Huawei’s new foldable provokes scrutiny over Chinese-made chips

Following Huawei’s surprise launch of the seemingly 5G-capable Mate 60 and Mate 60 Pro smartphones last week, the Chinese firm has today unveiled two more devices: the Mate 60 Pro+ and the Mate X5 foldable. Huawei was largely limited to 4G connectivity on its handsets since the US sanctions, but with this latest wave of smartphone launches, the company has been intentionally secretive about its choice of radio. Sources told Engadget that these are indeed 5G devices — as supported by Chinese blogger Vincent Zhong’s speed test on the new foldable, which reached a download speed of over 1Gbps (you’ll see that there is no 5G indicator on the screen).

It’s likely that both phones are also powered by Huawei’s mysterious HiSilicon Kirin 9000S, the 7nm process node of which has raised concerns on whether the local chip supplier, SMIC (Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation), has violated US sanctions to access foreign chip-making technology. Huawei did not immediately respond to requests for comments about the specs of these new phones or the chip.

A recent Kirin 9000S teardown conducted by TechInsights for Bloomberg confirmed SMIC’s 7nm process, which was thought to be impossible given the import ban on key manufacturing equipment — namely the EUV lithography machines from Dutch firm ASML (Advanced Semiconductor Materials Lithography). Before the US import ban, Huawei relied on TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company) for its 5nm process, which was enabled by ASML’s machines.

It is unlikely that SMIC procured such advanced machinery from ASML — at least not directly — without raising alarms. According to Bits & Chips, ASML CEO Peter Wennink recently expressed that “the Mate 60 Pro shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, as the restrictions essentially forced the Chinese to double down on innovation.” Thus implying that SMIC could well have developed its own high-end lithography machine.

Benchmarks conducted by Chinese tech blog Geekerwan suggest that the Kirin 9000S’ performance is close to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888, meaning it’s around two generations behind. The site added that the CPU here features one big core and three middle cores based on Huawei’s own “TaiShan” architecture, in addition to four little cores based on Arm’s efficient Cortex-A510. As a bonus, the Kirin 9000S is the first mobile processor to support multi-threading — running eight cores with 12 threads, though apparently apps will require further optimization to make use of this feature. As for the GPU, Huawei added its own Maleoon 910, which is allegedly on par with the one in the Snapdragon 888.

Huawei Mate 60 Pro+ (Huawei)

Much like the Mate 60 Pro, the higher-end Mate 60 Pro+ supports satellite call service by China Telecom and satellite messaging using BeiDou. The only notable differences (that we can see for now) are the different “nanotech metallic double dye process” and better rear cameras. As for the Mate X5 foldable, it’s almost identical to the super slim Mate X3, except for the switch to Huawei’s fancier Kunlun Glass on the external screen (hence a 2g bump in weight), as well as the slightly tweaked appearance of the rear camera island. Huawei has yet to reveal prices for either model, though pre-orders will start at 6:08PM local time today.

If all four of Huawei’s latest smartphones are indeed powered by Kirin 9000S, it would suggest that Huawei is confident with its chip yield — potentially adding a further blow to the US sanctions. Rumors suggest that we’ll be hearing more about these devices towards the end of September — conveniently avoiding the iPhone 15 rush.

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