On the second day of the Qualcomm Snapdragon Summit, we finally had a “deep dive” Keynote that exposes many more details about the new Snapdragon 888 platform architecture that features several “first” in key industry areas.

Every area of the chip and every functionality has been upgraded, which means that Snapdragon 888 is superior to Snapdragon 865 in every single way and will set the bar for high-end 2021 mobile processor platforms.

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World-Class 5G and WiFi-6 Support

5G was covered in yesterday’s Snapdragon 888 launch overview keynote and is without a doubt a crucial part of any high-end system on a chip (SoC) like Snapdragon 888. The integration of the best 5G modem (Qualcomm X60) associated with a modular radio-frequency (RF) front-end ensures that any wireless carrier configuration is supported optimally.

If the smartphone maker so desires, it will be possible to build “Global” smartphones that offer best-in-class support for most 5G networks in the world – ideal for business travelers and export markets.

"BEST-IN-CLASS SUPPORT FOR MOST 5G NETWORKS"

The X60 modem + RF system combo supports mmWave and Sub6 frequencies, delivering a theoretical peak of 7.5 Gbps in download, and 3 Gbps in upload, on FDD or TDD networks. Although the reality on the ground will depend on the rollout and user location, this technical capability is fantastic.

WiFi-6E is supported by Qualcomm’s FastConnect 6900, which means users can access data via the new 6 GHz band in locations with the proper infrastructure. The new 6 GHz band is less congested and should yield faster average speeds.

Unprecedented Camera Computing Power

Everything that involves the camera system must transit through the image processing unit(s) (ISP) at some point. In the Snapdragon 888, the Spectra 580 ISP features three units, where its predecessor only had two.

These ISP compute units can be utilized in several ways: for example, it is possible to get all three cameras running simultaneously, which makes them more responsive if you transit from the Wide to the Ultrawide or the Zoom camera with a pinch & zoom gesture.

For vloggers, the hardware can now simultaneously record from all three cameras with full image processing capabilities. Qualcomm says that in addition to three cameras, the ISP can also handle two additional sensors (Bokeh/ToF) for a total of 5 imaging sensors at any given time.

Spectra 580 can churn 2.7 Gpixel/sec (2.7 Billion pixels per second) and opens some serious opportunities for image processing and image filtering. We should dedicate a whole article to this topic, but this kind of power makes it possible to greatly improve HDR processing and AI-based metering or filtering.

"VIDEO-RECORDING WILL BE BENEFIT THE MOST"

While we expect Photography to somewhat improve with Spectra 580, video-recording will be benefit the most as resolution (4K, 8K), data-rates (10-bit HDR), and framerate (120 to 960FPS) exponentially increase the computing requirements.

Qualcomm also mentioned a new “Low-Light Architecture” that can significantly improve 0.1 LUX night shots. Low-Light Architecture refers to a technique that is based on two types of multi-frame photography: 1/ multi-frame noise-reduction 2/multi-frame HDR using multiple ISO.

We test this 0.1 LUX case (0.5 LUX too) in our Uber IQ Camera benchmark, so we’re looking forward to seeing how good it is versus the current Snapdragon 865 phones. For reference, in such low-light conditions, the human eye starts having difficulty seeing details and even colors.

Finally, there’s support to save photos in 10-bit HEIF files instead of the usual 8-nit JPG. This could drastically improve the fine photo quality and color accuracy, but we have to see if OEMs will implement this change.

Elite Gaming, Upgraded

“Mobile” is the largest game industry market (revenues) and for many people, phones are their primary, if not the only, means of playing. As such, Qualcomm wants to provide a Premium gaming experience under the Elite Gaming brand.

First, the Adreno 660 GPU is much faster: Qualcomm says that the overall GPU speed is 35% higher, and the power-efficiency (work for Watt of energy spent) is 20% higher.

Graphics speed aside, games responsiveness is also improved thanks to Game Quick Touch. The general idea is to separate the touch input response from the frame’s rendering timing. When there are many things to render (explosion, more characters appear), the game’s framerate can temporarily drop below the display’s max frequency. When it happens, the touch action report waits until to the next frame.

"OVERALL GPU SPEED IS 35% HIGHER"

At 60Hz, this would increase the touch latency by 20%, which is a life or death situation for demanding gamers. Game Quick Touch reduces such latencies and works automatically for all games.

Finally, Variable Rate Shading is an exciting feature that may boost games rendering performance. The principle is that developers can “mark” some rendering areas of the screen as a low priority from a rendering-details perspective.

Perhaps, it is a background element, a fuzzy object (cloud, smoke), or something in the user’s peripheral vision in a Virtual Reality (VR) app. These lower-priority regions could be rendered at 25% of the game’s resolution without the user noticing.

It is a smart way to reduce computing drastically, and Qualcomm foresees a 30% increase in rendering speed – it will depend on the scene and the developer. As a former graphics rendering engineer, I approve and appreciate this strategy.

New Level of System Performance

System performance measured by benchmarks like Geekench (CPU/Memory benchmark) should show improvements of ~25% thanks to the Qualcomm Kryo 680 custom CPU design. The single-core performance will be exciting to look at since such tests would run on the new “Prime” CPU, a large core with high-frequency and large cache memory.

The 8-CPU cluster comprises one Cortex X1, three Cortex A78, and four Cortex A55 CPU cores—the smaller cores run at increasingly slower frequencies for maximum power-efficiency.

At the same time, Qualcomm estimates that the power-efficiency of Kryo 680 is also 25% superior to the previous generation. Combined, these two numbers indicate a significant increase in performance-per-watt.

A lot of the performance is elsewhere. For example, the Hexagon 780 processor is responsible for large machine-learning / AI workloads execution (along with the GPU).

The Hexagon 780’s features substantial improvements in computational speed (speed per unit) and compute capacity (number of units). As more and more apps use these resources, sharing and isolating them could slow things down, so a 16X increase in per-app memory vastly improves performance in specific scenarios.

The 5-nanometer manufacturing process makes it possible to drastically increase computing units and various internal ultrafast storage while keeping power consumption in check.

The Qualcomm Sensing Hub is modest in terms of overall performance, but it is the crucial unit when your phone sleeps and the central processors are powered down. With it, the phone can remain aware of its surroundings, and it has been steadily improved. It now has its own AI unit, which makes it even smarter than previous generations.

OS Virtualization

Last but not least, the operating system (OS) Virtualization opens the possibility to run multiple OS concurrently with complete isolation.

Virtualization doesn’t sound like a super-exciting feature, but that’s what enables having more secure user profiles for device sharing, or you could run multiple OS on the same device.

Better yet, each app can embed a custom OS for a completely private and secure computing environment. It is a feature that I think was available in some automobile  Qualcomm chips, but not for smartphones.

Finally, this feature will echo in derivative products such as Qualcomm’s PC processors where someone might want to run a hypervisor and Virtual machines.

Conclusion

With Snapdragon 888, Qualcomm did not disappoint. It is everything we expected – and a little bit more. The top-notch performance across all functionalities is quite impressive, and this platform leads the industry in so many ways.

As usual, you can expect many flagship smartphones to utilize it, and it is, without a doubt, “the” smartphone platform for high-end Android phones.

"THE SMARTPHONE PLATFORM FOR HIGH-END ANDROID PHONES"

Our next step will be to look at benchmark numbers and round-up our final analysis of the Snapdragon 888 before the first handsets arrive. With the persistent rumors of a Snapdragon 888 Galaxy S21 coming in January, it looks like a busy winter.

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