on the Kirin 990’s maximum refresh rate.

Connectivity

Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 internals slide

5G is perhaps the headline feature in this trio of flagship processors, and all three are multi-mode modems. Unfortunately, the Kirin 990 is the only one of the lot missing support for mmWave 5G. Sub-6GHz is the more common 5G deployment at this stage, being rolled out in Asia and Europe, but this omission still stings.

Huawei does stand out in a good way though, as the Kirin 990 5G is the only chipset here featuring an integrated modem solution. Integrating the 5G modem into the chipset itself theoretically results in reduced power consumption, a smaller footprint, and reduced heat compared to a processor with a separate 5G modem.

Also read: Why there’s no integrated 5G modem in the Snapdragon 865

In other words, it seems like users in regions with mmWave 5G networks will want to stick with a Samsung or Qualcomm-powered phone to guarantee compatibility.

Absolute speed sees Qualcomm claiming 7.5Gbps downlink speeds and 3Gbps uplink speeds, while Samsung’s Exynos 990 hits 7.35Gbps downlink speeds (it hasn’t revealed uplink speeds). Huawei says the Kirin 990 is capable of hitting 2.3Gbps down and 1.3Gbps up, far lower than rival flagship SoCs (at least in terms of downlink).

Real-world results show that you can expect significantly slower speeds owing to a variety of factors, but it looks like Qualcomm and Samsung’s chips hold the theoretical speed advantage for now.

Camera and multimedia

huawei mate 30 pro space silver camera leness 37

The Snapdragon 865 is an absolute beast on paper when it comes to photography, supporting 200MP cameras. This is only for snapshots, so features like multi-frame image processing, HDR, and zero shutter lag will be missing if you shoot at this resolution. The new Qualcomm chipset also supports up to 64MP single or 64MP/64MP dual camera with the various image processing bells and whistles.

Qualcomm’s impressive camera chops don’t end there, as the Snapdragon 865 supports 8K/30fps video, 4K/120fps, 4K HDR video (as well as Dolby Vision capture), and “unlimited” 960fps video at 720p.

The latter feature typically requires a camera sensor with super-fast DRAM attached to it. But the camera sensor doesn’t actually pack a ton of this memory, resulting in 960fps clips that can only be recorded for roughly a second in real time. Fortunately, Qualcomm has delivered a big speed boost to its ISP and other associated parts, negating the use of a specific sensor for 960fps video. This potentially frees up the likes of Samsung and Sony to use much higher resolution sensors if they so wish on their 2020 flagships.

Qualcomm and Samsung’s latest chipsets offer a big leap in photo and video resolution.

Samsung’s Exynos 990 isn’t a slouch either, packing support for 108MP sensors and up to six cameras (or two 24.8MP cameras). The company adds that the chipset is able to process data from up to three cameras simultaneously. The Exynos processor also supports 4K/120fps and is the second-generation Samsung chipset to deliver 8K/30fps recording (following the Exynos 982X series).

Huawei’s processor lacks support for 108MP+ cameras, topping out at just 64MP, but the Mate 30 series shows that it’s able to handle quad camera setups just fine. It also tops out at 4K/60fps for video capture, making it the only chipset here to lack 8K/30fps support.

One benefit that the Kirin 990 has is support for BM3D (block matching and 3D filtering) noise reduction technology, reportedly associated with DSLR cameras. Huawei says this tech helps to bring noise down by 30% for photos and 20% for video.

All in all, it looks like Qualcomm and Samsung will enjoy a megapixel and video resolution/frame rate advantage over Huawei’s chipset. However, Huawei seems to be focusing on improving low-light quality even more.

AI

Kirin 990 with Huawei logo

Huawei was first to the dedicated AI silicon game with the Kirin 970, delivering a Neural Processing Unit (NPU) back in 2017. We’ve since seen Qualcomm and Samsung step up in these areas.

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 touts a fifth-generation AI Engine, featuring a new Hexagon Tensor Accelerator. Qualcomm says the new chipset delivers 15 TOPS (trillion operations per second), compared to the Snapdragon 855’s 7 TOPS. Qualcomm says the AI power can be put to good use translating your speech into another language in real-time, while retaining your voice.

Samsung’s 2020 flagship processor features a new, dual-core NPU, and Samsung says the combo of this NPU and the digital signal processor delivers 10 TOPS of performance.

Read: What is the Google Pixel 4’s Neural Core?

Huawei hasn’t stood still either, offering two big NPUs and a small NPU in the Kirin 990 5G (and one of each in the 4G version). Huawei claims a 1.88x improvement over the Kirin 980‘s NPU design, and a 24x boost to power efficiency for tasks like face unlock.

It seems like Huawei hasn’t disclosed TOPS performance for the Kirin 990, but the third-party AI Benchmark website lists it at number two (behind the MediaTek Dimensity 1000), with a score of 52,403 points. The fifth Snapdragon 855 Plus achieved a score of 24,652, for what it’s worth.

It’s worth noting that AI performance is still a pretty tough thing to quantify, owing to the varying approaches to silicon and the variety of different workloads.

Snapdragon 865 vs Kirin 990 vs Exynos 990: Which one looks better on paper?

Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 5G Mobile Platform Chip Front

It’s too early to definitively call a winner until we’ve put all these chipsets to the test, but a peek at the spec sheet and preliminary testing has already revealed interesting findings.

For one, we previously benchmarked the Snapdragon 855, 855 Plus, and the Kirin 990. This test found that the Kirin 990 just about beat the Qualcomm chipsets for CPU performance, but lagged behind the Snapdragon 855 Plus for GPU tasks.

Qualcomm isn’t standing still obviously, so we’re expecting the Snapdragon 865 to surpass the Kirin 990 for CPU tasks and stretch its lead in the GPU arena. This suggests that the main fight will be between Samsung and Qualcomm once again. Previously, Qualcomm has maintained the GPU advantage, but is this the year for Arm’s Mali graphics to close the gap?

Samsung and Qualcomm are also set to be the only contenders for now in markets where mmWave 5G is being pushed (e.g. US and Japan), owing to Huawei’s lack of support for the standard. And with Huawei continuing to suffer from the effects of a US trade ban, you’ll probably get your hands on an Exynos 990 or Snapdragon 865 phone before a Kirin 990 device.

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