Here's What Flagship Smartphones Can Do With the Snapdragon 855
Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 855 has faster everything—CPU, GPU, LTE and 5G—and an image-processing component that could bring the Pixel 3's spectacular computing-driven camera capabilities to a wider range of phones.
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WAILEA, Hawaii—The engine that will power America's first 5G phones wants to see and think for itself. The Snapdragon 855, anticipated to go into Samsung's Galaxy S10 in the US, will support cool new camera modes and push further toward "XR"—mixed or extended reality, augmented and virtual as well as real.
We'll all benefit even if Qualcomm's XR dreams don't come true. The 855 has faster everything—CPU, GPU, LTE and 5G—and an image-processing component that could bring the Pixel 3's spectacular computing-driven camera capabilities to a wider range of phones.
The 855 has some fierce competitors. Apple will probably continue to beat it on raw CPU performance, but Apple won't offer its A-series chips to other manufacturers. Huawei has been focusing on AI. Mediatek will provide less-expensive 5G chipsets later in 2019.
The rival that Qualcomm clearly has knives out for, though, is Intel. During the Snapdragon announcement, we heard a lot about the Snapdragon's low power consumption. That isn't really an advantage if you're going up against Apple; the A12 is also low-power. But if you're battling Intel in the Windows laptop market, it certainly is.
That makes sense, from a perspective of where Qualcomm wants to get more business. Apple and Huawei aren't about to go buy Qualcomm chips. But Wintel laptop manufacturers have already started dabbling in Qualcomm products, like with the Asus NovaGo and Samsung Galaxy Book2 (which I'm writing this on right now). Qualcomm could conquer part of that territory, and we're going to hear more about that soon. For now, here's what this year's flagship smartphones will be able to do.
4G (With an Option for 5G)
The Snapdragon 855 isn't a 5G system-on-chip. It's a very fast 4G SOC with an option to add a 5G modem, the separate Qualcomm X50. That's because while 5G is a big deal this year, many manufacturers and carriers—including and most importantly all of China—won't be ready for 5G until next year. And the X50 doesn't support T-Mobile's approach to 5G, but with a separate 5G modem, the 855 still can.
"5G is an optional component," Qualcomm technology evangelist Cisco Cheng said. "A lot of our Chinese OEMs, they're not ready to deploy 5G until next year, and they'll be doing both 4G and 5G SKUs to get ready." The Samsung Galaxy S10, which we saw in a 5G version yesterday, is also rumored to be getting 4G and 5G versions.
Both the 4G and 5G components in here have already been announced. The built-in modem is the Qualcomm X24, which promises speeds of up to 2Gbps on LTE networks that can gather together 140MHz of spectrum. While no US carrier has that kind of licensed spectrum, US carriers may be able to get those speeds in central cities by using short-range Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) networks on the same 5GHz spectrum used by Wi-Fi. We've tested LAA on both AT&T and T-Mobile, and got over 537Mbps earlier this year in Chicago on AT&T.
The 5G modem is the X50, Qualcomm's much-discussed first consumer 5G part. It will support 5G networks that are millimeter-wave (like AT&T's and Verizon's initial networks) and sub-6GHz TDD (like Sprint's and EE's.) It won't support FDD sub-6 networks, which means T-Mobile is left out here—it'll have to wait for a new modem. But since the X50 is a discrete part, not integrated with the SOC, a new modem could still be paired with the 855 for T-Mobile launches later this year.
Wi-Fi is getting an upgrade, too. The 855 supports Wi-Fi 6 (previously called 802.11ax) and mmWave Wi-Fi (previously called 802.11ay), new standards that are just now starting to appear in consumer routers. MmWave Wi-Fi is like the 5G of Wi-Fi; it has 10Gbps speeds and extremely low latency, and will be best used to connect 855-powered devices to monitors and other peripherals without lag.
CPU and GPU: Not the Stars Anymore?
Qualcomm has been downplaying its CPUs for a few generations now. Leaked benchmarks have shown the Snapdragon 855's Kryo 485 CPU beating other available chips on AnTuTu, but being bested by Apple's A12 on Geekbench. Qualcomm said the 855 has up to 45 percent faster CPU performance than the 845 did.
I'm not that moved by those results, because Qualcomm's aggressive heterogeneous computing approach means that, unlike Apple, Qualcomm tries to push as much computing off the CPU itself as possible. Of the benchmarks out there, in my mind, only PCMark comes close to testing aspects like multimedia, image processing, and AI, and it isn't available for iOS so we can't use it to compare against the A12.
"We moved past the CPU as the center of the SOC a while ago," said Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon. "When we saw that there wasn't more meaningful differentiation on the CPU as a key attribute of user experience, we started to customize the ARM [cores] and move towards the GPU, the DSP, and the NPU."
The Kryo 485 does have some unusual features. It has eight cores: four ARM A76-based cores and four ARM A73 based. This is a pretty standard "big/little" approach right now, where the four smaller cores take most of the daily work and the more power-hungry cores only get woken up for the heavy lifting. But one big core is designated as a "prime core," clocking up to 2.82GHz, while the other big cores clock at 2.42GHz and the smaller ones run at 1.84GHz.
This is … odd. What it says most to me is that some OEM is going to manage to clock all of the Snapdragon 855's cores to 2.82GHz (the way the Razer Phone managed to overclock the Snapdragon 845.)
The Adreno 640 GPU promises 20 percent better graphics performance than the GPU in the Snapdragon 845. It supports 4K HDR displays on devices, as well as two 4K HDR external displays. Keep an eye on that, because it's a sign of Qualcomm's interest in getting further into the Windows laptop market. VR video playback arrives in 8K at 120fps.
Giving the Finger to the Notch
Qualcomm's new ultrasonic fingerprint sensor isn't the same SenseID we've been seeing demoed since 2015, Cheng said, and this version will get more uptake. While we only saw the original SenseID in a phone from now-defunct LeTV, the time for under-display fingerprint sensors has come, according to Qualcomm.
"There will be a big OEM that is taking this solution, and it will be the first commercialized, ultrasonic sensor under a full display," Cheng said.
Qualcomm's sensor is better than infrared-based sensors, like the ones OnePlus and Vivo are using, in that it's faster, harder to spoof, and works with wet fingers, Cheng said.
But this may not mark the end of the much-mocked notch phone trend. Nobody has yet figured out how to put a front-facing camera under a display, and the pop-up camera on Oppo's Find X doesn't seem widely scalable, so there will at least be a notch for a front-facing main camera. Some phones will continue to have broader notches for more sensors, including Face ID-like 3D infrared front-facing cameras, Cheng said. On the Samsung S10 demo unit we saw yesterday, the notch had slid over to the phone's top-right corner.
"We will have customers supporting 3D face and 3D fingerprint," Cheng said. "There's some convenience to having both."
Better Photos and Videos
Qualcomm's augmented-reality world needs great cameras, because they're the eyes a computer will see through to understand the world.
The Spectra 380 ISP can do hardware-based depth sensing with a single camera, allowing things like bokeh effects to work more easily on single-camera smartphones—even with live bokeh video in 4K HDR. Depth sensing is also needed for AR. The ISP can do video classification and object recognition at 60fps in 4K. That means tracking focus for your videos, and improved video quality. But high-speed object classification is also needed for AR.
The ISP also allows for some very cool camera tricks. Object identification and segmentation means not just being able to brighten up people in front of backgrounds that are too bright; it also means live green-screening for photos and video and being able to replace the background at will.
In terms of megapixels, get ready for 22MP dual cameras and 48MP single cameras.
Photos and videos will now by default fall into .HEIF containers, not JPG or MP4. HEIF is a newer format for large photo and video files; Apple started using it with iOS 11. The creators of HEIF, the MPEG Group, say it can store twice as much data as a JPG in the same file size thanks to better compression. It also lets you store multiple images in one file, for example when the LG V40 phone (above) takes three simultaneous shots in wide-angle, standard and telephoto modes.
"This will light up the whole Android ecosystem with HEIF," Qualcomm senior marketing manager PJ Jacobowitz said.
For playing back movies, there's now onboard support for HDR10+, H.265, and VP9 decoding. While H.265 was previously handled in software, hardware accelerated decoding means less power usage and better battery life. For VR experiences, you'll be able to play back 8K videos at 120 frames per second, meaning they'll feel much smoother and lag-free.
VR That Won't Kill Your Battery
One of the big barriers to AR and VR right now is appalling battery life. Okay, okay, there are a lot of other barriers—nobody has been able to build one of these headsets that you can wear for more than half an hour without getting a headache—but battery life is definitely an issue.
With the Snapdragon 855, Qualcomm moves a bunch of computer-vision tasks, like body tracking, object tracking, and object detection, from the GPU to the ISP, cutting power usage by 50-75 percent. Initially, that means the camera app will be less of a drag on battery, but you don't use your camera app for hours at a time. You will, however, use AR glasses that way.
Why is Qualcomm so focused on AR and VR, you wonder? Wasn't VR a fad that passed? Yes and no. Manufacturers I've spoken to say that failed VR units we've seen so far, like Samsung's Gear VR and Google's Daydream View, were just ahead of their time. When I've been to 5G startup jams, such as in Oulu, Finland and at Verizon's Alley incubator in New York, there have been a ton of startups focused on AR and VR, using 5G's high bandwidth and low latency to offer images without pixelation or lag. Sprint's Ryan Sullivan swore to me earlier this week that AR is going to be big for business uses like virtual shopping and industrial training.
A big problem with the weight of VR/AR headsets has been putting the battery on your face. One solution to that would be to tether a lightweight headset, basically just a screen, to a phone that's in your pocket. Initially, that would happen with a cable, but the connectivity would swiftly shift to short-range WiGig. So now you see several 855 components coming together—the external display support, the 802.11ay WiGig wireless, and of course all of the object-identification AI that's needed for augmented reality.
AI: Not What It Says on the Box
The biggest problem with "AI" is the term. It's impossible for most of us to think of it without thinking of sentience—of computers truly thinking for themselves. But when I talk to chipmakers, it seems to be mostly about things that involve fuzzy matrix math: object categorization, for instance. This form of AI is something you need badly for augmented reality.
Qualcomm's Hexagon 690 DSP is the company's answer to specialized AI processors like the ones Apple and Huawei have. This year, Qualcomm doubled the number of vector accelerators and added a tensor accelerator to keep up with demand for AI processing.
Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon said AI is slippery to talk about right now, because a lot of the third-party apps that would use it haven't been developed yet. "It looks like a lot of futuristic, abstract stuff," he admitted. But he gave some concrete examples of how AI could help.
AI makes photos better by analyzing the content of images and changing settings or making suggestions based on what it sees, Amon said. "Things you learn in photography as a professional photographer, you can bring that back into the machine-learning engine in the Snapdragon," he said.
It could improve battery life, by remembering and analyzing your charging behavior, suggesting when you might want to top up your battery based on your usage patterns. (We've seen that previously on an LG phone.)
Or AI could help with security, "especially behaviors that are expected versus unexpected," Amon said. "You can now run very complex use cases into a phone that say: this behavior isn't expected. Should I flag it?"
"AI" also seems to include voice assistants; for instance, so we find that the Snapdragon 855's Hexagon 690 processor includes built-in Google Assistant. Alexa "is not there right now but will be added in," and "we will defer to Samsung on Bixby," Cheng said.
So When's It Coming?
We're going to see Snapdragon 855-based phones very soon. In fact, you could say we're seeing them already.
Yesterday, Samsung showed off what's sure to be its Galaxy S10, a 5G phone with Snapdragon 855. Today, OnePlus pledged a new device. LG will need to use the 855 for its promised 5G phone with Sprint. The mysterious second AT&T Samsung phone scheduled for later this year will also be an 855.
We're likely to see more specific announcements at Mobile World Congress at the end of February, for a March launch. It'll be interesting to see if anyone decides to jump the gun and announce their phones at CES in January.