First generation design of any new “G” smartphone is, for all intent and purposes, a study in design compromises. To get product to market on time, non-ideal designs are used in order to balance performance and timeliness of product launch. In the case of Huawei, their first 5G device, the Mate 20X used both a Kirin 980 LTE SoC and a separate discrete Balong 5000 5G modem. That discrete design by itself is typical of most first-generation 5G smartphones, however, it was note-worthy to discover use of an unprecedentedly dense 3GB DRAM chip mounted to the modem. Possibly, the use of this large DRAM capacity for a modem gave Huawei engineers the flexibility to handle last minute changes in modem software. Therefore, the inefficiency of the Mate 20 X design was intentional to get the product out the door. But that is just pure conjecture from this analyst.
In late 2019, Huawei’s HiSilicon division announced the new Kirin 990 5G SoC. This was HiSilicon’s second 5G chipset with an integrated 5G modem. While market leader Qualcomm is still using separate apps processor and modem design for their second-generation premium 5G chipset, Huawei has made a dramatic improvement in 5G electronic design relative to the previous first-generation Balong 5000 design. This streamlining of silicon using the Kirin 990 is illustrated in the 5G version of the latest Mate 30 Pro smartphone.
Here, a single package-on-package DRAM of 8BG is used for both apps processing as well as modem operations. Clearly, Huawei has learned from its first 5G design challenges and significantly improved their second attempt at 5G smartphones. Further, Huawei has begun using more HiSilicon RF Front End (RFFE) components in the Mate 30 Pro 5G. This change was necessary as the US ratchetted up the trade disputes with China. Huawei was able to develop a 5G RFFE design that is just as capable as other solutions in the market which relied heavily on US component manufactures. What this exercise in 5G design evolution demonstrate is Huawei’s resourcefulness in leveraging internal capabilities to complete a 5G SoC and RFFE around the constraints of existing trade disputes.
In comparing Huawei’s first-generation and second-generation 5G design, a significant improvement in design efficiency and total silicon cost is recognized. The progress Huawei has made over the past several months is note-worthy for the amount and rate of progress in 5G smartphone designs which is deserving of highlighting in this article.