Qualcomm Unveils the Snapdragon 855: 8 Cores, Onboard AI, optional 5G

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Most flagship Android phones run on the latest top-of-the-line Snapdragon chip from Qualcomm, but what will that mean in 2019? Qualcomm just unveiled the long-rumored Snapdragon 855. It’s an eight-core ARM system-on-a-chip (SoC) with faster CPU cores, a new GPU, onboard AI processing, and optional 5G.

Qualcomm’s CPU story has changed a bit in recent years. The company used to design completely custom ARM-compatible cores under license from ARM, but now it uses mostly stock ARM reference cores with some modifications. The new Kryo 485 cores in the Snapdragon 855 are based on the Cortex-A76 (faster) and A55 (more efficient).  There are four of each core type, split into two CPU clusters. The high-power CPUs are split into 2.84Ghz and 2.42GHz (3x), and the efficiency cores are all clocked at 1.8GHz. Qualcomm calls that single higher-clocked CPU the “Prime Core.” The 855 also moves to a 7nm manufacturing process from the 10nm used in the 845.

This new generation SoC is not going to make your phone substantially faster than the 845. The clock speed tweaks will increase performance, and the new 7nm design should save some power. Overall, Qualcomm says the CPU performance is 45 percent higher, but many tasks on modern phones are dependent on other parts of the SoC that we don’t think about as often. There are plenty of improvements to those components as well.

The 855 will sport a new Adreno 640 GPU, and Qualcomm says it’s 20 percent faster than the Adreno in last year’s 845. We don’t really know why, though. Qualcomm doesn’t talk about its completely custom GPU designs very much, but we can probably assume the 640 has more processing nodes. The GPU is increasingly important for modern phone performance, so this improvement could have more impact than the larger raw power increase for the CPUs. The new GPU also pushes vastly improved VP9 video decoding that uses one-seventh the power of the 845, and there’s HDR10+ video support (instead of plain old HDR10). Also in HDR-land, there’s HDR support in games. Although, mobile HDR games are only barely a thing.

The Hexagon DSP doesn’t get much attention in Qualcomm’s chips, but there’s reason to pay attention this year. The DSP processes input from the device’s sensors; several chip makers have re-branded DSPs as “AI cores” or something similar. Qualcomm is doubling the number of vector processors in the DSP from two to four to add more features. One of those new cores is dedicated to voice assistant processing. So, your phone’s wake-up phrase should be more accurate and voice command processing will be faster. Qualcomm is also adding a dedicated “Tensor Xccelerator” core for on-device machine learning. On the imaging side, the new Spectra 380 ISP supports some new tricks like 4K60 video with HDR and real-time bokeh effects.

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Qualcomm is focusing heavily on the modem setup for the 855. It will come in both LTE and 5G variants. The LTE version will have a Snapdragon X24 modem capable of up to 2 Gbps (not that carriers can give you that much bandwidth right now). The 5G version will have a separate X50 millimeter wave 5G modem interlinked with the SoC package. That’s capable of up to 5 Gbps on a compatible network. The real benefit to the 5G is that carriers could reduce network congestion as they move to 5G. If you can buffer high-bandwidth content in quick bursts, more devices can share the same network endpoints. 

We should see the first devices with the Snapdragon 855 in the first half of 2019. Those will likely be LTE devices with 5G versions to follow later. It will probably be years before we realize the full potential of 5G, but the 855 is the first step. 

Now read: Intel Accelerates 5G Modem Deployment, Could Power First 5G iPhones, ARM Announces Neoverse Infrastructure for 5G, IoT, Edge Computing, and Qualcomm Announces Samples of New 7nm SoCs with 5G Modems