During CES 2019, we had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with some Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 reference handsets (often called MDP) to run benchmarks. The MDPs are built for development purposes but are quite representative of what a complete smartphone experience and environment would be, including thermals/cooling.

This post is only about the Snapdragon 855’s performance. If you want to learn more about its features and theoretical capabilities, refer to our detailed Snapdragon 855 article that includes a video that shows ALL the features (also embedded below). A must-watch for anyone interested in this processor.

We’ve run the usual series of performance tests, and without any surprise, Snapdragon 855 performs extremely well and is shaping up to be the fastest Android hardware platform available when the first phones launch. Without further wait, you can look at the scores below.

First, we can see that Qualcomm’s reference numbers of +20% faster graphics and +45% fast CPU performance (vs. 845) can be verified with the Geekbench 4 single-core CPU test and the GFXBench Manhattan benchmarks. The speed increase does vary depending on the benchmarks, and these are the best numbers we managed to get.

Qualcomm pointed out that Benchmarks are great tools but that they don’t measure the full spectrum of capabilities that its system on chips (SoC) have, and that’s true.

Features covered or not by benchmarks

For instance, there are extremely powerful computing blocks such as the ISP (image signal processor) that can handle 48 million pixels in real-time, or the DSP (digital signal processor) which is used for mass vector-math operations… and more!

4G (and soon 5G) Modem performance where Qualcomm dominates over Apple’s suppliers is rarely tested because it’s so complex to do so for independent reviewers. All these things aren’t being taken into account because benchmark caters to the lowest common denominators. Also, some compute resources are simply not available via a standard interface or don’t exist on other processors.

As of now, there are only a handful of players in the high-end mobile processor market: Qualcomm, Apple, HiSilicon/Huawei, and Samsung (Mediatek isn’t in the high-end). However, even Samsung’s phones tend to also use Snapdragon at the high-end (like the Note 9), especially in key markets like the USA. The Samsung Exynos high-end chips are also very powerful but available in limited markets.

Apple’s A12 Bionic chip remains very strong in synthetic performance (see our iPhone XS review), so kudos to Apple’s chip design team. However, It is not available to non-iPhone handsets, and won’t directly compete with Qualcomm’s 855 chip.

HiSilicon’s Kirin 980 is present in the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 has a Snapdragon 845 in its USA version.

Based on performance alone, it stands to reason that the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 platform will dominate the high-end Android ecosystem for most of 2019. However, if you add 4G and 5G to the mix, Qualcomm’s is tough to reach. In fact, Apple won’t introduce 5G until 2020, and Samsung’s 5G efforts don’t yet scale worldwide.

AI benchmarks are starting to appear on the radar, but for now, we think that they are not quite ready as performance proxies because the AI computing workloads may not be represented. We’ll keep an eye on how this develops. In-Camera AI is the only place where peak AI performance really counts, and it’s frankly not clear what everyone is doing there.

For example, LG’s AI runs only on the CPU and uses a tiny fraction of it. If OEMs want to brag about AI, they will also have to be more transparent about what their AI does, and how much compute performance they need. AI cameras also need to show that they are better than “dumb” cameras, and that’s not established right now.

Huawei is the closest competitor from a 5G point fo view, but its competitors, even in China, tend to use Qualcomm’s platform as well (Xiaomi Mi Mix 3, Oppo/OnePlus). We should start seeing Snapdragon 855 handsets appear very shortly since Mobile World Congress 2019 (MWC 2019) kicks off next month.

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