Midrange phones can’t do A.I., but MediaTek’s P90 chip aims to change that

The Helio P90 is the latest processor to be announced by Taiwanese manufacturer MediaTek, and it serves several distinct purposes. It will shun the need to buy expensive high-end devices to use the latest artificial intelligence features, and see MediaTek potentially succeed in its goal of delivering value-driven devices with the latest tech. Additionally, it sets the company up as a serious force in the race to power the next billion people waiting to buy their first smartphone.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the quest to connect “the next billion” people falls solely at Google’s feet, seeing as it has spent almost entire keynote presentations talking about it with Android. Not quite. While Google is indeed a very large cog in the machine, MediaTek believes its involvement is so crucial, the company’s Chief Financial Officer David Ku boldly stated that if you want to “gain the next billion, you have to work with MediaTek.”

The next billion to discover smartphones are in emerging markets around the world, where MediaTek is best known. These people likely own feature phones now — coincidentally, MediaTek is the world’s number one feature phone processor company — and when the time comes to buy a smartphone, it’s highly unlikely to be one that costs the equivalent of $1,000. MediaTek does not believe this should mean substandard features.

“Connecting the next billion is not just about the price, it’s about creating value through technology and innovation,” MediaTek CEO Rick Tsai told Digital Trends.

Helio P90 and artificial intelligence

The Helio P90 is the perfect example of how MediaTek works towards this. A mid-range processor in the company’s line-up, sitting below the MediaTek X series, you could think of it as similar to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 700 series chips. But excitingly, it contains A.I. features you see in high-end smartphone processors like the Kirin 980 and Snapdragon 845.

mediatek helio p90 interview chip dark
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Built on a 12nm architecture, the chip has an upgraded CPU and GPU over the Helio P60 and Helio P70, plus an Artificial Intelligence Accelerator (AIA) that joins two Application Processing Units (APU). The APUs usually deal with the main A.I. tasks on the phone, however for commonly used A.I. features, the AIA takes over for better efficiency and greater power. It further builds on the Helio P70’s ability to bring A.I. features usually seen in high-end phones to mid-range phones, where the features are very unusual.

Almost all the P90’s advantages over the P60/P70 are related to A.I. and the camera.

Almost all the P90’s advantages over the P60/P70 are related to A.I. and the camera, and the claims are really impressive. The Image Signal Processor (ISP) has its own dedicated A.I. engine, for example, and MediaTek said the P90 will have the fastest hardware engine for face recognition in the world — faster than the iPhone XS Max — resulting not only in faster face unlock, but some really cool camera features too.

A.I.-enhanced camera and video

During a visit to MediaTek’s headquarters in Taiwan, Digital Trends saw two early P90 feature demonstrations. The first used the same camera setup as the Huawei P20 Pro, which has one of the best smartphone cameras you can buy, and showed comparison photos shot in RAW in a dark space using the P20 Pro and a Helio P90-powered version of the same sensor array. The demonstration showed how the ISP and new AIA handled noise reduction in low light, and the image appeared not only comparable, but better in some areas.

The other demonstration showed how the P90 can track full-body movement, rather than just a face. In fact, it’s so powerful, it measures depth for a 3D image and can track up to six people at the same time, and at the same frame rate. The GPU renders the image, while the A.I. processor deals with the 3D poses. We watched a P70 track a dancer at nine frames-per-second and a 110ms latency, while the P90 shot the same image at nearly 30 frames-per-second and 34ms latency.

mediatek helio p90 interview p70 p80 test 2
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

What could all this be used for? Everything from building 3D avatars and yoga training apps that actually see 3D space to help improve posture, to the camera understanding the focal subject of an action video at all times, when aided by the depth perception, or to generate real-time bokeh effects in stills and video. The APU and AIA will deal with the A.I. tasks, such as object and face recognition, leaving the CPU, GPU, and ISP free to carry on with other tasks. It keeps device temperatures down, improving efficiency, and speeds A.I. processing up.

On-device A.I.

Such is the Helio P90’s A.I. ability — more of the tasks will be carried out on the device, rather than in the cloud. We’ve seen already the advantages of this approach with the NPU inside Huawei’s Kirin 970 and Kirin 980 chips, significantly improving the A.I. experience over devices using other chips and the cloud. It also greatly improves privacy, with the A.I. calling on data stored locally, rather than constantly talking to servers.

This could extend into an Amazon X-ray-style feature where the A.I. can even recognize clothes and items seen in video.

MediaTek will use this in features such as A.I. voice translation, which it says will be capable of almost real-time audio translations during calls or conversations on a Helio P90 device. MediaTek said it’s working with an American company on the translation feature, but didn’t name one specifically.

It’s working with Google on converting cloud-based A.I. features into local features, including object recognition for shopping. Rather than a simple object search, this could extend into an Amazon X-ray-style feature where the A.I. can even recognize clothes and items seen in video. Developers can leverage the A.I. to include virtual assistants for games, which will base advice given on how well you’re doing in the game. All these features are rarely, if ever, associated with mid-range, affordable smartphones.

MediaTek, and the Helio P90

On the technical side, the Helio P90 has eight cores, consisting of two 2.2GHz A75 and six 2.0GHz A55 cores. The GPU has a 50-percent performance improvement upgrade over the Helio P70 with an IMG 9XM-HP8 GPU. The total A.I. computing power 90-percent greater than the P70, due to the new fusion APU architecture and AIA. It will support screens with a Full HD+ resolution, and dual cameras with up to 24 megapixels and 16 megapixels. Video can be shot at 4K resolution and 30fps, one of the few areas where the P80’s mid-range level shows, as higher range chips will shoot 4K at 60fps. There’s Bluetooth 5.0, 2×2 Wi-Fi, and even 4×4 MIMO connectivity, just like the iPhone XS.

mediatek helio p90 interview office
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

If this is the first time you’re hearing about a MediaTek processor, it’s not much of a surprise, despite the impressive technical ability in the Helio P90. The company has a short history with smartphone chips, having only been producing them for around four years, during which time it has not had an easy ride. Company CEO Rick Tsai recognizes this, and has said the firm’s mobile business “has turned a corner, and is investing in 5G to become a market leader, and in A.I. to add value.”

While it has struggled slightly to gain traction in smartphones, it’s the world number one chip producer for feature phones — which is what the “next billion” are using now. It’s also dominant in smart home and smart televisions. Your Amazon Echo Dot, Google Home, and smart TV? They’re powered by MediaTek. So what happened with smartphones, especially high-end ones?

Helio P90 in the U.S.

Tsai told Digital Trends during an interview in Taiwan that it had a brand problem before, and that MediaTek is building the relationships and brand now, as previously just jumping in to try and remedy the situation would not have seen a good return on investment. It’s chips like the P90 that will hasten these efforts. Tsai was open and honest about the situation, and how it is approaching the challenge.

“We’re not Nvidia or Qualcomm. We must, and are, putting all our intellectual property together so we can find different avenues to grow.”

“We’re not Nvidia or Qualcomm,” he said. “We must, and are, putting all our intellectual property together so we can find different avenues to grow.”

Smartphones with the Helio P90 will be available during the first half of 2019, with the company focusing on its core markets of China, India, and some emerging markets initially. However, when pushed on the subject, MediaTek’s general manager of mobile, TL Lee, revealed it’s talking to a U.S. smartphone manufacturer about bringing a Helio P90-powered phone out in the U.S, potentially during the second half of 2019 or first half of 2020. Beyond this, MediaTek is talking to manufacturers about 5G devices for second half of 2020, another new avenue where it has major plans.

In the same way phones from Xiaomi and OnePlus make us question why we should be spending so much money on a flagship smartphone, the MediaTek Helio P90 may be the first processor to do the same, due to it enabling features previously relegated to expensive hardware. At the same time, it may be the chip to turn MediaTek into a household name, rather than it simply hiding inside the devices that already power your smart home.

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