I thought I had published this analysis, but the CMS gods had second thoughts. Better late than never?
Qualcomm held its annual Snapdragon Summit in Hawaii in December, and under reasonable, sometimes unreasonable COVID protocols (masks outside), I was able to attend the event in person. The event covered many topics, including XR, gaming, 5G connectivity, automotive and new mobile and laptop. While I won't cover XR and gaming, you can read Principal Analyst Anshel Sag's coverage here. I want to focus my attention on the new smartphone and PC silicon as well as Qualcomm's announcements in automotive.
Partnerships, partnerships, partnerships
Often, at events like Qualcomm's Snapdragon Summit, you hear a fair amount about partnerships between the host (in this case, Qualcomm) and key players in the industry. And as smart technologists know is that “it takes a village” especially if you are going up against companies like Apple, Tesla, Mediatek, AMD and Intel.
What stood out to me at the event was how strategic Qualcomm’s partnerships were, heavily focusing on key technologies that affect smartphone innovation as technologies move vertically. Christiano Amon, the CEO of Qualcomm, dedicated a sizeable amount of his keynote to partnerships like Verizon, Ernst Leitz labs, ESL gaming and Google. Notice how that list of partners represents a key pillar in the Snapdragon 8 Mobile Platform—Modem-RF, GPU, ISP and CPU—and how AI has its hand in all four.
These partnerships are what keep Qualcomm ahead of the competition. First and foremost, the competition is Apple—and Apple only works vertically with Apple. While Apple creates hardware for Apple software, Qualcomm creates smartphone solutions for Google, Samsung, OnePlus and others. Qualcomm plays up and down the diverse smartphone stack. At Qualcomm's Snapdragon Summit, the company said it was number one in the premium Android smartphone categories of consumer preference, AI, Modem-RF, Camera, Mobile gaming, Wi-Fi and Sound. Many of these categories came from its achievements with its Snapdragon Insider Smartphone of which I wrote a review here. This is a strategic thrust for 2022 and I think Qualcomm made a good case for achieving this.
Qualcomm’s new mobile SoC, the Snapdragon 8 Mobile Platform Gen 1, boasts better performance and new features in each of these key pillars. Though it’s under a new naming schema, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 Mobile Platform is the follow-up to last year’s Snapdragon 888+ 5G.
The platform features the new 4th Gen Snapdragon X65 5G Modem-RF system, which promises more global network, frequencies and bandwidth support, while maintaining all-day battery life. The 4th Gen Snapdragon X65's support for extra bands coincides with its mmWave uplink dual connectivity technology, capable of 3.5Gbps of upload speed. The 4th Gen Snapdragon X65 can combine mmWave and Sub6 into a single session, which, according to Qualcomm, gives it the ability to upload a 120-minute 4K/UHD movie in about one minute. With its 10Gbps download speed and inclusion of 3GPP’s new Release 16 standard, Qualcomm's mmWave is 38 times faster than 4G LTE and 19 times faster than its Sub6 counterpart. For Qualcomm, the true measure of the system’s success will be the 5G innovation it enables. Keep in mind that the connectivity of the X65 Modem-RF does not just benefit smartphones—it also stands to improve the multitude of devices living on the connected edge.
The Snapdragon 8 Mobile Platform Gen 1 also comes with Qualcomm’s new FastConnect 6900 System, which features Wi-Fi 6/6E and Bluetooth 5.0. With Wi-Fi 6E speeds up to 3.6Gbps, Qualcomm says the platform is well-suited for tasks that require extremely low latency such as VR. Another benefit of the FastConnect 6900 System is its support for Snapdragon Sound with Qualcomm aptX, a feature which enables 16-bit CD-quality lossless wireless audio. Additionally, the Snapdragon 8 Mobile Platform Gen 1 is the first Snapdragon to support low energy (LE) audio innovations like broadcast audio. Qualcomm’s attention to the platform’s Bluetooth audio quality is another plus that should allow it to take advantage of the already booming wireless earbuds market. As far as future IP goes, I believe we could see the new FastConnect 6900 System in AR glasses as companies roll out prototypes and their first-year iterations. All of this to say, the significance of LE audio extends beyond that of just wireless earbuds.
While I do not doubt Qualcomm’s claims to the connectivity crown, the assertion that it is number one in cameras had some, including myself, scratching their heads. In a footnote to the claim, Qualcomm clarified that it, specifically the Snapdragon Insider Smartphone, leads the DXOMARK ratings for devices based on Snapdragon. The Snapdragon Insider Smartphone’s camera is ranked fourth below the iPhone 13 Pro, iPhone 13 Pro Max and the Google Pixel 6 Pro. The release of the Snapdragon Insider Smartphone preceded the release of the iPhone 13 and the Pixel 6 Pro by a few months, so it would have been first initially.
This year Qualcomm also introduced Snapdragon Sight to the platform, which upgrades last year’s 14-bit ISP to an 18-bit ISP. The higher ISP allows the camera to capture 4,000 times the camera data with capture speeds of up to 3.2 gigapixels per second. According to Qualcomm, it’s also the first 8K HDR video capture in mobile that can capture a 64MP simultaneous photo. I will be interested to see future DXOMARK scores for devices that take advantage of the higher 18-bit ISP. Cameras are all about capturing as much data as possible in one photo, so having more data for the ISP and AI to process should result in better photos.
AI and performance
Qualcomm also improved the platform’s AI Engine, doubling both its shared memory and the speed of its tensor accelerator. Overall, Qualcomm says it is four times faster than the previous generation, with a 1.7 times better performance-per-watt. Qualcomm attributes its performance increase to a fifty-fifty split between improvements to its Neural Processing SDK and the Hexagonal Processor. I think these improvements to Qualcomm's AI Engine could give it the advantage it needs over Google and Apple to remain the leader in mobile AI computing. One of the main reasons Google developed its Tensor SoC was because there was no hardware to keep up with its software innovation. With half of Qualcomm’s AI engine improvements attributed to software, I believe it has eliminated Google's reasoning for its own chip.
Qualcomm also announced a new antenna tuning technology that uses AI to tune a device’s antennas to the positioning of the user’s hands. Qualcomm claimed that it saw 30% improvements in detecting handgrips, and I imagine it gives devices better data speed, connectivity and reliability.
Qualcomm has also improved on its sensor hub, which now includes an always-on ISP and 75% more powerful AI performance while using half the power of its predecessor. The always-on camera is designed to understand when a user is using their phone so it knows when to take proper security measures. Paired with Qualcomm's AI Engine, I believe this could spin off additional new features for Qualcomm devices. The data from the always-on camera never leaves the Sensing Hub memory.
Leveraging Qualcomm's mobile technology in always-connected PCs
Qualcomm’s ultimate ambitions go beyond that of just smartphones—it wants to “connect everything to everything.” Always-connected PCs (ACPCs) have been around for a few years now, and Qualcomm's 8cx Gen 3 platform is gaining more traction in the space. At the Snapdragon Summit, every relevant Windows notebook maker except for Dell showcased videos in support of Qualcomm's ACPC platform. I have spoken to the leadership of most of these companies, and I believe the OEMs are in it for the long haul.
Qualcomm's claims for its CPU performance have sparked a fair amount of controversy. In one slide (see below), Qualcomm claims to have the same performance as Intel’s latest, with half the power consumption. Another benchmark claims 25% better performance with 25% less power consumption than Intel. I have learned from these events that you have to take benchmarks with a grain of salt—by nature, their goal is to make the product look as good as possible. The same could be said about some statistics, so I am not commenting on Qualcomm's "4nm" node architecture naming.
Instead, I tend to look more at the performance improvements over the last generation. In that regard, Qualcomm reported 40% faster single-threaded and 85% faster multi-threaded performance over the last generation— impressive.
Intel and Qualcomm are going in similar directions with ultra-mobile laptops—Intel with its Project Eve Platform and Qualcomm with its ACPC. Where I see Qualcomm taking a competitive advantage is in connectivity. I already mentioned the improvements that Qualcomm has made to its Modem-RF and 6900 System in its Snapdragon 8 Mobile Gen 1, and the 8cx platform features these same new connectivity chipsets. I believe that the ultra-mobile laptops will rely significantly on always being connected.
Every laptop in the premium space has evolved to become ultraportable, and they now look a lot more like the smartphone than the traditional desktop. Not only because the more mobile a laptop is, the better, but also because the laptop's performance is more aligned with its connectivity than its on-prem performance. If I am always connected to a low-latency network that fills my computational needs in gaming, content creation, or work, the need for a huge battery, high TDP graphics and powerful compute processor diminishes. The platform that has better connectivity and better partnerships will win the day. Although Qualcomm's ACPC platform is gaining traction, lntel benefits from long-standing relationships with OEMs, ability to pay for platform engineering, and has much bigger buckets of marketing money. Still, I believe Qualcomm has the IP to make this space more exciting within the next couple of years when its Nuvia-based silicon hits the shelves in 2023.
Qualcomm's Adreno GPU is also 60% faster than the previous generation and 40% more energy efficient. Its AI Engine boasts three times the performance of the previous generation, clocking in at over 29 TOPS. This improved GPU performance will be critical for the success of Qualcomm's 8cx, considering how many PC users are gamers. While GPU performance is a priority, it is hard to do maximize it without taking a hit on battery life. Qualcomm says that the efficiency of the 3rd generation 8cx, even with the CPU, AI and GPU improvements, is still on the multi-day level. Achieving all-day battery life is difficult in an ultramobile laptop, but it is a core pillar in Qualcomm's ACPC mission.
Qualcomm also improved the 8cx’s Spectra ISP and Sound, which means ACPCs should have no problem supporting high video and audio. Qualcomm prioritized support for Hi-Fi audio, AI accelerated echo-cancellation and noise suppression for clear video call experiences.
Leveraging Qualcomm's mobile technology in automotive
What is most interesting about Qualcomm's automotive play, in my mind, is its efforts to transform the industry’s legacy business model. Historically, the value is in the car itself, and it depreciates over time. Qualcomm is pushing a model where a car’s value is in its services. Amon calls the resultant experience “intelligent transportation.”
I also believe that Qualcomm’s ability to solve “systems” issues, its R&D leverage, and sheer scale give it a leg up on legacy automotive silicon makers.
In this new world, the most important parts of a vehicle are those that do the computation and maintain these services—in other words, the parts that make it intelligent. This is where Qualcomm’s innovation in mobile 5G, AI, Bluetooth, RF-front end, etc., give it a competitive advantage, as the same technology translates well to automotive applications. 5G opens these vehicles up to autonomous driving, smart cities and untold yet-to-be-dreamed up SaaS applications. AI is similarly critical, enabling autonomous driving and improved efficiency. AI will dictate how smart vehicles will relate to other vehicles, devices, roads and even smart cities, while 5G provides the necessary low latency, high bandwidth channels of communication.
Qualcomm's camera, audio, and Wi-Fi technology also play a role in the digital automotive industry. Cameras are the eyes of the vehicle, giving AI the visual information it needs to self-drive, detect traffic and more. Wi-Fi and audio will play more of a part on the front end of SaaS. The overall user experience of these vehicles will be just as important as their ability to self-drive.
Qualcomm’s comprehensive portfolio of IP make it uniquely able to serve the diverse needs of the intelligent automotive industry. As with its other businesses, partnerships are another key part of its automotive strategy. Cadillac, a leader in automotive technologies, was front in center discussing its efforts with Qualcomm to transform the automotive industry. Qualcomm's partnership with Cadillac involves technologies like dash, ADAS, infotainment and telematics.
One thing that was clear at Snapdragon Summit 2021 is that Qualcomm is firing on all cylinders, innovating not only with the smartphone in mind, but across every segment of connectivity. Although most credit should go to Qualcomm’s R&D, the company's partnerships are an ingredient to its success that should not be overlooked.
From what I have seen of the Snapdragon 8 Mobile Platform Gen 1, I will not be surprised to see Qualcomm continue to dominate in premium Android camera, gaming, AI and, of course, connectivity. Even more intriguing is how this mobile domination is dribbling into other mobile segments like ultramobile laptops and the automotive industry. No matter what way you slice it, Qualcomm’s prospects look good.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy co-op Jacob Freyman contributed to this article.