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Huawei’s Kirin 9000S: Does the chip born in “adversity” really concern the US?


The Kirin 9000S emerged amidst adversity

Since the end of 2020, following the eruption of the U.S.-China semiconductor war, the “Trump administration” imposed sanctions on Chinese enterprises. Huawei, among the first to bear the severe consequences, faced an embargo policy, banning any company from supplying advanced chips for Huawei’s tech devices.

In response to Donald Trump’s actions, Huawei bet its entire $67 billion semiconductor and mobile phone business on a deal with SMIC (Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation), a semiconductor manufacturer backed by the Chinese government. SMIC declared they had found a way to produce advanced chips using outdated equipment, affirming their ambition to catch up with leading semiconductor companies worldwide.

But “adversity” did not stop there. By December 2020, Huawei and SMIC continued to be listed as subject to US sanctions, according to which any business that wanted to provide technology to SMIC must be authorized by Washington.

However, the adversity did not stop there. In December 2020, Huawei and SMIC continued to be listed in the U.S. sanctions “list”, requiring any business wanting to supply technology to SMIC to obtain Washington’s permission.

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Despite the potential for increased time, higher costs, and the possibility of failure, Huawei had to make this decision. Huawei signed an agreement to manufacture a “chip system” on its new smartphone with SMIC, named Charlotte, or Kirin 9000S.

To develop Charlotte, SMIC had to struggle with an advanced process they had never tackled before, facing new constraints in procuring and managing advanced, complex equipment. Nevertheless, after just three years, in August 2023, Huawei quietly launched its new device, the Mate 60 smartphone, featuring the Kirin 9000S chip, which achieved success in the Chinese market. This marked Huawei’s comeback after enduring years of U.S. embargo policies, a development celebrated by nationalists and tech enthusiasts alike. So, what makes Kirin 9000S Huawei’s pride, surprising the world?

How did Kirin 9000S revive Huawei?

According to various testing groups, despite the adversity context, Kirin 9000S still delivers performance comparable to Qualcomm’s one or two-year-old chips. This chip has earned Huawei a place among the “elite” in semiconductor production.

Geekerwan, a Chinese technology testing company with nearly 300,000 YouTube followers, conducted a “teardown” video of Kirin 9000S and Mate 60. The review revealed that the chip comprises 8 processing cores, packaged into a System-on-Chip (SoC).

Among them, 4 CPU cores use completely ARM’s standard design, provided by the British semiconductor company that supplies chip designs for 99% of smartphones on the market. The remaining 4 cores are customized by Huawei based on ARM’s basic design.

Huawei customized the position of the 4 CPU cores, GPU, and NPU in the Kirin 9000S chip (Source: Geekerwan)

Although ARM allowed the use of its basic design in the chip, HiSilicon, Huawei’s microchip design unit, made adjustments and improvements to the original design to build its own CPU core on the Kirin 9000S SoC. This allowed Huawei to actively produce chips domestically despite U.S. sanctions.

Also, Geekerwan’s analysis indicates that Kirin 9000S uses Cortex cores with a separately developed graphics processing unit (GPU) and neural processing unit (NPU) by HiSilicon. In contrast, the previous SoC Kirin 9000S used in Huawei’s high-end smartphones before 2020 relied on ARM’s design for both CPU and GPU, without an NPU.

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Kirin 9000S Chip inside the Mate 60 Pro. (Source: TechInsights/FT)

According to experts, Huawei’s flexibility and proactive adjustment of CPU core design is the only solution that helps this Chinese company be able to autonomously produce chips in a complex context. This approach is similar to how Apple once changed the A-series chip on the iPhone to become the foundation for developing the M-series line for Macs.

According to industry experts, Huawei’s flexibility and proactive adjustment of the CPU core design are the only solution allowing the Chinese company to independently produce chips in this complex context. This approach is similar to how Apple once changed the A-series chip on the iPhone to become the foundation for developing the M-series line for Macs.

Kirin 9000S chip remains a mystery despite numerous teardowns

Many “unboxing” videos of the Mate 60 have been released, but none have revealed the expected HiSilicon Redmi 9000s chipset. Instead, SK Hynix RAM chips are seen above it. This mystery prompted SK Hynix to immediately launch an investigation, as they had stopped supplying chips to Huawei since 2020 when the embargo policies took effect.

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While Huawei has provided extensive information about the Mate 60 Pro, there is no confirmation regarding whether the phone uses a 5G chip or any other processor. However, analysts have pointed out that the Mate 60 Pro uses SK Hynix memory and storage with LPDDR5X and UFS 4.0 specifications. Below the RAM is the phone’s dual-stack processor, seemingly a dual-design. According to other information sources, the Kiro processor is also called Kirin 9000S, but this seems to be not the final name.

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Another component that suprised the entire tech industry is the “luxurious” cooling system inside the Mate 60 Pro. The massive VC heat sink is located under the screen with a costly red alloy material, significantly larger than the similar part in the previous Mate 50 Pro. According to analyst bloggers, Huawei’s this cooling panel could reach an area up to 7,000 square millimeters, one of the largest cooling panels in the history of smartphones.

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Does the Kirin 9000S chip really worry the US?

Despite many positive performances recorded, Huawei still faces significant challenges in the rapidly changing semiconductor market. Various analysis groups, including Geekerwan, believe that Huawei’s semiconductor production capabilities are 2 years behind Qualcomm’s.

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In fact, measurements show that Huawei’s Kirin 9000S chip may heat up the phone faster than its competitors, due to its higher energy consumption.

“Huawei may have found a way to mitigate embargo risks with their ‘in-house’ products, but it’s not enough to claim victory,” said a leading expert in chip design for smart mobile phones.