Qualcomm is known as the world leader in 5G technology, with its SoCs at the heart of many of the world’s leading flagship phones. Every December, the company hosts its Tech Summit to show off the latest flagship chips that are already shipping to customers for next year’s flagship phones. For the last few years, Qualcomm held the event in Maui, but this year, due to Covid-19, the Tech Summit event was virtually (on Dec. 1stand 2nd). Like many previous Tech Summits, the 2020 event centered around the newest top-tier Snapdragon—the Snapdragon 888.
Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 888 replaces last year’s Snapdragon 865 as the new flagship chip for the brand. The Snapdragon 888 brings many big improvements across the board to help elevate the mobile experience. It is also the company’s first 5nm mobile processor and the industry’s third after Apple’s A14 and Huawei’s Kirin 9000.
The Snapdragon 888 is no slouch when it comes to connectivity, with its integrated Snapdragon X60 5G modem, the company’s 3rd generation 5G modem (after the X50 and X55). This new modem will enable 5G carrier aggregation for both FDD and TDD spectrum, significantly improving 5G performance and coverage in areas where both are available. This is not something to sleep on, because the ability to aggregate mmWave, mid-band and low-band spectrum will help to deliver the kinds of 5G experiences users have been expecting from the technology. The X60 also brings 5G multi-SIM support for international roaming capabilities, which is less of a factor in markets like the US and Europe but still relevant in Asia and for global travelers. The Snapdragon 888 platform also features the new FastConnect 6900 Wi-Fi currently only available in the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2. The biggest reason behind pairing the two is the enablement of Wi-Fi 6E—the support for Wi-Fi throughput up to 3.6 Gbps in a phone. Phones with the Snapdragon 888 will be among the first to take advantage of Wi-Fi 6E routers coming out early next year. Expect lightning-fast Wi-Fi connectivity with low latency.
Featuring the latest core technology, the Snapdragon 888’s CPU is among the fastest globally. Qualcomm once again tapped the mobile CPU experts at Arm for its latest Kryo CPU design, the Kryo 680, customized to its specific performance and power needs. Arm’s latest Arm Cortex X1, whose announcement we covered earlier this year, is Arm’s fastest CPU core to date. The Cortex X1 was designed for mobile form factors and can pair with the latest Cortex-A78 and A55 eight-core configuration. This configuration translates to a single X1 core, three A78 cores and four A55 cores.
Qualcomm is the first Arm partner to adopt the Cortex-X1. The company claims Cortex-X1 gives the Snapdragon 888 a 25% uplift in peak performance over the Snapdragon 865 and a peak frequency of 2.84 GHz. Unlike some companies, who might attempt to juice their benchmark scores with bursts of high performance, Qualcomm emphasized that the Snapdragon 888 can actually sustain its peak performance speeds. Sustained performance is essential for AR and gaming applications, which continue to grow and take up more and more of the smartphone’s processing cycles. Any thermal throttling will result in a poor user experience and overall performance.
The Snapdragon 888’s GPU is a beast when it comes to performance, thanks to the new Adreno 660 architecture. The new Adreno 660 also supports HDR gaming, PBR (physically based rendering), HDR10+ and Dolby Vision HDR playback and much more. Another new feature, which I believe will significantly change and improve gaming in the years to come, is VRS (variable-rate shading). By only rendering certain parts of a game at full resolution, VRS can improve the experience with better visuals performance. This feature initially came out of the world of VR, where the user’s retina can only focus on a small area. This makes it pointless to render the rest of the field at full resolution. Qualcomm says that VRS improves game rendering performance by up to 30% while also improving power consumption, Altogether, this gives game developers an enormous amount of additional performance to work with for game developers.
While the CPU and GPU are vital components of the Snapdragon 888’s total experience, the Hexagon 780 processor inside the Snapdragon 888 is home to the bulk of the Snapdragon 888’s AI performance, which my colleague Karl Freund will cover in an upcoming blog.
The camera has long been a focal point for many smartphone manufacturers, who are embroiled in an arms race of sorts for in-camera capabilities. Qualcomm has invested heavily in the Snapdragon’s ISP (image signal processor), which is responsible for many of the Snapdragon’s camera capabilities. As a result, Snapdragon-powered devices feature some of the best smartphone cameras in the world. Huawei’s Mate 40 Pro only recently overtook the Snapdragon-powered Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra as the highest-ranked smartphone camera in the world according to DXOMark’s scoring system.
This camera race is likely why Qualcomm upgraded its Spectra ISP once again, with new Triple 14-bit ISPs and the ability to process 2.7 Gigapixels per second in aggregate. The 2.7 Gigapixel figure represents a 35% improvement in total pixel throughput. The Spectra 580 also enables up to 200 Megapixel photo capture, which is the same as the Spectra 480 in the Snapdragon 865. Alternatively, the Spectra 580 ISP also supports up to three 28 MP cameras at 30 FPS with zero shutter lag or a 64 + 25 MP dual camera at 30 FPS with zero shutter lag. If a single camera is all you need, then the Spectra 580 ISP supports zero shutter lag at 30 FPS up to 84 MP, which is better than the Spectra 480 ISP’s 64 MP in the Snapdragon 865. It also supports 12 megapixel photography at up to 120 FPS, storage and cache allowing.
Similar to the Spectra 480 ISP, the Spectra 580 ISP supports 10-bit photo and video capture and the Rec. 2020 color gamut. The support for broader color gamuts also translates to 10-bit HDR HEIF photo capture and codec support for HDR10/+, HLG, and Dolby Vision video. The ISP still supports 8K at 30 FPS, though I’ve yet to see many 8K implementations worth the effort (especially considering how few 8K displays are out there). Perhaps with this generation, 8K capture will get better, but I’m not holding my breath. Frankly, I’d like to see more improvements to 4K capture, like the ability to capture 4K video while also capturing a 64 MP photo. The Snapdragon 888 is now capable of 4K at 120 and 4K HDR video capture with portrait mode, which to me is much more real and valuable than 8K. It can also capture cryptographically-sealed photos, thanks to a collaboration with Truepic and in compliance with the Open Content Authenticity Initiative Standard.
The Snapdragon 888 feels like an SoC that focuses on delivering better incremental performance in nearly every possible area that affects the user experience. The substantial performance improvements to CPU and GPU are likely to be appreciated by the usual suspects like OnePlus, Samsung, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi. However, this chipset’s 5G and Wi-Fi capabilities are almost as impressive as its CPU and GPU performance improvements. In conjunction with the GPU’s ability to do VRS, 5G will very likely translate to some impressive gaming performance, even as cloud gaming services continue to grow. I believe that the Snapdragon 888 will likely become the default processor for gaming phones in 2021, which are proving to be some of the fastest performing phones available. For non-gamers, the camera and overall processing improvements will still be welcome and will hopefully translate to better responsiveness and longer battery life. Qualcomm says that it expects Snapdragon 888-based devices to have commercial availability in the first quarter of 2021.