The Chinese telecom giant Huawei unveiled its latest flagship smartphone lineup, the P40 today. Its usual pompous, glitter-filled launch event was sadly replaced by a somber online event because of the COVID19 situation. As one would expect, the P40 lineup, powered by Kirin 990 SoC, has a long list of camera, AI and other features, on which they spent most of the presentation today. My interest, however, is in better understanding its 5G features, which were surprisingly barely mentioned. Although Huawei has been claiming 5G technology leadership, Kirin990 5G lacks some key features and lags behind the market leaders such as Qualcomm Snapdragon 865. Let me explain why I think so.
Absence of millimeter wave (mmW) support
Kirin 990 still doesn’t support mmW bands. Huawei has never shied away from touting its technology prowess by talking up or demonstrating its leadership in new technology. Despite announcing mmW support for its modem more than a year ago, Huawei is yet to show it working. Conspicuously, there hasn’t even been any proof of concept demos of prototypes either, let alone the smartphone form-factor devices. We don’t know whether they had planned any demos at this year’s Mobile World Congress, but alas it got canceled. Still, if they had anything worth touting, I am sure Huawei would have used the occasion such as the P40 launch or others to show it. Since they didn’t, I am more inclined to believe they are not yet ready.
Some might argue that mmW is not a key feature for Huawei, as that band is not yet deployed in its target markets. However, that is not true. Many of the countries such as Italy and Australia, where Huawei has a significant presence, are planning mmW deployments in 2021. Even other Chinese OEMs are warming up to mmW bands. Additionally, mmW provides futureproofing. As has been accepted across the industry, users have been keeping their phones for longer, up to three years in many cases. The P40s people buy this year will still be using them in 2021 and 2022. However, they will not be able to benefit from the blistering-fast speed and capacity of mmW bands, when deployed.
From an operator perspective, many are fast realizing that the gigabit speeds people experience in Sub-6GHz deployments today, will be hard to sustain when they start adding up subscribers and traffic starts to rise. This will especially be true for the operators who are offering both fixed and mobile services. They will quickly use-up the capacity in the sub-6GHz spectrum and start to look at bandwidth-rich mmW bands.
Lower Sub-6GHz speeds
If you were thinking understanding cellular peak speed claims was difficult, welcome to 5G, where it is even more confusing. Although peak speeds are theoretical, and nobody experiences them in real life, they are still a good indicator of relative performance and user experience. But one must look under the hood to understand them better.
In speed comparisons, the solutions that support mmW will hands-down beat the ones that don’t. For example, Qualcomm Snapdragon 865’s mmW peak speed is 7.5 Gbps but its Sub-6GHz peak speed is only 5 Gbps. Now let’s look at Kirin 990 5G, which only has Sub-6GHz support. It’s claimed peak speed is 2.3 Gbps, less than half of what Snapdragon 865 offers.
Without getting into too much detail, the higher speeds are achieved through aggregating two 100 MHz 5G carriers. To achieve full peak speed, each carrier will have to support the features that you might have heard even in LTE—256 QAM & 4×4 MIMO. So, now, if 990 is only reaching half the speeds then, either it is only supporting one carrier (no carrier aggregation) or it is not reaching the peak speed on each of the carriers.
Now, most of these claims are just marketing unless demonstrated on actual devices and networks. To that end, I was delighted to see a tweet by Dr. Durga Malladi, 5G GM of Qualcomm about them achieving 3.66 Gbps peak throughput in the lab using Snapdragon X55 modems, that are used in Snapdragon 865.
Lack of RF integration and advanced features
It goes without saying that tight integration between modem and RF is key for success in 5G. Check out my earlier articles here and here for more details. For mmW it is a bare necessity, without which the device will not even work properly. Considering that Huawei relies on third party RF component vendors such as Skyworks, Qorvo, and others, integration is a difficult proposition. It requires modem and RF providers to divulge their intellectual property (IP) to each other. I suspect this is the reason why Huawei or any other chipset vendor for that matter has not yet been able to support mmW. Tight integration is key for sub-6GHz as well to provide higher performance.
Additionally, for Sub-6GHz bands, there are other advanced RF features such as Antenna Tuner and Envelope tracker which provide demonstrably better performance in real-life usage scenarios. Antenna Tuner improves signal strength/coverage as well as connection reliability. Envelope Tracker optimizes phone transit power and significantly improves battery life. Since Huawei doesn’t mention any of these things for Kirin 990 or P40, it is safe to assume they don’t offer them.
Another important feature missing in Kirin 990 and thereby in P40 is Dynamic Shared Spectrum (DSS). DSS allows operators to utilize lower band 4G spectrum for 5G. Considering that 5G spectrum across the globe is primarily mid and higher bands, ranging from 3.5 GHz to 38 GHz, it is extremely crucial to utilize 4G spectrum which in bands as low as 600 MHz, to provide ubiquitous 5G coverage. In the absence of DSS, users will have very spotty 5G coverage, constantly hopping between 5G and 4G, which substantially deteriorate user experience. Also, without DSS, operators will need a large number of sites to provide consistent coverage, requiring huge capital investment.
Although Huawei P40 seems to have an impressive design, look and feel, and claims to have a good camera and such, I believe its 5G feature set is inferior, especially when it claims itself to be a technology leader. P40’s lack of critical features will probably make its performance lag behind market leaders. Additionally, P40 might also have futureproofing issues. It would be interesting to see how it fares in the market, once launched.
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