On December 4, Qualcomm teased the world by unveiling the high-level features of their new flagship processor, the Snapdragon 855.
Today, we’re going to tell you everything you need to know about its architecture and features. There is a lot to absorb because Qualcomm has improved nearly every important aspect of the SoC that will power most high-end phones next year.
We have run Snapdragon 855 benchmarks in another article if that’s what you are looking for and if you want to spend more time, we also have a condensed video of the event, in which we only show the key moments:
Camera Processing Performance: Spectra 380 ISP
Perhaps we can start with one of the most exciting parts of any phone: the camera. As computational photography (software enhancement of photos) becomes ever-more evolved, the need for computing capacity rises exponentially along with the quantity of data to process and their numerical precision.
Qualcomm’s new Spectra 380 ISP (Image Signal Processor) has been designed to address these needs, with impressive feats such as being able to apply software Bokeh (background blur) to 4K/60FPS in real-time.
It is so capable that Qualcomm is branding it as a Computer-Vision (CV) ISP unit. And capable it is: according to the specs, it can perform depth sensing triangulation at 4K/60FPS, hence the Bokeh, but also CV-based image stabilization.
For photos, the ISP can accelerate Artificial Intelligence (AI) functions such as object classification (know what objects are), object segmentation (know which pixel belong to which object) and object or user tracking (follow the objects in the viewfinder, or in the real world for VR/AR). All of these can fundamentally help improve photography by providing a better intelligence of the scene, improve filtering and even autofocus.
- Computer-Vision ISP
- Object classification / tracking / segmentation
- Depth sensing at 60 FPS: bokeh in video
- 6DoF XR body tracking
- CV-based image stabilization
Interestingly enough, Snapdragon 855 can do all of this while consuming significantly less power than its predecessors, which is why such tasks will now become faster, but also usable because they won’t be battery-killers.
Qualcomm claims a 4X power efficiency gain for object detection and tracking. This processor can also record 4K/60FPS video in HDR with Bokeh while using 3X less power than Snapdragon 800 recording simple 4K/30FPS. Are you impressed yet?
For AR/VR users, the 6 degrees of freedom tracking (6DoF, tracks the helmets position+rotation in the real world) can be done at half the power.
While we’re talking about camera features, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 will offer support for the new HEIF file format, which is a container for imaging data in general. A container file format is a file that contains other files or data. For example, Zip files can be considered to be a (compressed) container.
When storing simple photo data, the photo size can be reduced by ~50% without noticeable loss of quality, which is great! But more importantly, HEIF opens the door for phone makers to save more data about the photos, such as RAW sensor data, multi-lens shots (normal, zoom, wide), multi-frame burst shots and much more! This is really exciting for everyone because this opens so many possibilities that it should be the object of a separate article.
Obviously, we’ll put all these things into the tests when we get a Snapdragon 855 handset or a Reference hardware prototype. For now, the interesting part is that the architecture is capable of enabling these features. The pitch is realistic, and in the past, Qualcomm’s speed estimations were very close to the real thing.
System performance is often measured by the combo CPU+GPU whether it is for PC or phones, so let’s take a look at the new Snapdragon 855 hardware.
Kryo 485 CPU
The CPU cluster is, as usual, a mix of high-performance and low-power CPU units. Qualcomm provides the scheduling software that handles the switching for an optimum balance of performance and battery life. At this time, Qualcomm isn’t yet ready to let us benchmark the hardware, but from what is circulating online, it seems very fast indeed.
Adreno 640 GPU + Gaming with Snapdragon Elite
Today, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 remains the fastest option for Gaming on Android as even the new HiSilicon Kirin 980 won’t beat it in gaming benchmarks. However, Qualcomm is going to kick it up a notch (+25% graphics performance) in Snapdragon 855, with the help of the Adreno 640 graphics processor (GPU).
Qualcomm says that it is fast enough to have real-world games use advanced rendering concepts such as Physically Based Rendering (PBR). The term was coined by award-winning graphics researcher Matt Phar who also edited NVIDIA’s GPU Gems 2 book to which I contributed the real-time Hair Rendering chapter.
Before PBR, real-time rendering assumed that surfaces were smooth, with perhaps some bumps, small or big. That was a very rough approximation, and kind of a terrible hack in hindsight, but it worked for a while.
PBR is a much better concept that includes the fact that surfaces can be rough at the microscopic level that can affect how light is reflected. PBR also introduces the concept of measuring those properties from the real-world before including them in the rendering engine. As such teams of engineers have sought to create databases of every material property, they could get their hands on, and game developers can re-use their work for realistic rendering.
The first games using some form of PBR were introduced on PC and consoles around 2012, with titles like KillZone or the re-master of Call of Duty, Modern Warfare. This technique that used to require 500-1000W PC gaming rigs can now be applied to 1-5W mobile devices in commercial applications, says Qualcomm. PBR started to appear in tech demos around 2016 and is now supported by Google and other middleware vendors such as Unity Engine.
PBR makes great use of the 10-bit color depth video pipeline that was introduced with Snapdragon 845, for true HDR gaming (if your display supports it).
Given how many people watch movies on their phones (or tablets) and today’s insane display quality for high-end mobiles, it makes sense that a new system on a chip (SoC) like Snapdragon 855 supports the latest video standards.
H.265 and VP9 are two of the most recent and size-efficient video formats that will get full hardware decoding support. Having dedicated silicon to perform this work lets the CPU cluster do mostly nothing, and that prolongs the battery life big time.
The most advanced HDR formats (HDR10+ and Dolby Vision) are also supported with framerates of 120 FPS maximum. Finally, Snapdragon 855 can decode 8K / 360 degrees VR video for the sharpest possible VR experience.
A.I with the Hexagon 690 DSP
As you may know, the Digital Signal Processor (DSP) can and has been used for a swath of tasks. It is a co-processor designed to apply the same kind of computations (usually vector or matrix) to a large dataset. Today, there is a lot of talk around how DSPs are used to boost Artificial Intelligence computations. DSPs are marketed differently, with some brands calling them Neural Processing Units (NPUs), but the differences are blurry at best.
The Hexagon 690 DSP has 2X the number of vector units, a new Tensor accelerator and a dedicated unit for voice assistants. With this update, Qualcomm ensures that it stays within the leading group of processors when it comes to a variety of AI-related tasks.
Broadband performance: 2 Gpbs 4G with 5G mmWave support
When it comes to broadband performance, Snapdragon is 5G-capable in the sense that it can be paired with a discrete (optional) 5G modem. It does have an integrated Qualcomm X24 4G LTE modem that is rated for 2 Gbps of peak download speed or CAT20 in LTE lingo.
Qualcomm has had its X50 Modem for a long while now, and over time, it has reduced its size to make it handset-friendly. It will be up to handset makers to decide if they want 5G support or not, depending on deployment realities in their region. For those who either don’t want or don’t need it right away, there’s no burden to the cost of the handset in the bill of materials (BOM).
Wi-Fi: shipping with Wi-Fi 6 (formerly 802.11ax)
Wi-Fi 6 is a new Wi-Fi protocol which can reach speeds of 10 Gbps (in theory) by using the 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz radio frequencies simultaneously. MU-MIMO will also be used for uploads as in addition to downloads, which helps increase the total aggregated throughput. Wi-Fi 6 works on any conditions and should be seen as an upgrade to 802.11AC.
In addition to Wi-Fi 6, Qualcomm is also adding support for 802.11ay (itself an evolution of 802.11ad), which is a close-proximity 60GHz Wi-Fi network. 60 GHz signals don’t go through walls, so this is better for a single room or a place where there’s (preferably) a direct line of sight or limited obstruction. With this 60Ghz protocol, communications can reach 10Gbps on mobile as well. That’s about 10X faster than most wired home networks.
Conclusion: Snapdragon 855 sets a new bar for 2019
With the imminent introduction of Snapdragon 855, Qualcomm is poised to keep the lead when it comes to smartphones SoC. Competitors can claim small victories here and there against the current-generation Snapdragon 845 on very specific points, but when it comes to the big picture that includes graphics, imaging pipeline, and communications, the Snapdragon series remains largely unchallenged, and that’s why it is so prominent on the market.
We expect it to remain the leading SoC for high-end handsets for 2019 and are looking forward to seeing what the competition will bring to bear. In the end, the more they compete, the more we, users, will benefit.