qualcomm-snapdragon-810-mdp-04Since Snapdragon 810 (official page) has been talked about since early 2014, let’s start with the most recent information: our hands-on benchmark scores, using with a reference development device and the latest firmware available. As you may recall, we had previously had our hands on one of the very cool LG G Flex 2 units at CES 2015, and ran some benchmark numbers, which were not quite where we expected them to be based on specs. Of course, we suspected that the software was not quite ready for a final look at the performance, but that started an interesting discussion. Now that we have our hands on production worthy hardware and software, the numbers are much more meaningful. Here they are:

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Now this looks much more in line with what the theoretical performance hinted by the specs. Thanks to the new A53 and A57s CPU cores designed by ARM (more on that below), the Snapdragon 810 SDK pulls ahead of every single Android phone we’ve tested so far in single-thread performance. With potentially all 8 cores active at once (Global Task Scheduling), the performance also scales in the multi-thread tests to far outpace anything else on the market (in Geekbench).

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Graphics performance also gets a boost, and proven tests such as 3DMark Unlimited Icestorm or GFXBench show solid gains, especially when using newer 3D graphics techniques. For older games, it looks like the iPhone 6 GPU remains quite efficient and gives it a slight edge.

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Basemark OS II is an overall system performance test, which is supposed to provide a global view of the capabilities of not only the chip, but also graphics, storage and memory sub-systems. The increase in score is quite impressive, but keep in mind that at the end of the day, many more things such as user-interface responsiveness come into play to form the final user experience. While not perfect, synthetic benchmark do provide a very interesting guidance as for the potential of the hardware platform.

So what happened to the rumored “heat issues”?

In the past couple of months, a number of rumors about a possible overheating issue with the 810 started to pop left and right (Qualcomm denied them every step of the way). First, there were talks of overheating issues, delays, then that a fix would not be provided to all customers, and finally that LG would sue Qualcomm (debunked by LG) if it provided a fix to a competitor only. So far, all of those seem largely false, and Qualcomm is poised to ship its product to a large number of OEMs (phone makers).

Since we had seen 810 demos for almost a year, it seemed really odd that someone would notice problems only by year’s end, especially when the chip was designed to provide better performance per watt, and better thermal for a given compute workload. This is something that would have lead to massive cancellations of orders since OEM partners get some testing chips early in the game. On the contrary, Qualcomm says that in its own tests, Snapdragon 810 provides much better thermals than its 800 predecessor:

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Although along the development, there are always a few bumps here and there (LG seemed to confirm that), I don’t believe that anything major would go under the radar, or unsolved until December of 2014, so I would tend to believe Qualcomm on this one. In the end, the proof is going to be shown by a combination of high-performance and thin designs. That is ultimately the success metric when it comes to performance in relation to heat.

During its earning call, Qualcomm did confirm that a “large OEM partner” has backed out from using Snapdragon 810, but it seem more and more evident that the decision is probably not related to a product performance issue. The name of the partner has yet to be confirmed, but if you look at the top 10 phone OEMs in the world, and knowing who has already signed to buy the chip, I would venture to guess that Samsung is the only company “large” enough to impact Qualcomm’s revenues to the point that it would be mentioned in the earnings call – Bloomberg sure thinks that it is Samsung (now confirmed after the Galaxy S6 launch). We’ll know for sure in a few weeks at Mobile World Congress.

It’s pretty much certain that our final G Flex 2 review unit will exhibit performance numbers much better than the ones we had seen at CES.

The Snapdragon 810 SoC architecture

snapdragon-810-chip-modulesSnapdragon 810 is the first of its generation while previous SoCs like 801 and 805 where derivatives and optimizations of the original Snapdragon 800 architecture. 810 has new CPU cores and a new GPU architecture, and Snapdragon 808 has a similar design, but isn’t as powerful. It is also paired with a new modem and a number of more recent dedicated modules, so there are a lot of new things going on.

CPU Cores (4+4)

Since the CPU cores do get a lot of attention, let’s start with those. With Snapdragon 810, Qualcomm is switching to 64-bit for its high-end chip. It also license two core design from ARMs instead of building its own. The company has revealed that it will eventually differentiate with its own compatible cores, but for now, this is an ARM CPU core design.

This chip uses big.LITTLE, an ARM technology that allows small cores and large cores to co-exist, in order to maximize peak performance and battery life at the same time. I recommend following the big.LITTLE link if you want to know more about this, it’s quite fascinating.

The small core design is the ARM A53 and the larger one is the ARM A57s. There are four of each type in the Snapdragon 810 processor. Qualcomm is quitter familiar with the A53 design since it is already shipping it in the Snapdragon 400 and 600 series.

Graphics processor (GPU)

snapdragon-810-graphicsThe Snapdragon 810 chip gets the most power graphics processor currently available at Qualcomm: the Adreno 430. The Snapdragon 808 model has an Adreno 418. Adreno 430 is a very significant upgrade in both feature and performance over what most of us know with Snapdragon 805 phones available today. The Adreno Series 400 is also the first to support features that could be implemented in Direct X 11.2.

Interestingly, this chip can also drive two 4K displays, which can be great if you want to clone your tablet’s screen to a 4K TV for example… the only limitation is that one can be refreshed at 60Hz (for the tablet’s UI) and the other at 30Hz (the TV media playback).

The Snapdragon 810 platform

Qualcomm would of course be quick to point out that Snapdragon is much more than CPUs and GPU, and they are right of course. A typical system on chip (SOC) has a dozen of dedicated modules that specialize in various tasks such as video compression/decompression or image signal processors (ISP) to interpret what the cameras can “see”. And of course, there’s the modem…

Modem

snapdragon-810-modemThe integrated modem is similar in design and functionality to what the discrete Qualcomm 9×35 LTE CAT 6 modem, with one addition: the Snapdragon 810 modem can aggregate three LTE carriers (signal) to increase peak data throughput. The discrete version only aggregates a maximum of two carriers (more info on Qualcomm’s carrier aggregation). While the original 9×35 reaches theoretical speeds of 300 Mbps, the 810 modem spec points to a peak rate of 450 Mbps and an LTE CAT 9 rating.

Video processing

The addition of HEVC/H.265 hardware encoding in Snapdragon 810 is one of the more remarkable video addition. Because the video compression quality is much higher and much more storage efficient, 4K video files now have a much more manageable size, which is critical if you are to share them. HEVC is about 65% more storage efficient when compared to MP4.

Qualcomm has also mentioned that the new image processors for the cameras will use a 14-bit precision (instead of 12 previously), which is significantly better photo applications, especially those using high-dynamic range (HDR). Unfortunately, not much information has transpired about those, beyond this particular detail.

Conclusion

After a few ups and downs in the media, Snapdragon 810 is shaping up like everything it was supposed to be since we heard of it in early 2014. The string of rumors concerning this product in the past month was quite dramatic, but don’t hold up to data obtained with the final hardware and software. Using the reference design development kit (MDP devices), Snapdragon 810 delivers the performance increase that is consistent with the hardware specs, and there is still surely more performance to be extracted as the software gets optimized in the coming months.

The next step is to see if this translates into products. Keep in mind that development units such as this one are created first and foremost to provide a complete development platform to developers, and not for benchmarking purposes. The form-factor has a generous thermal management and implementations will vary with actual products.

However, we have worked with MDPs in the past, and we know that this provides an excellent indication of what to expect. Stay tuned: we’ll soon run the same numbers on a production-ready LG G Flex 2.

Filed in Cellphones. Read more about Qualcomm, snapdragon, Snapdragon 810 and SoC.

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