A couple of months ago, I wrote about the new Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders (SSI). The smartphone is a collaboration between Asus, responsible for designing, manufacturing, and selling the phone, and Qualcomm, who will offer the internals to power the experience. Like I mentioned before, this premium smartphone was designed for a select community of Snapdragon Insiders, not for the masses. Asus and Qualcomm partnered to craft a unique experience for Qualcomm’s most dedicated Snapdragon customers.
Qualcomm is arguably the leader in smartphone chips, especially within the premium Android ecosystem. An important thing to realize is that the company isn’t releasing the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders (SSI) to compete with flagship smartphones from Samsung, Google, or Apple. When Qualcomm announced this new design to the public, I was eager to see what sort of experience a collaboration between Asus and Qualcomm would produce. After a short wait, I was able to test the Snapdragon Insider for myself. Below are my thoughts.
Specs and pricing
Since Qualcomm is looking to craft a unique and premium user experience with the smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders, the company put a lot of special hardware and design features into this device. The Snapdragon Insider comes with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, 512GB of storage, 16GB of RAM, 3D Sonic Sensor Gen 2 Fingerprint Reader, and a Quick Charge 5 adaptor. The whole experience is running on Android 11 OS. In terms of connectivity, the SSI enables Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.2. The unit also focuses on global 5G with support for all the essential 5G sub-6 and mmWave bands.
This smartphone is packed full of flagship specs and features and totes a flagship price tag of $1500. Keep in mind, the $1,500 is the bundle pricing. However, even as a bundle, the price tag is in the upper echelon of smartphones. When designing something unique for the Snapdragon Insider community, Qualcomm was wise to use the best components available for this design, especially if the company wants to show off all its potential features.
Design and performance
My first impression of the SSI when picking it up was the size. The phone dimensions are 6.80 by 3.00 by 0.38 inches (HWD), which I consider pretty significant. The exterior of the phone is smooth and feels premium. The midnight blue matte finish with red accents is a unique look, and I like it more than I thought I would. I could live without the red accents and exchange them for some matte blacks, but I don’t feel like it’s out of place for a truly unique design. The Snapdragon logo on the phone’s back illuminates, and customization is available when you want to enable the lighting or change the color. The fingerprint sensor is located on the middle back of the phone. I use my index finger to log in, and after setup, it was a quick login method. I would have preferred the fingerprint sensor to route through the display, but oh well.
The 6.8-inch display with Corning Gorilla Glass provides a great viewing experience, especially if you consume video content. There is also plenty of real estate for maximizing productivity on business applications like Teams and Google Meet. These are just a couple of my productivity apps, but I assume most business apps will perform well with this CPU and display. The panel has a 144Hz refresh rate, and I have to say it is probably one of the snappiest displays that I’ve used in a smartphone. I’m used to Samsung’s 120 Hz displays which I consider the gold standard for smartphone displays.
I would rank the SSI display in the upper tier of flagship smartphones. It makes much sense because Samsung manufactures the 144Hz 2448 x 1080 resolution AMOLED display. The display would also be a good fit for mobile gamers. I am not much of one myself and did not do any game testing on this device, but I do not doubt its gaming performance. The SSI has the specs to be a compelling option for Snapdragon gamers.
I scaled back the brightness to around 50% brightness most days even though the display will go up to 800 nits of brightness. It sacrifices some battery life performance to achieve a high level of brightness and responsiveness, and each user will have to decide for themselves if that is a worthy trade-off. For me, it is. Around the edges are the phone speakers. In my opinion, the speakers are comparable audio level and quality to other flagship devices from Apple and Samsung.
I used an AT&T SIM and connected to its 5G network for my use. SSI does support physical dual 5G-sims as well if you want to run two at one time. The global 5G support for this phone isn’t fully appreciated in a singular review, but I do believe its extremely valuable to international customers. It supports all kinds of different connectivity bands across the globe and all three US carriers for 5G, which is nice.
The triple camera solution was one of the things that I was looking forward to using most on the SSI. Qualcomm has baked a lot of hardware and software goodness into this camera solution. The three rear cameras use Qualcomm’s Spectra 580 Image Signal Processor (ISP) and the 6th Gen Qualcomm AI Engine for auto zooming and tracking. The ISP allows users to shoot 4K video with all three cameras simultaneously.
The triple camera module includes a primary 64MP camera, 12MP ultra-wide camera, and 8MP, 3x zoom telephoto camera. Sony’s flagship image sensors power the main and ultra-wide cameras. The three-camera module does protrude out of the smartphone’s back a little bit but not as much as I am used to seeing on other triple cameras flagship phones. There is also a front-facing selfie camera that is 24MP.
To start with the 24MP selfie camera, I was pleased with the face tracking and camera quality in well-lit settings. When I began to use it in low-light environments, the images became a bit grainy and noisy. For standard video chatting and selfies, I think it will perform just fine.
I like having options on rear-facing cameras, so I am happy Asus and Qualcomm went with a triple camera approach. The big player in the camera system is Qualcomm’s Spectra 580 ISP with Triple 14-bit Computer Vision-ISP for 2.7 Gigapixels per second. When I took photos with each of the rear-facing cameras, I was pleased with the results. The cameras seemed to produce sharp images but struggled slightly in low light, just like the selfie camera. I recorded a few videos in 4K and 8K, and the videos were crisp. There was a warning on the screen about the phone heating up when shooting in 8K, which I quickly experienced. I have heard that the SSI can have overheating issues when taking on heavy loads, so I’m not surprised to see that happening for shooting in 8K. I believe this is a software issue that Qualcomm and Asus would need to fix. I will say I never experienced any overheating issues apart from doing very strenuous workloads.
Triple cameras are becoming the norm in flagship smartphones, and I think Qualcomm has a lot to build off here. Many of my issues with the cameras are supposed to improve with the following software release so that only time will tell on the SSI’s camera potential.
The Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders comes with a 4000mAh battery. I would consider this battery size reasonably small for a flagship smartphone. I honestly expected a little bigger battery based on the size of the device. Nonetheless, I was still pleased with the uptime that I got while using the device. I frequently use Gmail, Outlook, Teams, YouTube, Google Meet, social media apps, and plenty of other business applications in one day. Throughout my use, I was able to get 10 hours of use out of the SSI consistently. I am sure if I scaled back my display to 60Hz and lowered my brightness even more, I could squeeze more hours out, but that’s no fun.
I did appreciate the Quick charging capabilities of the smartphone. Qualcomm’s claims of 70% battery life after 30 minutes of charging and 100% battery life after 52 minutes of charging held up in my personal use. I often only have 30 minutes between calls and meetings to charge my device, so getting back to 70% in that short of time is excellent.
Master & Dynamic with Snapdragon Sound ANC earphones
The new Master & Dynamic MW08SI earphones are an excellent addition to this unique Snapdragon experience. The earphones are a new product for Qualcomm and come with the SSI smartphone bundle. At a $300 value, the earbuds really showed the excellent sound quality from Qualcomm’s Audio technology for wireless earbuds
The earphone case feels premium and comes with the Snapdragon Sound logo etched on the outside. The case and earphones color match with the unique matte blue color of the SSI too. The earphones are extremely easy to pair with the phone. Each one of the earphones audibly notifies you when it connects with the SSI and is in your ear. Despite being an odd shape, the earphones are extremely comfortable, and I didn’t have any issues with them falling out of my ear while using them. The volume range on the earbuds is vast, with the upper volumes being much louder than I would ever listen to audio. These were great for taking calls or listening to video content and music. The automatic noise cancellation was on par with other flagship earbuds I have used and made it easy to block out external noise when taking Teams, Zoom, and WebEx calls.
Another piece of the puzzle is Snapdragon Sound. Snapdragon Sound is a new audio software designed to pair with the MW08SI earphones, but unfortunately, it wasn’t available at the time of this review. The difference between the earphones I used and the ones enabled with Snapdragon Sound is the ability to stream 24x96 kHz audio and an upgrade to the super wide-band voice, which improves the clarity of calls. The updated version of the MW08SI earphones will come with 24-bit 96kHz audio quality, ultra-low latency Bluetooth streaming, and aptX Voice super wide-band technology. The aptX Voice is a feature within aptX Adaptive designed to improve call quality on Bluetooth peripherals. I greatly appreciate this feature because Bluetooth earbuds have notoriously lousy call quality and microphones compared to phone speakers.
After using the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders as my primary device for several days, I have a deeper understanding of Qualcomm’s use for this phone. Qualcomm wanted to put together a device that leverages all the features of a Qualcomm SoC. I believe this phone is what Qualcomm wanted it to be, a product-focused on loyal Snapdragon customers that want a unique user experience. If that is the goal, then I believe Qualcomm has succeeded in its mission. Keep in mind that this smartphone isn’t meant to appeal to the masses but rather to the 1.6 million Snapdragon Insiders.
I believe few phones compete with the SSI from a hardware perspective, but Qualcomm still has a way to go on the software front. We are still missing the signature Snapdragon Sound application and some software updates to improve camera performance. Qualcomm told me that the software updates would dramatically improve the camera and audio performance, but I can only speak to my recent experience. Being on the bleeding edge in the smartphone market means being willing to let OEMs iron out some kinks along the way. I have a feeling that Snapdragon Insiders will be okay with that. There is still plenty of work to fix the camera and audio performance, but I like the direction Qualcomm and Asus are heading on this one.