Meet Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855: AI Boosts, A Smarter Camera, And Mobile Gaming
PCWorld|January 2019

Qualcomm’s making dozens of improvements to the Snapdragon 855, both large and small.

Mark Hachman

One year ago, Qualcomm unveiled the Snapdragon 845 (go.pcworld.com/s845), the brains behind flagship smartphones like the Google Pixel 3, the U.S. version of the Samsung Galaxy S9, OnePlus phones, and others. Now, Qualcomm’s next-generation Snapdragon 855 promises those platforms even more enhancements: dedicated logic blocks for digital assistants, revamped camera logic for computer vision, specific gaming boosts. It also gives the traditional JPEG file format the boot.

According to Qualcomm executives, the goal for the Snapdragon 855 is to “unlock” AI and XR (mixed reality), with the new 5G capabilities leading the way. The company claims that it’s offering the first commercial mobile platform to support this trifecta.

Qualcomm’s next-generation 855 is due to ship during the first half of 2019, meaning that phone makers will be able to design and announce their own Snapdragon 855–based phones for launch later in 2019.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips are truly systems-on-a-chip (SoC), with an improved Adreno GPU and Kryo CPU, a Hexagon DSP that’s being repurposed for AI, and an increasingly more intelligent Spectra camera signal processor—often a key feature for phone buyers. Though each of the 855’s subsystems has been improved in its own right, Qualcomm also made one significant, overall improvement: While the Snapdragon 845 was manufactured on a 10nm process, Qualcomm has made the leap to 7nm with the Snapdragon 855.

Travis Lanier, Qualcomm’s senior director of product management, put it simply: The Snapdragon 855 will deliver 45 percent more performance than the 845 in the Kryo GPU, and 20 percent more performance in the Adreno GPU.

CONNECTIVITY: IMPROVEMENTS BEYOND JUST 5G

Keith Kressin, senior vice president of product management at Qualcomm, suggested that every generation of wireless technology took a decade to develop. What’s 5G bringing? “Massive amounts of connectivity,” Kressin said, together with a new ecosystem of applications that no one quite understands yet.

“One question that comes up quite frequently: What is 5G going to do for me?” said Durga Malladi, the senior vice president for 4G and 5G for Qualcomm. For a network operator, it means that users will stream more high-bandwidth movies, with less latency. 5G also enables connected PCs, he said.

More than 20 global operators and 20 global hardware makers are on board with 5G, Malladi said.

Though Qualcomm executives touted the advantages of 5G, cellular connectivity is just one portion of the Snapdragon 855, executives said. And for now, while the chip will work with 5G (go.pcworld.com/ql5g), the spec is not native to the platform: Though the Qualcomm X50 modem will perform 5G millimeter wave and operate in the sub-6GHz spectrum bands, the X50 isn’t integrated into the Snapdragon 855. (AT&T and Verizon appeared on stage to support Qualcomm’s 5G initiative [go.pcworld.com/s855].)

Instead, it’s far more likely that phones will connect using what Qualcomm calls the world’s first 2Gbps LTE modem, the X24 modem, which Qualcomm announced in February and which is integrated into the Snapdragon 855.

But phones connect via Wi-Fi as well as cellular, and the Snapdragon 855 makes improvements here, too. Qualcomm is also characterizing the 855 as 802.11ax “ready,” also known as WiFi6. While today’s 802.11ac devices can push a maximum of 3Gbps, shared between several devices, 802.11ax (go.pcworld.com/11ax) will be able to support up to 14Gbps. It will also support 802.11ay, a 60GHz Wi-Fi solution, capable of 7Gbps, and believed to be most applicable for short-range, high-bandwidth apps like untethered VR (go. pcworld.com/ay11). There’s Bluetooth 5.0, too.

MAKING CAMERAS SMARTER WITH THE SPECTRA ISP

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