Yesterday, Qualcomm announced the name of its next big mobile chip—the Snapdragon 855 (Surprise!)—but didn’t say much about what it could do until now. And while innovations in mobile processors can often seem opaque and difficult to follow, advances in tech between generations are the kind of things that give phones the biggest increases in battery life, faster performance, and support for new features like enhanced VR, smarter digital assistants, and more.
On top of that, for all the non-iPhone people out there, there’s a very good chance that any new Android smartphone purchased in 2019 will be based on some version of the Snapdragon 855 platform. So here’s a general overview of what’s new on the Snapdragon 855 and how that could affect your next phone.
Based on a new 7-nanometre architecture, the Qualcomm has made an important jump up on the Snapdragon to match chips from other tech giants such as Apple and Huawei, which debuted their own 7nm chips earlier this year in the new iPhone XS and Mate 20 respectively.
The main components inside the actual chip are comprised of the new Kryo 485 CPU and Adreno 640 GPU, alongside the Hexagon 690 processor for handling AI and machine learning duties, and the Spectra 380 ISP (image signal processor) which is responsible for much of the chip’s photo and video capturing abilities. Where things get tricky is that while each component on the chip is designed to handle different tasks, they often need to work together to create the end result on your screen
Performance: More power, less battery drain
This is probably the most straightforward collection of upgrades. On the SD 855, Qualcomm is claiming a 45 per cent improvement in general performance compared to the Snapdragon 845. Meanwhile, graphics performance has increased by around 20 per cent versus the previous generation, with Qualcomm also touting “industry-leading efficiency” when it comes to per watt performance. The best example of this is probably the improvements made to the SD 855’s streaming video performance, with Qualcomm claiming that the SD 855 sucks up 30 per cent less power while playing 4K/60fps content when compared to the SD 845.
And while it’s difficult to extrapolate real-world performance based on projected numbers alone, if Qualcomm’s numbers hold true, we could see phones that last hours longer on our rundown test, which would be a pretty significant upgrade.
Connectivity: Here comes 5G
With the general rollout of 5G networks coming soon (or available now in select markets), there’s no way Qualcomm would miss offering support for all the new super fast cellular networks. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean every Snapdragon 855-based gadget will actually be 5G capable.
That’s because by default, the SD 855 comes with Qualcomm’s Cat 20 X24 LTE modem, which supports wireless speeds up to 2 Gbps and includes feautres like 4×4 MIMO and carrier aggregation, but is limited to 4G LTE service only.
However, for devices makers that want to include 5G support, there is also the option of adding Qualcomm’s X50 5G cellular modem, which supports speeds all the way up to a whopping 6 Gbps. (Fun fact: The current average mobile data speeds in the U.S. currently sit around 27.3 Mbps down and 8.7 MBps down)
Elsewhere, the SD855 will also support Bluetooth 5.0 connections up to 2 Mbps (which should be a boon to all those wireless headphones and smartwatches), and Wi-Fi 6 by way of 802.11ax-ready wifi and 802.11ay compatibility, along with the all the other letters related to wifi you can think of.
All in all, while it shouldn’t really be a surprise based on Qualcomm’s history with networking, connectivity will almost certainly be one the of the SD 855’s strongest categories. For comparison’s sake, current reports about Apple claim that there won’t be a 5G-compatible iPhone until 2020.
Imaging and display
With phones serving as most people’s primary cameras, Qualcomm’s imaging capabilities are more important than ever. So on the SD 855, Qualcomm took the Spectra 380 ISP and added what the company is calling computer vision functions that allow to chip to better capture things like depth info, recognise objects and sort them into a range of categories, and even offer built-in green screen functionality that lets you cut and paste objects and backgrounds into pictures in real-time.
Additionally, Qualcomm says the SD 855 is the first chip to support 4K HDR video capture while using portrait mode. Also, thanks to the adoption of the new HEIF file format, users can expect better support for things like burst shooting, live photo-style GIFs, and file sizes that are even smaller than before. Lastly, with support for HDR 10+ video—for both recording and playback—pictures, videos, and even games should appear more vibrant and colourful on SD 855 devices.
AI, gaming, and everything else
In case none of the stuff above held your interest, the SD 855 features even more improvements across a variety of categories. Qualcomm says the 855 can potentially support VR headsets with 8K resolution at 120 fps, though you’ll need a wired connection, hardware accelerated H.265 and VP9 decoding for more energy efficient streaming, and higher fidelity music streaming thanks to the addition of Qualcomm’s aptX adaptive audio codec. And for all of today’s various AI applications, the Hexgon 690 processor comes with a new fourth-gen AI engine that offers double the vector processing found on the SD 845, something Google and its emphasis on machine learning will surely be happy to leverage.
At Qualcomm’s 2018 Tech Summit, the company even mentioned something called the Snapdragon Elite Gaming experience, which promises physically based rendering (PBR) which calculates textures based on scans of real objects, support for the Vulkan 1.1 graphics library, and custom algorithms designed to increase frame rates by 90 per cent (I’m going to need to see some numbers to really believe this) while also lowering latency.
So what does this all mean?
Now as good as all this stuff sounds, there’s always one big caveat when you’re talking about new Snapdragon chips. That’s because while Qualcomm has included a ton of different features and tools inside the Snapdragon 855, in the end, it’s up to individual device manufacturers like Samsung, LG, and others to actually take advantage and implement those features on retail devices. The potential is there, now we have to see what gadgets do with it.
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