Inside the Snapdragon 865: Qualcomm reveals the features you'll find in 2020's best Android phones
Qualcomm's next-gen Snapdragon 865 smartphone chip will support 5G, certainly. But more practical features will probably affect phone users in more immediate ways, such as 200 megapixel still photos, 4K HDR/8K video capture with optional portrait mode and Dolby Vision support, dynamic lighting options for mobile gaming, and real-time audio translation.
Qualcomm unveiled the Snapdragon 855 a year ago, and unveiled its successors-the Snapdragon 865, the Snapdragon 765, and the Snapdragon 765G-on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Qualcomm dove deep into what phone makers and end users can expect from its new processors. Improvements to each of its cores-the new Kryo 585 CPU, the Adreno 650 GPU, the Spectra 480 image signal processor, the Sensing Hub, and the X55 5G modem-will all add new capabilities to phones.
Many of the most popular premium smartphones are built upon Snapdragon, including flagships from Google, Samsung, and OnePlus. (Apple uses its own chips.)
What's inside the Snapdragon 865
Below is a high-level overview of the Snapdragon 865, which will be manufactured on a 7nm process like its predecessor. (The 865 uses TSMC's 7nm process, while the 765 is manufactured on Samsung's 7nm process.) Some of the basics, like the GPU speed, are still not being disclosed. We'll go into more of what features these will enable afterward. Keep in mind, however, that some of these capabilities are theoretical. In the case of 5G, for example, certainly don't expect the 7.5Gbps download speeds Qualcomm is promising.
Qualcomm's promising the Kryo 585 CPU will deliver more than 25 percent more performance than the processor inside the older Snapdragon 855, as well as 25 percent more power efficiency. The Kryo core uses what you might call a BIG-big-little architecture, with a upclocked "prime" core, three "performance" cores, and four "efficiency" cores to handle low-power tasks.
Qualcomm says the Adreno 650 GPU will deliver 25 percent faster graphics rendering, with a 35 percent power savings over the the Adreno 640. The latter figure is optimized for 90 frames per second, not 60. The Hexagon 698, the dedicated AI processor, will deliver 4 times the performance of the Hexagon 690, the first "retooling" of the digital signal processor for AI.
While next-gen 5G technology was a controversial subject in 2019, it looks far more viable for 2020, as both carriers and chipmakers move toward the finish line. My colleague Mike Simon does a great job breaking down what Qualcomm's X55 modem means in the real world: in a nutshell, integrated LTE and 5G capabilities means that it will save power and switch faster between the two, both benefiting you. The X55 is a standalone chip, however, meaning that there's still more room to save even more power in the future by combining it with some successor to the Snapdragon 865. For now, however, the fact that it's a discrete chip means that it can be combined with multiple platforms. It also allows a company like Apple the freedom to buy (or make) its own 5G modem.
Qualcomm decided to make a strategic bet three years ago to keep the 5G modem separate, explained Cisco Cheng, a managing director at Qualcomm. "To pack the amount of gaming, camera, and AI features into the SOC while maintaining all of the awesome features, we have to keep the two separate," he said.
Keith Kressin, senior vice president of product management for Qualcomm, said both mmWave and sub-6GHz frequencies need to be supported.
Qualcomm also expects the X55 platform to be faster than its predecessor, with up to 7.5Gbps downloads. Again, you'll never see those speeds in the real world, but in general more theoretical overhead means more capability. Finally, there's support for global multi-SIM, so if you have a 5G phone you'll be able to roam worldwide with a second SIM, possibly to areas that might have pervasive 5G connectivity before the U.S. does.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the other key linchpin of the Snapdragon 865, and like Intel's own AI capabilities, it can be a little hard to define. Qualcomm's touting its 5th-generation AI Engine as the, well, engine of all of this. It mainly consists of the company's new Hexagon Tensor Accelerator and Sensing Hub.
The latter's relatively simple to understand. One of the 855's new features was dedicated low-power logic to understand "wake words" like "Hey, Google." Inside the Snapdragon 865, the low-power dedicated Sensing Hub does the same, as well as for other assistants. Real-time music identification is also supported, Ziad Asghar, Quaclomm's vice president of AI strategy, said. There's also some logic to support contextual AI, so a phone will "know" what you're talking about.
"We look at AI powering everything we do, and all of the products that we make," Asghar said.
The Sensing Hub also adds to the traditional sensors (a gyrometer, accelerometer, even a barometer) with voice, data streams, and more, applying things like noise cancellation in real time to improve how it understands your voice.
In the 855, Qualcomm retooled the Hexagon DSP to be optimized for AI. The new Hexagon 698 within the Snapdragon 865 delivers 15 trillion operations per second, more than twice its predecessor, and with 35 percent less power. It's the engine that SDKs like Qualcomm's Neural Processing SDK will run on top of, to give app developers access to the AI smarts at the heart of the chip. Snap's senior director of engineering, Yurii Monastyrshyn, appeared on stage to show that processing Snapchat via the Hexagon is 4 times faster than on the Kryo CPU.
This are two "one more thing" features here: Google and Qualcomm are moving the Google Assistant automated speech recognition from the cloud to the Snapdragon 865 chip, with 30 percent less latency between your speech and a response. There's a 3X power savings, too.
Qualcomm's also claiming-and it showed off!-the ability to make a phone call, and have your voice translated into another language, on the fly. Qualcomm's even claiming that it can maintain the style of your voice, too.
A lot of people buy a phone specifically to take better pictures. For the past few years, Android phones have dominated our camera comparisons, but Apple's latest iPhones have stolen some of that magic back in our latest smartphone camera shootout.
Qualcomm's new Spectra ISP has been rearchitected to run much more efficiently. While the previous camera sensor was able to process one pixel per clock cycle, the current Spectra ISP processes four in the same time. Qualcomm didn't actually announce the clock speed, but the sensor can process 2 gigapixels per second, according to senior marketing manager PJ Jacobowitz. That simple efficiency helped spur several improvements, including the ability to simply slow down the core's clock speed, saving power.
But there's a number of tricks that Snapdragon 865-powered smartphone cameras will be able to do that current phones can't.
First, the camera will be able to capture a whopping 200 megapixel still images, which apparently is not a hypothetical number-and it's not two sensors working together in concert, either, Jacobowitz said. "We've been working with a major sensor provider to bring 200 megapixel images, image sensors, to smartphones," he said. Even better, it should be in place by the end of spring, in 2020, he added.
Judd Heape, who runs the camera business at Qualcomm, said that Qualcomm can now use the entire image sensor to generate autofocus points, more than 9X what they had before. The HEIF file format that Qualcomm stores it photos in (introduced first within the 855) now saves the depth map, as well. What this means for you is that you'll be able to add bokeh, also known as "portrait mode," after you've taken the photo.
Morpho also appeared n stage to show of how semantic interpolation could use AI to add back detail that an image either lost or couldn't capture. ArcSoft also used AI to smooth optical zoom, instead of jerky transitions from one level to another.
Next, the 865's Spectra core will also be able to capture still photos more effectively while recording video. Currently, Jacobowitz said, "snapping" a still image while recording video essentially just captures a frame: at 1080p, that's about a 2 megapixel image. With the 865, the smartphone camera will be able to capture 64 megapixel still images while it's recording 4K HDR video. Snapdragon 865-powered phones will also have the option of capturing 8K/30 video (without HDR), which requires the ability to capture 33 megapixels per second.
"That's significant, because there are a lot of phones on the market, even in the premium section, that their photos...aren't even 33 megapixel," Jacobowitz said.
Then there's a phone's slo-mo capabilities, which will also be beefed up. Snapdragon 865-powered cameras will capture 4K video at 120 frames per second, for a "4X" slow-motion option. At a more standard 720p resolution, the Spectra will go much, much further, capturing an amazing 960 frames per second, at what Jacobowitz called "indefinitely," up to the limits of the available storage. (It does it natively, without frame interpolation, Heape said,) Conversely, if a camera has an advanced 120Hz display, the Spectra inside the Snapdragon 865 will be able to play that 4K video back at 120Hz, too.
Finally, Qualcomm's Snapdragon 865 plans to increase its HDR capabilities one more time. After the 845 introduced HDR10 video capture and the 855 launched HDR10+, the Snapdragon 865 plans to be the first on the market to capture in Dolby Vision. Normally, this usually requires capturing raw video, which is then taken to Dolby's labs and then processed, Jacobowitz said. The Snapdragon 865 will be able to do it natively.
Mobile gaming has eclipsed movies in terms of revenue, according to Leilani DeLeon, director of product gaming and AR at Qualcomm. Viewership of eSports has exceeded most professional sports leagues, she said.
The bulk of the Snapdragon 865's gaming improvements will arrive through the 20 percent speed boost in the Adreno 650 GPU. But there's also several somethings that are a bit PC-like, including downloadable GPU driver updates.