Qualcomm had an exceptional 2016 after facing a challenging 2015. They managed a major corporate restructuring plan, stood up to some pushy investors who oddly thought it was a good idea for them to split, finally started to get paid by most Chinese phone manufacturers, got back into the Samsung Galaxy game with the Snapdragon 820, shipped the first 1 Gbps LTE-A modem and announced the industry’s first 5G modem. All of that happened and I’m not even mentioning the NXP acquisition which still has time to close. What does Qualcomm announce between now and Mobile World Congress when most wireless technologies get announced? A lot, and today at CES in Las Vegas, they announced details of the Snapdragon 835..
The Snapdragon 835 is about balance
The Snapdragon 835, like its predecessor is all about balance. The 835 balance is between battery life, immersive experiences, image capture, connectivity, security and machine learning. These objectives align nicely with what consumers want today and what’s possible with existing smartphone technology, but also places investments towards the computing experiences of tomorrow. The Snapdragon 835 is a single chip that has many different subsystems on it including a wireless modem, DSP (digital signal processor), CPU, GPU, Wi-Fi, ISP (image signal processor), audio and security processors.
Qualcomm has developed their own software architecture to help effectively manage all of these different components and to use each of them to the best of their ability to maximize power, performance which drives experience. The Symphony Manager is what allows Qualcomm to find the right balance within their own chip to deliver the best performance and power for any workload. All of this is done without the user ever being aware of the complex software and hardware architecture that has to be laid down to make it work so well. The Snapdragon 835 is also Qualcomm’s first 10nm SoC and is the first 10nm SoC to be announced by anyone, which should enable the mobile processor to do things that might’ve been impossible before.
Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality
Qualcomm is focusing on immersive experiences with the Snapdragon 835, more than they have with previous processors, even the Snapdragon 820. Virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and a blend of the two, mixed reality (MR), have captured the attention of both consumers, educators and enterprises.
Qualcomm’s vision of VR includes not only high visual quality, but also spatial audio and natural user interfaces that anticipate user inputs. This vision framework is forward-looking, I concur, and am sure they will add even more elements to it as time goes on. Immersive experiences require not just the raw performance of one component, but rather an orchestration and tight integration of sub-components to deliver the best experience using the lowest latency and lowest power subsystems. Qualcomm is in a unique position given their lead in heterogeneous computing.
Compared to the Snapdragon 820, Qualcomm says the Snapdragon 835 delivers an improvement of 25% in 3D graphics performance and support of up to 60x more colors with the Adreno 540 visual processing subsystem. The Snapdragon 835 also supports 4K Ultra HD video with HDR 10 and the 10-bit wide color gamut displays to run the HDR video. It also has object and scene-based 3D audio for added immersion while inside of AR, VR or MR. The Snapdragon 835, like the 820, also supports AR and VR head tracking via sensor fusion, which Qualcomm calls “visual inertial odometry”, a technology borrowed from their drone development. Qualcomm also isn’t just dropping off a bag of parts on their OEMs, ODMs and ISVs and saying “good luck”. Qualcomm is delivering a full VR SDK, eventually areference platform and is adding Daydream support to the 835 platform. I expect Qualcomm and the Snapdragon 835 to perform very well in these immersive experiences requiring a sophisticated heterogenous computing approach.
New compute engines
In terms of processors, the Snapdragon 835 features a new semi-custom Kryo 280 CPU which blends together ARM IP with Qualcomm’s own custom designs. This is the first time Qualcomm and ARM have approached processor design and licensing in such a way. In addition to the CPU, the Adreno GPU has been upgraded to the Adreno 540 which as stated earlier is quite a bit faster than the Adreno 530 in the Snapdragon 820. The Snapdragon 835 also features a new Hexagon 682 DSP which includes support for TensorFlow for machine learning, a worthy nod to Google’s machine learning and artificial intelligence efforts. Qualcomm is also including their Spectra 180 image signal processor to enable so many of the low power, low latency imaging applications that drive so many of the immersive experiences.
Image and video capture
Smartphones have literally replaced point and shoot cameras and if Qualcomm and their customers have their druthers, they will go even further, performing many of the functions better than a simple DSLR can. No, you can’t replace the big high-quality glass in DSLRs, but you can do even more computationally and get it with your smartphone. With the Snapdragon 835, I believe Qualcomm is breaking new ground, going even farther and wider to service its eco system with more flavors of support in software and hardware.
Dual cameras have become all the rage in smartphones but few realize how many ways you can use two camera sensors. Qualcomm supports them all. With dual cameras, the Snapdragon 835 supports optical zoom, camcorder stabilization, and Clear Sight with BxW and color sensors paired together. Qualcomm has even gone as far as creating three different camera modules to expedite the process for their customers to improve time to market and establish a base-level of functionality and performance. Qualcomm is going wider than anyone with dual camera support, including Apple.
Qualcomm’s work in image and video capture has been continuous and will continue to improve along with the hardware they provide. Certain features like their 6-DoF head tracking capabilities for VR and AR come from advances in imaging capabilities and I suspect that we’ll see more user experience improvements that come from Qualcomm’s imaging capabilities, like dual camera. Video is already seeing some major improvements like inside the Google Pixel and I hope to see more improvements from other OEMs as well. The Snapdragon 835 should really help bring a lot of Qualcomm’s imaging capabilities to the surface and enable better image and video user experiences in 2017.
Qualcomm is the #1 market shareholder in wireless semiconductors, so you would expect the Snapdragon 835 processor with X16 LTE to have good wireless capabilities. It does… really good wireless capability. While nearly every smartphone user can appreciate a faster connection for movies, websites and apps, Qualcomm looked ahead to future use cases for new connected experiences and developed wireless for the Snapdragon 835. They looked at the notion of streaming VR content from the cloud, infinite cloud storage, “instant apps” publicly supported by Google with Android and overall richer entertainment and augmented reality. As crazy as watching a video on your smartphone sounded a few years ago, these may too, but I assure you, many of these will be popular in a few years.
The Snapdragon 835’s wireless capabilities are a milestone as it’s the first SoC to deliver Gigabit Class LTE and Wi-Fi. This is huge when you think about it. They enabled LTE-A with Gigabit Class LTE capabilities with only 3x carrier aggregation, 256 QAM downlink and 4×4 MIMO. They enabled the Wi-Fi with their 802.11ad capabilities they’ve had in discrete products for quite some time. Don’t forget, all of this wireless circuitry is integrated onto the die of the 835 SoC, no one else is even close. Sure, there is still the RF-Front end that isn’t integrated into the SoC, but there could be a day when we see more of that integrated as well. There will be no one else who gets close to delivering this much on a single piece of silicon.
Security and machine learning
Qualcomm is stepping up their security game with the Snapdragon 835 by bringing out the Qualcomm Haven security platform for both user authentication via fingerprint and eye based (such as iris and retina) as well as device attestation. Haven includes a secure execution environment, separate from the operating system (which is safer) and supports application and operating system integrity check using a hardware-based token. Some of Haven’s capabilities are possible thanks to Qualcomm’s machine learning capabilities which are further accelerated in the Snapdragon 835.
Machine learning is hot and using neural networks is even hotter, the Snapdragon 835 supports on-device inference and execution and Qualcomm has added to and improved their software stack to better support it. The Snapdragon Neural Processing Engine SDK was upgraded to support TensorFlow and custom neural networks adding to Caffe support.
What I really like about Qualcomm’s approach is support for the CPU, GPU, and DSP meaning that you can throw the right framework at the right compute engine. I can’t wait to see how developers use this more in the future.
The Snapdragon 835 is really quite a large undertaking for a company that was under fire only a year ago. The new Snapdragon 835 marks Qualcomm’s affirmation of their dominance in areas where they are known to be strong like wireless and an affirmation of their commitments to platforms like AR and VR which are still growing. We’re also seeing Qualcomm take an even bigger leadership role in smartphone photography and working very closely with their OEMs to implement better, faster and more innovative cameras than ever before. I cannot wait to see what Snapdragon 835 devices will be out there, we’re already getting an inkling of some very thin and light AR/VR goggles and I am excited to see what it’ll enable in this year’s Android flagship phones. This is especially true with carriers like T-Mobile and Sprint both talking about Gigabit LTE networks and really upping the bar on speeds. I can confidently say that the Snapdragon 835 will be the best chip in 2017 for Android devices but what will be really interesting is to see how they do in Microsoft Windows 10 and Chrome OS devices.