At Computex 2018, Qualcomm has announced Snapdragon 850, a processor and platform dedicated to Windows 10. Snapdragon 850 will be the technological foundation for upcoming Always-Connected PCs, continuing the trend launched by laptops such as the Lenovo Miix 630, Asus NovaGo and the HP Envy X2.
Performance way up from 2017
Snapdragon 850 is one generation ahead last year’s Snapdragon 835 for PCs. From a transistor and logic point of view, it is identical to Snapdragon 845, which is found in the most powerful Android phones today. In the context of Always-connected PCs, Qualcomm’s says that this new chip will boost performance by:
- 30% overall
- 20% faster LTE speeds
- 20% in power-efficiency / battery-life
It makes sense, and we have looked at Snapdragon 845 in details, so we know that these are believable numbers, although it always depends on your actual use case. For example, the new architecture is more efficient, so it consumes much less power while doing the same task as last year’s design.
It is known that LTE communications can take a toll on the energy reserves. That’s why the new Qualcomm X20 LTE modem inside Snapdragon 850 helps so much: with peak speeds of 1.2 Gbps and much higher average speeds than last year’s model, the data transmission is shorter, and the modem can be turned off sooner. Qualcomm estimates that in an inferior radio reception environment, the Snapdragon 850 could download 5X faster than its predecessor.
Perhaps, the only Achilles heel for this platform is the Flash Storage, which is more phone-like (UFS 2.x) than PC-like (PCIe) but since it powers “productivity computers” that perform relatively routine tasks, it is probably fine.
How is it different from Snapdragon 845?
In a nutshell, it is about thermal management and software. The silicon design is identical, but because the PC form-factor is much more forgiving than a phone, Qualcomm can raise the core clocks (up to 2.95GHz vs. 2.8 GHz for S.845 and 2.6 GHz for S.835), and let the chip get a bit hotter. The larger internal space inside a laptop or tablet will lead to better cooling, which means better sustained performance.
Of course, since it is running on Windows, a different set of drivers is required. This may not be very noticeable to the end-user, but it is enough differences that Qualcomm wanted to create a new product out of it.
Qualcomm has been very clear that Snapdragon 850 is a PC/Windows product and we should not see it in a smartphone product. Interestingly, the company is no longer using “Mobile PC Platform,” but rather “Mobile Compute Platform”, which is more open and could possibly hint that other markets could be served. One could venture to guess “automobiles”, but who knows?
Much better than Snapdragon 835
With Snapdragon 850, always-connected PCs, will make a leap from just 6 months ago. Performance aside, the hardware and software update will also bring better software compatibility and some 64-bit capabilities/compatibility.
The support for 4K HDR video playback and recording capabilities have gone up big time. Ultralight computers are often used as personal entertainment systems, and with more and more content available in UHD 4K HDR, it would be a pity not to watch them in their full glory.
Given the lamentable state of webcams on PCs, I would be surprised if an OEM would propose recording in UHD 4K, but the chip is capable of doing so, if there is a great camera. Even in the smartphone world, Sony might be the only OEM to use UHD 4K HDR recording in their new XPERIA handset.
Alongside excellent image quality, it is evident that sound quality should be equally good. Little known to most consumers, Qualcomm’s Aqstic and AptX (Wireless) audio features provide excellent sound quality. When I tested Aqstic in the Qualcomm HQ (San Diego), the sound quality was undistinguishable from thousand-dollars audio players I had previously tried.
If you wonder, Snapdragon 850 supports multiple displays, and that will be very handy, whether it is to output to an external monitor, or to build a dual-screen tablet…
There is also support for DSD, an audio format that has 64X the sampling rate of an audio CD disc. There are even higher sampling rates available with DSD, but for now, this is more than enough and most people may not even have the proper speakers or headphones to go with it.
“Innovative form factors” coming up…
Qualcomm mentioned that OEMs would build more innovative designs. This is a reference to the first salvo of always-connected PCs that came out late last year. Some of them had an exquisite build quality, but it’s fair to say that a lot of people wanted at least one ultra-thin clamshell (and more!) instead of the tablet-like 2-in-1 form-factor. It seems like things are going to change for the best this year.
When will they come? So far, the arrival of these new PCs is slated for the second half of this year. With Snapdragon 850, Qualcomm will increase its nascent footprint in the PC market by bringing users what they desire most: ultra-long battery life and remarkable mobility. As for computing power, Qualcomm is already a semiconductor process much more advanced than PC processors and moves ever closer to equaling a Core i5’s performance every year.