Qualcomm Snapdragon 865: The chip that will power your next expensive Android phone


Every year, like clockwork, Qualcomm, hosts tons of journalists and bloggers from around the world in Maui, Hawaii, to unveil its latest silicon which will power the majority of flagship Android smartphones next year. And this year is no different as the San Diego based company showed off what’s next in the world of 5G and its latest processors which will not only power your next Android smartphone, but also a new breed of Windows notebooks. But like always, the star of the show was the Snapdragon 865 which is likely to be the engine that powers 2020’s iPhone rivals. So, let’s take a deep dive and figure out some of the features that one can expect from 2020’s latest greatest and why some of these developments could be transformative. 

AI improvements are massive 

  1. Qualcomm claims that the 5thgeneration AI engine on the Snapdragon 865 can do 15 trillion operations per second. That’s a huge leap and theoretically a marketing advantage over Apple’s A13 Bionic chip which has been literally decimating Qualcomm. The San Diego based chipmaker claims all this happens while the chipset is more power-efficient than before.   If you are an app developer and your application leverages on-device machine learning, then Qualcomm’s upgraded Hexagon AI package will be your jam. 
  2.  The Snapdragon 865 has an always-on sensing hub which means it can always be on the lookout for hot words for the Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa without impacting battery life. This may sound a tad bit creepy, but if you use the AI-based voice assistants a lot, then this will be handy. 

All about gaming 

  1. One of the areas where iPhones have traditionally had a huge lead over Android smartphones is gaming. The problem has been Qualcomm’s Adreno GPU stack that’s been lagging Apple’s custom solution and of course, the software stack on Android. The Adreno 650 GPU now features something called updatable drivers which is something you see on PCs with Nvidia and AMD GPUs. Theoretically, Qualcomm can now work with particular game developers to optimise the GPU through software for the games by updating the drivers. 
  2. Sustained performance while playing graphically intensive games like PUBG and Call of Duty Mobile has been improved massively. Firstly, the Adreno 650 is more efficient generally so it will not overheat as fast, but then the architecture also enables the SoC to ramp down other elements of the chipset so that maximum power of the GPU can be deployed without overheating or throttling. Basically, you can play games at peak performance for longer. 
  3. Qualcomm has added support for 144Hz displays which many believe could come in phones like the Samsung Galaxy S11. If 2019 was the year for 90Hz panels, 2020 takes things a notch higher at 144Hz for QHD panels which will be great for gaming. You’ll be able to play games at 90 frames per second in addition.

Qualcomm catches up on video with Apple 

  1. One of the big controversies with the Snapdragon 855 powered Pixel 4 was that it wasn’t equipped to record 4K video at 60 frames per second. I bet that’s not going to be a concern with the Pixel 5. You’ll be able to shoot 8K video at 30 frames per second which is 4 times the resolution of 4K. More interesting is the fact that people will be able to shoot 4K video at 120 frames per second which is going to be more usable and tenable memory-wise for a smartphone. It remains to be seen how good this video is though.
  2. In addition to these video improvements, you’ll be able to shoot 960 frames per second slow-motion video – unlimited footage, not the limited stuff that Android phones allow you right now. You will also be able to take high-resolution photos (64-megapixel) while shooting 4K video which wasn’t possible on smartphones.
  3. Qualcomm has also worked with Dolby to provide direct-to-consumer Dolby Vision HDR capture to the video shot from the phone. This is a small thing as there aren’t many Dolby Vision compliant phones but what the hell. 
  4. 4K HDR video will also now have a dedicated bokeh mode which is a neat trick. Smartphones for the last few years have been trying to push a video bokeh more to give footage more DSLR like cinematic feel, but that’s not happened yet. This perhaps could jumpstart that ambition. 

Snapdragon 865 will enable 200-megapixel cameras on smartphones

  1. Samsung has already announced a 108-megapixel camera which is being used on Xiaomi’s Mi 9cc and Mix Alpha. Many believe this camera will show up on the Galaxy S11 which will be powered by the Snapdragon 865. And it could be the Snapdragon 865 that will unlock the true capabilities of Samsung’s new camera system. 
  2. Qualcomm goes a bit further than 108-megapixels by announcing support for up to 200-megapixels coupled with multi-camera arrays. Chances are there could be a 200-megapixel camera being developed by the folks at Sony or Samsung. 
  3. What’s more interesting is that this chip will enable users to shoot 64-megapixel shots from two cameras simultaneously with zero shutter lag. 
  4. But perhaps, the biggest improvement comes in the imaging pipeline where the ISP can implement image smoothing and denoising without ruining the detail of the shot which will be a big deal for smaller Chinese OEMs like Xiaomi and OnePlus whose phones can’t manage the likes of Google, Samsung and Huawei in still photography because they don’t have a custom image pipeline. This will reduce the gulf for sure. 

Iterative CPU improvements 

  1. Long story short, Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro will be the fastest smartphone for the foreseeable future as Qualcomm retains the 8-core design with a prime core, 3 performance cores and 4 low-power cores which encompasses its Kryo 585 architecture. Overall it is 25% faster than the Snapdragon 855, but in real-world use, these gains are smaller as the manufacturing process also remains at 7nm this year. 
  2. The GPU is also not much faster with just about 20% gains in speed over its predecessor, but overall the gains are greater on the software side which could be a big deal. 

5G Modem still not integrated on the die but now compulsory 

  1.  The big change this year is that 5G X55 modem while still not on the die is compulsory for all Snapdragon 865 phones. Which means that phones even in India will likely have the modem even though 5G networks may be years away. 
  2. Now the X55 modem supports both ultra-fast mmWave speeds as well as sub-6 speeds which are much slower but will likely have broader adoption because it can be deployed without special mmWave hardware and is not a narrow band spectrum. 

What does all of this mean for the user? 

  1. Your next Android flagship smartphone will be slightly faster and power-efficient, though likely the iPhone 11 Pro will remain the fastest smartphone if you’re a benchmark nut.
  2. Gaming will be much better on Android in 2020 especially on the flagship phones. Game optimisation will be much improved as well as battery life on the phones will improve if you play a lot. These phones will be closer to the iPhone than ever. 
  3. If you use applications that leverage AI, then you’ll see more and more developers make cool stuff based on the new Snapdragon chip.
  4. Higher megapixel cameras are a certainty on Android, but we will see probably more interesting multi-camera setups and general image quality will take a big leap in 2020, especially on phones by manufacturers like OnePlus and Xiaomi. 
  5. Android smartphones will become much better at capturing video. 8K video will be unlikely on most phones but all flagship phones will do a much better job of 4K video and catch up to the iPhone not leapfrog it. 
  6. 5G will become more ubiquitous thanks to the support of sub-6 and mmWave in one package however, in markets like India, this will be just a feature that will go unutilised. Chances are there could be phones that drop this X55 modem to reduce costs.