Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 and 808 will continue to be its flagship chips for the rest of this year, but, as we’ve written, the 810 in particular has been problematic for the company. It had a gift for generating both heat and bad press, and, while the Snapdragon 808 didn’t suffer from the same problems, it was less of an improvement over older 800-series chips.
As this has been happening on the technical side, things have been looking less rosy on the financial side. Qualcomm’s outlook for Q4 of 2015 (PDF) sums it up nicely: there’s “increased concentration” at the high end of the market, pushing out phones that use Snapdragon SoCs (the huge worldwide success of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus can be at least partially blamed); “lower demand” for high-end Snapdragons from one of Qualcomm’s major customers (read: Samsung, which is using its own chips in high-end Galaxy phones); and lowered sales of “certain handset models” in China using high-end Snapdragons.
Some of this could be attributed to the 810 specifically, but a lot of it would be happening no matter how good the chip was. Most of the money in consumer electronics is in high-end, high-margin products, but Apple controls an overwhelming amount of that market, and the company only uses Qualcomm’s modems, not the (presumably more expensive and profitable) Snapdragon SoCs. The wider smartphone market continues to grow, but companies like Xiaomi and Motorola are willing to sell to good-to-great phones for one-third to one-half of what you’d pay for a flagship, and those phones often use lower-end, less-profitable Qualcomm SoCs or chips from an upstart like MediaTek or a newly competitive Intel.
ÂKeep all of this in mind as you read about the Snapdragon 820, which Qualcomm is officially starting to talk about today—we’ve got some details about the GPU and the image signal processor (ISP), though information about the custom Kryo CPU core and other parts of the chip will need to wait.
From what we’ve seen so far, it looks like a respectable generational leap in both performance and power usage. There’s plenty of tech to talk about, and we’ll do that here because that’s what we do. But a new flagship chip isn’t all Qualcomm is going to need to compete in 2016 and beyond.
The Snapdragon 820 (and the 618 and 620, when they're released) will be the first of Qualcomm’s chips to come with the next-generation Adreno 500-series GPUs. The 820 will ship with the high-end Adreno 530, while the 618 and 620 will both include the Adreno 510.
All 500-series GPUs will support the same APIs. This includes OpenGL ES 3.1 with the Android Extension Pack introduced in Lollipop (and Qualcomm tells us that OpenGL ES 3.2 support will follow on platforms that support it) and, when it’s ready, the low-overhead Vulkan API. Qualcomm told us that Adreno 400-series GPUs will be able to support Vulkan, too, since they support OpenGL ES 3.1, but that the 500-series would be the company’s first GPUs built with Vulkan in mind.
On the GPGPU end, support for both OpenCL 2.0 and Renderscript is included. OpenCL 2.0 lets the CPU and GPU work from the same memory pool, and to that end the Adreno 500 GPUs also support 64-bit virtual memory addressing—the Kryo core is 64-bit, too, so this will be important for OpenCL 2.0 support while running 64-bit Android or other 64-bit OSes.
Qualcomm says that, compared to the Snapdragon 810’s Adreno 430, Adreno 530 improves performance by roughly 40 percent while reducing power consumption by 40 percent. The company says that some of that is due to process improvements—the 820 is being manufactured on an unspecified FinFET process, likely either TSMC’s 16nm process or the 14nm Samsung process that has served the Exynos 7 SoC so well. Architectural improvements account for the rest of the power savings, including a new “standalone GPU Power Manager” that lets the GPU switch parts of itself on and off more quickly.
As for the Adreno 510 that will ship with the Snapdragon 618 and 620, the company isn’t giving detailed or specific performance claims. It told us that these chips should generally also be 40 percent faster and 40 percent more power efficient than their predecessors, the Adreno 405 used in the Snapdragon 610 and 615.
That’s going to be an important boost—the 610 and 615 GPUs were faster than those used in the lower-end 410, but the chips ended up in slightly higher-end phones with higher-resolution displays. This generally led to mediocre graphics performance in phones like Xiaomi’s Mi 4i, and we’d like Qualcomm to avoid making the same mistake again.
Finally, the Snapdragon 820 supports the HDMI 2.0 standard, which among other things provides enough bandwidth to connect external 4K displays at 60 frames per second. 4K is possible over a wireless connection, but at a lower 30 FPS.
The lens and the sensor get most of the attention when you’re talking about smartphone cameras, but it’s important to have a good image signal processor to make sense of all the data.
With the 820’s Spectra ISP, Qualcomm continues to push dual rear-camera setups like the ones it began supporting with the Snapdragon 810. Think back to HTC’s One M8—the trick is to use a different focal length for each lens and then combine the images from each camera to simulate a greater depth-of-field that can be tweaked in an image editor. With the 820, Qualcomm also says its ISP will be able to use data from those cameras (along with GPU-accelerated software) to simulate optical zoom rather than the standard digital zoom.
The 820’s ISP supports a total of three cameras simultaneously, two on the back and one on the front, and it can take pictures “up to 25 megapixels at 30 frames per second with zero shutter lag.” Dual-camera setups haven't been extraordinarily popular with OEMs, and even HTC abandoned it in the One M9, but hey, it’s all still supported.
Even if your phone just has one camera on the back, the company promises imaging improvements. It promises better autofocusing and image quality and has dedicated hardware for “radial noise reduction and color artifact correction.” And improved HDR algorithms attempt to more intelligently brighten and reduce the noise levels in dark, under-exposed spots in otherwise bright pictures.
A lot about the camera performance of Snapdragon 820-equipped phones is still going to be dictated by the OEMs—the lenses and sensors they use, whether they ship one rear camera or go with two, and what software tweaks they make to fine-tune image quality. But on paper, it all sounds pretty good, and it should help the Android OEMs continue to up their camera game (which has finally begun to catch up with and surpass the iPhone’s within the last year or so).
We don’t know exactly when we’ll begin seeing the Snapdragon 820 in shipping phones, nor do we know when we’ll be hearing more about the custom Kryo CPU cores or the cellular connectivity features. And it remains to be seen whether Qualcomm can put the Snapdragon 810’s heat problems behind it, returning to the general stability and reliability of chips like the 801 and 805. Look for more information in the coming weeks and months and expect Snapdragon 820 devices to show up in the first half of 2016.