During last week’s Snapdragon Summit held in Hawaii, Qualcomm presented its new Snapdragon 865 in detail. This gives us high visibility on what’s going to happen at the high-end of the smartphone market for 2020, and here are the key takeaways for those who will be looking for a new phone next year.

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Next-level camera features

From a consumer standpoint, the theoretical camera performance is the most crucial element of Snapdragon 865 because just about everyone cares about taking better photos.

We highly recommend reading our detailed article about the Snapdragon 865 Camera Features, but essentially, Qualcomm’s new Spectra ISP (image signal processor) is so powerful that it can read from a 200 Megapixel sensor (yes, it means 200MP photos), or capture data from several cameras at the same time, enabling simultaneous multi-camera photos and video (ultrawide, wide, zoom, selfie) experiences that weren’t possible before.

Most people don’t realize it, but today’s 40MP to 108MP camera is not being fully exploited because the various ISP units aren’t fast enough, and therefore, a lot of multi-frame photography techniques have to be run at only ¼ of the maximum resolution. Snapdragon 865 should let developers break that barrier for the first time.

Multi-frame photography is a foundational element of computational photography (improving image quality with computing), and improving it should have profound repercussions in image quality.

"SHOULD HAVE PROFOUND REPERCUSSIONS IN IMAGE QUALITY"

8K video recording will appear for the first time on smartphones, and while it may sound remote, it wasn’t long ago that 4K video went from being a fringe “need” to a very requested feature, especially at 60FPS.

Qualcomm goes much farther, with a maximum 4K/120FPS video recording speed, which allows for 4X slow-motion or ultrasmooth real-time recording. It’s mind-boggling when you think that most phones don’t even record in 4K, let alone 4K/60FPS.

“Unlimited” 960FPS Slow-motion: 960 FPS was introduced by Sony, then popularized by Samsung and Huawei. However, they all had that ~0.4 seconds (or something really short) recording limitation.

This limit is shattered by Snapdragon 865 (with the proper camera sensor), and now, the only limit is storage space or perhaps RAM. We’ll see how OEMs implement this.

~25% Higher performance

As usual, the new generation of processors comes with added performance, and both the CPU and GPU (graphics processor) get about ~25% of extra peak speed.

Given that the 2019 Snapdragon 855 was already the best Android gaming platform (especially with Elite Gaming), it looks like a winning streak that will continue for the next year, given that major competing chips will only launch in Oct 2020.

It would be surprising, but exciting, to see significant competition from MediaTek or HiSilicon before then, but Kirin 990 just launched in October 2019 (preview coming soon, subscribe to our notifications at the end of the article).

Obviously, faster phones benefit gamers the most, as premium games tend to be the ones using the most CPU and GPU resources. In 2019, pretty much all handsets explicitly designed “for gaming” were powered by either Snapdragon 855 or Snapdragon 855+, a slightly faster version.

We will publish Snapdragon 865 benchmark results soon, so stay tuned, and again, subscribe to our notifications (orange button at the end of the article) to see it first.

Elite gaming at 144Hz

With such computing speeds, gaming is obviously going to be really good. However, rendering speed isn’t everything, and Qualcomm is delivering on something gamers really like: 144Hz gaming.

You can read all the details in our Snapdragon 865 gaming article but the shorter version is that Snapdragon 865 puts en emphasis on real-world usage such as sustained graphics performance (vs. benchmark short-term performance).

Sustained performance is primarily driven by the higher power-efficiency of the new architecture which allows for lower-temperature at a given level of performance.

The extra speed also makes new rendering techniques possible, and when developers don’t have time to upgrade their games, Qualcomm even does it at the driver-level with a feature called Game Color Plus. This could enhance thousands of existing games.

GPU drivers will be upgradable, just like apps, thanks to the upcoming Android R. This means better graphics drivers, therefore, faster games!

Finally, 5G connectivity opens the door to better game streaming, whether it is private from your gaming rig, or from a cloud gaming service.

Artificial Intelligence and massive data computing

Neural network processing was a big part of the Snapdragon Summit, and that’s important for two reasons.

First, artificial intelligence (AI) might not be required that often, but when it is, you really want to have peak performance as high as possible because you need the result ASAP.

For instance, you want low-latency for voice commands, face recognition, and you definitely need maximum speed for anything involving the camera. That’s why AI processors have grown in size and speed in a very significant way over the past 2 years.

The increasing speed of AI processors and the 2019 optimization of neural networks (sometimes a 90% size reduction) enable much faster on-device AI inference for lower latency and much better privacy.

The Snapdragon 865 AI Engine is capable of performing 15 TOPS (Trillion Operations per Second), which is just an incredible amount of calculus, for a low-power chip that’s in your phone, and not cooled by a fan.

"AI PROCESSORS CAN ALSO BE USED FOR 2D/ 3D GRAPHICS OR PHOTO PROCESSING"

Secondly, AI Engines don’t have to be used just for “AI.” They can also be used for 2D or 3D graphics image processing, Physics/Collisions and so on. This is called general-purpose computing in PC terms, and what began on GPUs has now taken a life of its own, thanks to the rise of Deep-Learning AI since ~2015.

And this ties right back into the previous camera paragraph, as the immense speed of the AI processor can also contribute to computational photography, which may be AI-related or only large-scale (non-AI) calculus.

It’s really important to understand that, for Qualcomm, its AI Engine is made of several sub-units, including the Spectra 480 ISP, the Adreno 650 GPU, the Hexagon 698 Processor (formerly “DSP”) and the Kyro CPU cluster.

Many other chip-makers typically call “Neural Processor” or “AI processor” the unit that is equivalent to the Hexagon Processor, but I suspect that everyone will re-align their definitions and communications after this, to compete with Qualcomm’s TOPS numbers as presented above.

Depending on what developers do, each unit may contribute (or not) differently, but all can potentially help with “AI” workloads.

All Snapdragon 865 phones will be 5G handsets

Snapdragon 865 does not integrate a modem at all, so Qualcomm sells it as a combo with the Qualcomm X55 4G/5G modem, which supports all flavors of both, virtually anywhere in the world.

While it would be (technically) possible to build a 4G-only phone with Snapdragon 865, Qualcomm has made sure that only 5G-supporting handsets have access to this new platform.

Since the vast majority of 2019 high-end Android phones were powered by Qualcomm, chances are that all the 2020 updates will come with full 5G support at the handset level. T-Mobile’s announcement in early December shows how fast 5G can be turned-on (check their coverage map), at least with sub6 bands.

5G is rolling out faster than anyone predicted, and we have experienced real-world speed boosts of 40%-60% just by going from 4G LTE to 5G Sub6. We also got a slightly better reception within covered areas.

3D Sonic Max in-screen ultrasonic fingerprint reader

While it is not really a Snapdragon 865 exclusive, Qualcomm’s new fingerprint technology should drastically improve in-display fingerprint unlocking.

It’s no secret that Ultrasonic in-screen fingerprint has made phones more attractive, but at the cost of slower and less reliable unlocking than their more primitive counterparts using capacitive print readers.

The new Ultrasonic fingerprint reader works on a much wider area (17X bigger, two simultaneous fingers) of the screen and should be more ergonomic (especially on huge screens), faster and more reliable (20X more reliable) – it could not come early enough and we’re looking forward to testing it.

Conclusion

Snapdragon 865 is shaping up to be the leading hardware platform for android phones, but its technological foundation will have repercussions deep into automotive, drones, VR headsets and even laptops.

The first Snapdragon 865 phones should appear in Q1 2020, and we’re betting that the upcoming Samsung S11 phone will have a Snapdragon 865 flavor. We’re looking forward to putting all these phones to the test.

Disclaimer: Qualcomm has hosted a large group of international media to attend its Snapdragon Summit annual tech conference (Dec 3-5), including Ubergizmo. The opinions and analyses are our own, and Qualcomm does not get previews or have control over what we publish.

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