Qualcomm’s next-gen mobile chip, the Snapdragon 855, is official and will be looked back asa cornerstone to the 5G-ification of everything.
The world’s largest mobile chipmaker held back on sharing extensive details during the first day of its annual Snapdragon Technology Summit in Maui, Hawaii on Monday. But now the curtain’s been fully lifted and we know exactly how the tiny little chip will push mobile forward.
TL;DR: Get ready for 5G, more AI, faster performance, improved gaming, and — what I’m personally most excited for — portrait mode-like 4K video recording where backgrounds are blurred out in real-time.
Some of you might be rolling your eyes and channeling your inner Ariana Grande with a “thank u, next” at the very news of a piece of silicon that’ll be embedded in a phone or tablet.
Yes, chipsets, like batteries and storage, aren’t exactly sexy tech topics. But they do matter — the innovations in the Snapdragon 855 directly affect what you’ll be able to do with a new device (assuming it’s not an iOS one).
1. First to access 5G data
Get used to hearing 5G a lot this year because it’s going to be tossed around by companies big and small (tech or not) a lot.
The commercialization for consumer 5G has been years in the making and 2019 will be the year when this new high-speed network becomes accessible for some people in select places.
Accessing 5G requires the right hardware with a modem capable of connecting to the new network. The Snapdragon 855 is the first mobile chip that’ll work with Qualcomm’s X50 5G modem, which supports Sub-6 GHz and mmWave frequencies.
The what and what? Don’t worry about the jargon. All you need to know is that the modem’s technologies could speed up cellular connectivity by up to 20x, according to Qualcomm. The modem’s capable of download speeds of up to 5 Gbps.
5G isn’t just going to make download and upload speeds faster. The infrastructure will enable more devices to be connected together thanks to the increased bandwidth support. Additionally, the boost in data capacity will mean less latency and fewer dropped connections; services and experiences such as streaming 8K video and 4K video games and high-res mobile VR that currently require a wired connection will be possible wirelessly over 5G.
Several phone makers, including Samsung and OnePlus, have announced plans to release 5G phones later this year. Early adopters will no doubt run to get a device with the X50 5G modem to access 5G.
But the 855 chip is really just the beginning. 5G adoption isn’t expected to ramp up until 2020, and you know the iPhone will play a major part in mainstreaming 5G. Still, 5G’s finally within real reach and it’s already shaping up to be glorious.
2. Even faster 4G LTE and WiFi
Not all devices will come with the X50 5G modem, though — it’s an option, not the default modem for the 855 chip.
Most 855-powered devices will ship with a Snapdragon X24 LTE modem that’ll offer faster 4G LTE download speeds with up to 2 Gbps theoretical downloads.
Meanwhile, WiFi 6 support using 8×8 antennas will provide up to 2x faster WiFi performance compared to existing 4×4 antennas. Qualcomm says the 855 chip is capable of achieving data speeds of up to 10Gbps WiFi speeds.
Though 5G is meant to essentially replace WiFi, it’ll still be limited to select launch cities, and as a result of this ongoing rollout, WiFi will still be necessary. It’ll still take a few years for the 5G infrastructure to go up in more places and likely won’t be ubiquitous for the better part of a decade if 3G and 4G infrastructure timelines are any indications.
3. Up to 45% faster CPU and 20% faster graphics
No new chip is worth a damn if it doesn’t push performance higher and the 855 chip is no different. Qualcomm’s touting up to 45 percent faster processing performance from the 855 chip’s Kryo 485 CPU and up to 20 percent faster graphics performance with the Adreno 640 GPU compared to the Snapdragon 845 chip.
Android will of course run faster and smoother with the performance boosts, but game developers will get the most out of the new chip.
Qualcomm says developers will be able to create games with HDR for the first time, providing more color depth with over 1 billion shades of colors.
3D games can also look more detailed using “physically based rendering” to pull off more realistic textures and lighting effects, and better depth-of-field. These are all advanced features supported in the popular Unity 4 game engine.
Better graphics is always a plus for mobile gaming, but it’s not the only aspect that has room for improvement. With the 855 chip, Qualcomm’s created a “Snapdragon Elite Gaming” experience that ensures games measure up for things like lower latency and clearer and more responsive wireless listening.
4. Portrait mode-like 4K video
Portrait shots — the style of phone photography designed to simulate the look of a DSLR photo with a sharp foreground and a blurred background — have become quite popular on phones and tablets.
Different phones use varying techniques (i.e. iPhones use dual lenses and the Pixels use machine learning) to segment the background and foreground, but until now it’s only been possible with still photos.
The Snapdragon 855’s built-in Spectra 380 ISP (image signal processor) has what Qualcomm calls the world’s first CV-ISP (Computer Vision Image Signal Processor) capable of advanced computational photography and video recording.
Using computer vision, the chip can isolate and blur out an object or subject for video, effectively simulating a camera lens with a larger aperture (i.e. f/1.8) — all rendered in real-time at 4K resolution in HDR shot at 60 fps.
It’s the first of its kind on a mobile device and sets the stage for more cinematic-quality video footage from handheld devices.
But won’t these files be massive? Not at all claims Qualcomm. Portrait photos and videos will be saved with the High Efficiency file format in HEIF and HEVC, respectively, first adopted by Apple’s iOS devices.
These greatly compressed files are up to 50 percent smaller than JPEGs and standard MP4 videos. These smaller files don’t come at the loss of quality, though. It’s the opposite, actually.
Qualcomm says the HEIF format stores all of the RAW data including HDR color, depth maps, animated GIFs, and collections of burst photos, and even multiple shots taken from phones with multiple cameras (i.e. wide angle, telephoto, and ultra-wide shots) all within a single file. Storing all of this data will give users more freedom to tweak and edit shots and videos after they’ve been shot.
5. Longer video binging and HDR10+
Qualcomm was the first to push HDR onto mobile with the Snapdragon 835 and now it’s pushing the video format further with HDR10+ playback — a first for mobile. Of course, devices will need to have a display capable of HDR, but most premium ones do.
More valuable in my opinion is support for the new hardware-accelerated H.265 and VP9 video decoding that’s used by many video streaming services like Youtube, Netflix, Hulu, Youku, etc.
Qualcomm claims a whopping “up to 7x” power savings for streaming videos that are encoded with H.265 or VP9, which’ll let you watch more videos on a single charge — perfect for binging.
6. Richer and sharper AR and VR
Whether you care or not, Qualcomm and friends are still innovating mobile VR. Qualcomm says the 855 chip supports mobile VR in 8K resolution at 120 fps.
Supporting headsets with more pixels will make virtual worlds look even more lifelike by eliminating undesirable traits such as the “screen-door effect.”
Augmented reality will also get a boost from the 855 chip. Qualcomm envisions more realistic-looking digital objects that can be overlaid on top of reality, allowing for AR shopping to finally become a feasible experience.
7. Smarter and more responsive voice assistants
Another key pillar to the Snapdragon 855 is improved AI. The chip’s got a more powerful AI Engine capable of up to 3x the performance compared to the AI processing in the Snapdragon 845.
As more AI is sprinkled in phones, AI processing is ever more important, especially for voice assistants.
Nothing wrong with relying on the cloud to processing voice assistant requests, but increasing demands for privacy and responsiveness mean better on-device processing is necessary. The boosted AI processing in the 855 should allow for better noise suppression and echo cancellation, according to Qualcomm.
In other words, the Google Assistant or Alexa should be able to hear you better when you call on them. And if they can hear voice requests better, they can more accurately decode it and get you the information you need without additional prompts.
8. More room for new device components
The tiny 855 chip is Qualcomm’s first 7-nanometer system-on-chip (SoC) and shrinks the silicon from the 845’s 10-nanometer architecture.
Why’s this important? A smaller chip means more room for other device components. Think more physical space for new features like additional cameras, in-display fingerprint sensors, larger batteries, bigger speakers… maybe even the return of the headphone jack (heh).