The next-gen mobile processing landscape is beginning to take shape. Major players Apple, Huawei, and Qualcomm have announced their latest flagship-tier chipsets built on bleeding edge 5nm manufacturing processes.

Over the course of the next few months, high-end smartphones powered by the Apple A14 Bionic, Huawei Kirin 9000, and Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 will go head-to-head. All three make familiar promises to improve performance, energy efficiency, and enhance machine learning capabilities. And that’s just for starters.

We’re also eagerly awaiting Samsung’s higher-end alternative to its Exynos 1080 and possibly whatever MediaTek has in store for 2021. But for now, we’ll focus on all the confirmed information we have from the big three announcements from the closing quarter of 2020. So, let’s dive into the differences and similarities between these next-gen processors.

See also: Snapdragon SoC guide — all of Qualcomm’s smartphone processors explained

Snapdragon 888 vs Apple A14 Bionic vs Kirin 9000 specs compared

 Apple A14 BionicHiSilicon Kirin 9000Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
CPU Config2x Firestorm (Big cores)
4x Icestorm (Little cores)
(Fully-custom CPU designs)
1x Cortex-A77 @ 3.13GHz
3x Cortex-A77 @ 2.54GHz
4x Cortex-A55 @ 2.05GHz
1x Cortex-X1 @ 2.84GHz
3x Cortex-A78 @ 2.4GHz
4x Cortex-A55 @ 1.8GHz
GPU4 core (Apple in-house design)Arm Mali-G78, 24 coresAdreno 660
AI / DSP16-core Neural Engine2x big core
1x tiny core
Hexagon 780
(Fused Scalar, Tensor, and Vector)
Modem4G LTE
5G sub-6Ghz & mmWave
7500Mbps download
3000Mbps upload
5G sub-6Ghz & mmWave
7500Mbps download
3500Mbps upload
5G sub-6Ghz & mmWave
7500Mbps download
3000Mbps upload

What to expect from next-gen performance

Despite all being based on 5nm manufacturing processes, these chips couldn’t be more different. There are major differences between the inner processing components. Apple’s A14 offers up its own custom big and little CPU cores under the Firestorm and Icestorm monikers. Meanwhile, Qualcomm and Huawei’s HiSilicon use off the shelf parts from Arm. However, the Snapdragon 888 benefits from the newer high-end Cortex-X1 and Cortex-A78, while Huawei uses a last-gen Cortex-A77.

Apple has maintained a healthy lead over its Android chipset rivals in the single-core CPU department for several generations now. The A14 boasts a further 21{0ab330907ab55d1d247a5e46cbfc213f668b37838ccb2fc637c3c0da5f4ad964} jump over the A13. Meanwhile, Qualcomm boasts a 25{0ab330907ab55d1d247a5e46cbfc213f668b37838ccb2fc637c3c0da5f4ad964} CPU boost this generation over the Snapdragon 865, while the Kirin 9000 claims a 10{0ab330907ab55d1d247a5e46cbfc213f668b37838ccb2fc637c3c0da5f4ad964} win over the Plus variant of Qualcomm’s older chip.

Taking these performance claims at face value, Apple looks set to remain in front in the single-core department. Qualcomm may be able to close the gap ever so slightly, but 2021 Android phones will still end up some way behind in this metric. Huawei ends up a little further behind that with its older cores too. However, on the multi-core side, the tri-cluster setup used in Qualcomm and Huawei’s chips will likely keep them highly competitive. It may even produce wins for energy efficiency and battery life. Only full testing will tell.

Apple looks set to retain a CPU performance advantage, but you won’t be able to tell with most apps. Graphics performance may be an even closer call.

Graphics and gaming performance may be a much closer contest this year. Apple’s own estimates suggest less than an 8{0ab330907ab55d1d247a5e46cbfc213f668b37838ccb2fc637c3c0da5f4ad964} boost in graphics performance over the A13. Our initial benchmarks concur that this is the area of least improvement too. Qualcomm, on the other hand, is promising a huge 35{0ab330907ab55d1d247a5e46cbfc213f668b37838ccb2fc637c3c0da5f4ad964} boost to graphics performance with the Snapdragon 888. Assuming that number holds up in real games, it will definitely close the gap and possibly even surpass Apple’s graphics lead. Huawei is also claiming big GPU gains this generation, boasting a 52{0ab330907ab55d1d247a5e46cbfc213f668b37838ccb2fc637c3c0da5f4ad964} win over last year’s Snapdragon 865 Plus. Those are some mighty big claims and, if true, but we haven’t seen those results materialize in benchmarks.

Of course, we’ll have to run plenty of benchmarks and record actual frame rate comparisons to know which chip is the best for games overall. But 2020-2021 looks set to be the most competitive generation for gaming performance we’ve ever seen. It’s certainly an exciting time to be a mobile gamer.

Snapdragon 888 vs the competition: Preliminary benchmark data

We won’t have Snapdragon 888 powered smartphones in our hands until next year, but the iPhone 12 and Huawei Mate 40 ranges already showcase what 5nm chipsets are capable of. I’ve run the two through our in-house Speed Test G benchmark suite to grab some comparison points. I’ve also extrapolated a Snapdragon 888 target based on Qualcomm’s performance predictions, as well as the existing result we have for the Snapdragon 865.

Clearly, Huawei’s chipset showcases the biggest generational gains. The sluggish GPU performance of the Kirin 990 has been fixed with the move to the Kirin 9000 and the Arm Mali-G78. Even so, the chipset still only just about competes with the current-gun Snapdragon 865 in this benchmark. Although the chip scores slightly better for CPU and mixed workload results, taking on the 865 Plus. Still, the graphics improvement is a major boost for Huawei’s flagship phones.

The first 5nm performance crown will likely go to either Apple or Qualcomm unless Samsung has something special in store for us. If Qualcomm’s CPU and GPU uplift projections hold true for real-world smartphones, the Snapdragon 888 will nudge ahead of Apple’s A14, currently the fastest mobile chip in our varied workload benchmark. Nevertheless, we tend to see a bit of variation in actual handsets, so take this prediction with a pinch of salt. Either way, peak performance is likely to be a very close call between the two processors come early 2021.

More than just CPU and GPU performance

iPhone 12 Pro Max taking a photo 2

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

The classic CPU/GPU paradigm is increasingly obsolete these days. Memory speeds, image processing, machine learning, and other hardware silicon blocks are making an increasingly important difference to device capabilities, performance, and battery life.

For example, LPDDR5 support in the Snapdragon 888 and Kirin 9000 devices is not only faster than LPDDR4X, but it also offers lower power modes for up to 30{0ab330907ab55d1d247a5e46cbfc213f668b37838ccb2fc637c3c0da5f4ad964} lower energy consumption than its predecessor. That’s good for battery life and can help with multitasking and gaming performance.

The move to 5nm keeps mobile processors on the bleeding edge.

Likewise, AI and machine learning processing power is helping to drive new software features. Like-for-like AI performance comparisons are quite difficult to make, given the range of compute hardware and options in use. We certainly shouldn’t base any assumptions on TOPs numbers listed by manufacturers. That said, looking at the generation increase to TOPs shows how important AI silicon has become in the past few years.

The Apple A14 boasts 11TOPs of AI inferencing performance, which is an 83{0ab330907ab55d1d247a5e46cbfc213f668b37838ccb2fc637c3c0da5f4ad964} boost over the 6TOPs in the A13. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 boasts 26TOPs of AI compute. That’s a 73{0ab330907ab55d1d247a5e46cbfc213f668b37838ccb2fc637c3c0da5f4ad964} increase from the Snapdragon 865’s 15TOPs, as well as a huge generational increase. At least on paper. Huawei also claims a 2.4x performance win for AI processing capabilities via its NPU over Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865. Make of those numbers what you will, but all three make notable leaps in AI performance compared to previous generations. Machine Learning is here to stay and is a point of notable improvement in this processor generation.

Related: The best Android camera phones you can get

Image processing capabilities are just as important for smartphones. Support for multiple cameras, multi-frame image processing, and enhanced video capture capabilities play a role in building batter camera phones. For instance, the Snapdragon 888 and Kirin 9000 support multi-exposure HDR video, object segmentation, and enhanced noise reduction technologies. Qualcomm also now supports 10-bit HEIF images and simultaneous triple camera processing. Meanwhile, Apple’s A14 Bionic introduces ProRAW editing and Dolby Vision video at 60fps, as well as a similar boost to processing performance.

All three chipsets are powering improved photography capabilities. However, I’d argue that Qualcomm and Huawei take a slight lead in their range of processing options. Although Apple has its share of neat tricks and very capable image quality processing too. Ultimately, picture quality is the most important end result. This depends just as much on the sensor and lens hardware that ends up in the smartphone. Needless to say, phones powered by Apple, Huawei, and Qualcomm silicon will all end up taking very good pictures throughout 2021.

Integrated 5G is a win for Android phones

Huawei HQ 5G logo

5G networking is another key battleground for flagship tier products. A key distinction here is that the Apple A14 Bionic relies on an external modem for 5G connectivity. Both the Snapdragon 888 and Kirin 9000 feature an integrated modem for improved energy efficiency and a smaller footprint. These two also offer some newer, more futureproof 5G features.

The A14 inside the iPhone 12 series is paired up with an older Qualcomm Snapdragon X55 5G modem. The Snapdragon X60 modem inside the Snapdragon 888, on the other hand, introduces 5G Voice-over-NR (VoNR) capabilities. It features enhanced carrier aggregation across sub-6GHz and mmWave technologies for faster speeds. There’s also FDD-TDD sub-6GHz carrier aggregation, 5G multi-SIM, and support for newer, faster, and more efficient mmWave antenna components. So hitting those peak speeds should be much more feasible and phones futureproofed as 5G networks evolve.

Apple was a year behind its competitors in entering the 5G market and remains a generation behind.

The Kirin 9000 features an integrated Balong 5000 5G part, with both mmWave and sub-6Ghz support. The chip supports carrier aggregation, FDD and TDD spectrum access, and speeds up to 7.5Gbps when mixing 4G and 5G signals. This is in the same region as its rivals, but Huawei has been on this modem for a couple of years now. The supported features are a little different from the latest Snapdragon modem, but both are already preparing for future Standalone 5G networks.

Apple was a year behind its competitors in entering the 5G market and remains a generation behind on modem technology too. The more modern integrated options are definitely nicer to have for battery life and ease of development. Nevertheless, consumers aren’t likely to notice a big difference in terms of data speeds on current 5G networks between any of these chips.

Who wins the 5nm chipset battle?

iPhone SE 2020 vs Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra backs on couch

The move to 5nm not only means energy and area improvements over last year’s 7nm chipsets. The increased transistor density is also allowing chip designers to improve performance with bulkier core designs and integrate new silicon features.

As we’ve come to expect, all three flagship chipsets offer cutting edge improvements to help build compelling high-end smartphones. Apple continues to benefit from its in-house CPU and GPU architectures that look to see it hold onto a performance lead in some benchmarks. This is particularly true where single-core CPU performance is involved. However, both Huawei and Qualcomm are investing heavily in graphics performance this generation, which will see them close that particular historic gap. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 may yet prove to be the fastest out of the bunch.

See also: Top 5 things about the Snapdragon 888

Similarly, all three have doubled down on image processing and machine learning capabilities once again. This will ensure top-tier photography and cutting edge machine applications which run flawlessly. However, all three have their own takes on these formulas, making direct comparisons much more difficult than classic performance metrics.

What matters most is the actual handsets. Apple and Huawei both benefit from the close relationship that sees their handset design teams make use of the best features their respective chipsets have to offer. Qualcomm assists its partners, but can’t make them embrace every little trick the Snapdragon 888 has to offer. We’ll have to wait until 2021 to see what the latest Snapdragon-powered handsets are truly capable of. Either way, the premium-tier market continues to be a battle of fine margins. It looks like each chipset will score its own wins again this year.

Of course, we’re still waiting for Samsung to throw its hat into the premium 5nm ring with a new Exynos chipset to power its upcoming Galaxy S21 handsets. The mobile processor arms race is entering one of its most interesting phases yet.

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