Most of the popular Android smartphones in the world use Qualcomm chips, and the best among them always have the latest and greatest 800-series system-on-a-chip (SoC). Qualcomm has finally released specs and features for its upcoming flagship 865 ARM chip, which will power premium phones like the Galaxy S11 in 2020. Qualcomm has made extensive changes to the display support, AI, and camera technology, but the CPU setup is only slightly updated.
A Small Step for CPUs
The Snapdragon 865 again has eight Kryo CPU cores, which isn’t surprising. What is surprising is how little Qualcomm wants to talk about this part of its new chip. It says the new CPU cores offer a 25 percent improvement in both power efficiency and performance in certain scenarios. Real-life improvements might be minimal, though.
Qualcomm now refers to the CPU cluster simply as the Kryo 585 rather than naming each core. There are four high-performance cores based on the ARM Cortex A77 design, one of which is the “prime core” that can run as fast as 2.84GHz (the others top out at 2.4GHz). The remaining four cores are based on the Cortex A55, which are slower but more efficient.
The Snapdragon 865 is still using a 7nm TSMC process node. It will probably remain behind Apple’s A-series chips in absolute CPU performance, but Qualcomm is looking elsewhere to boost its new chip.
One Giant Leap for GPUs
Qualcomm is pushing gaming hard with the Snapdragon 865. The chip’s new Adreno 650 renders graphics 25 percent faster while using 35 percent less power. Supposedly, the Adreno 650 can remain at peak processing speed for much longer because of the improved thermal efficiency. The Snapdragon 865 can even turn down the clock on other components to keep the GPU running at maximum speed during a gaming session.
The company has also designed this chip to support updateable GPU drivers. That means it will be able to work with developers to optimize for a game, and then push out updated drivers via the Play Store.
The new Adreno will also enable a new generation of display technology. OEMs will be able to tune displays with refresh rates as high as 144Hz — a rumored feature of the Galaxy S11. We’ve seen 90Hz and even 120Hz on a few devices from Google, OnePlus, and Razer, but the new Snapdragon chip will make high refresh rates mainstream.
Qualcomm has stepped up its AI game in the Snapdragon 865 with a new Hexagon 698 DSP. When you hear chip companies talk about their dedicated AI processing cores, they’re actually talking about DSPs (digital signal processors). These chips are especially suited to machine learning and neural network applications, and the DSP in the 865 is twice as powerful as the one in the Snapdragon 855. Qualcomm claims the Hexagon 698 supports 15 TOPS (trillions of operations per second) and has 3MB of dedicated L3 cache. Therefore, it doesn’t have to share cache with the CPU cores.
This all means that phones with the Snapdragon 865 will be able to do more AI processing locally. There’s even an integrated Tensor accelerator, offering native support for Google’s TensorFlow neural network.
This could actually make an impact on the way you use your phone, assuming Qualcomm can plug into Google apps that run TensorFlow libraries. For example, It could potentially translate audio from one language to another in real time without an internet connection. Huawei has used similar translation tricks to show off its Kirin chips’ AI capabilities, but Qualcomm says it can do it better.
Previously Impossible Camera Features
The Snapdragon 865 upgrade might be most clear when it comes to the camera. Devices with this chip will have faster, more capable camera experiences thanks to the new Spectra 480 ISP image signal processor. This component is 40 percent more efficient and multiple times faster than the company’s previous ISPs.
Whereas previous Qualcomm ISPs could only process one pixel per clock cycle, the Spectra 480 can process four. So, you can get performance similar to past chips with much less power, or you can ramp it up and do some amazing things. Qualcomm says Snapdragon 865 devices can do things like record 4K HDR video while shooting 64MP still images simultaneously. At the hardware level, device makers can use camera sensors up to 200MP in resolution.
The Snapdragon 865 will also power the first consumer-level devices capable of 4K video capture at 120fps. That allows for some minimal slow motion in 4k, and OEMs can also implement unlimited full HD 960fps slow-motion recording. Current phones can only do that for a second or two. The new ISP will also be able to process 8K video recording at 30fps.
When Can You Get It?
Qualcomm has only just announced this chip publicly, but its partners have been in on the development for some time. We expect the first smartphones with the Snapdragon 865 to launch in early 2020. Samsung often gets first dibs on Qualcomm’s latest chips, so the Galaxy S11 might be your first chance to get one.
Keep in mind, the Snapdragon 865 will only be available in high-end phones, and Qualcomm will require these devices to have the X55 5G modem in addition to the 865 SoC.
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