Qualcomm Shows us the Snapdragon 820

Count streams, not cores…

QualcommSnapdragon820 (1 of 22)Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 is built on Samsung’s LPP 14nm FinFET process and offers strength in every aspect of its hardware and software ecosystem. It consumes less power, performs faster, and has more fixed function hardware goodness than anything else on the market. As it stands now the Snapdragon 820 has racked up over 60 design wins. Expect this chip to be more or less everywhere come the middle of next year.

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As Charlie has detailed the Snapdragon 820 pairs Qualcomm’s custom 64-bit Kryo CPU cores with the new Adreno 520 GPU, the Hexagon 680 DSP, the Spectra camera block, and the scary fast X12 LTE modem. Most importantly the 820 cuts power consumption by about 30 percent to 810 while offering more performance in every category. The Kyro CPU cores offer up to double the single threaded performance over the vanilla A57 cores in the 810. Qualcomm has also reduced the total number of cores from eight in the 810 to four in 820. Specifically there are two of the Kyro cores and two low power Kyro cores in big.LITTLE configuration.

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Qualcomm reiterated its commitment to fewer, faster cores during the Snapdragon 820 event. They believe this is the right strategy because of how lightly threaded the vast majority of apps are. To Qualcomm heterogeneous processing investments like more fixed function hardware and better modems are massively more important than increasing core counts. Qualcomm’s leadership was very vocal about having a maximum of four cores on their high-end products until phone apps start using more than two threads reliably.

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That said Qualcomm will continue to build chips with more than four cores in order to compete in low-end markets. Qualcomm see a need to build low-end eight core chips as purely a marketing play. Not because they are the best design from a user experience or a technical perspective. They rather sheepishly informed us during a roundtable meeting that they do it because they have to, not because they want to.

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Interestingly Qualcomm’s representatives argued that the producers of low-end eight core devices were really handicapping their users with weak modems. Cellar modems are Qualcomm’s biggest strength so in that regard is unsurprising that the company feels strongly about their importance. But Qualcomm took it a step further by suggesting that core count was not only a meaningless measure of SoC performance but that Stream count, the number of concurrent LTE connections the modem can make, is a much better metric for assessing the capabilities of a phone or SoC because of the disproportionate impact that fast network data rates (or the lack thereof) have on user experience.

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Weighting on the foundry debate Qualcomm said that it does not believe that there is a significant performance difference between TSMC and Samsung. They chose Samsung’s LPP 16nm FinFET process over TSMC’s 16nm FinFET alternative for cost and volume reasons. Qualcomm also hinted at the potential for some of its chips to be built at Global Foundries in the future, but said nothing had been publicly announced.

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Perhaps the most interesting and Android specific feature that Qualcomm is bringing to market with the 820 is machine-learning-based malware detection to stop zero-day attacks. Qualcomm is using its hardware security processor dubbed Qualcomm Haven Security Management to actively profile the resource usage of the apps running on the device. This is a solution that runs machine-learning software on top of Qualcomm’s security coprocessor which is entirely separate and basically inaccessible from the main SoC.

On Qualcomm’s demo devices a prompt is sent to an app on the device when the 820 detects what it believes to be a malicious application and lists out the specific reasons why the app was flagged. Qualcomm’s demo team showed this functionality picking up on passive audio recording malware and even a ransomware like application.

Because this feature is based on using hardware to securely profile android apps it is an OS specific feature. The specific behavior and user facing functionality of this capability will be defined by the OEMs to whom Qualcomm is offering an SDK for building apps to handle malicious software detection.

This a novel solution in that the software profiling is securely separated from the OS so that apps don’t know they’re bring profiled and cannot attack the profiler directly because they reside in separate hardware memory spaces where the security processor’s interactions with the rest of the SoC are a one-way affair. No other SoC vendor is offering a malware solution like this.

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The really big bang with the 820 is LTE-U on the integrated X12 LTE modem which uses the unlicensed radio spectrum (the consumer WiFi bands) to speed up LTE communication. Think of it as LTE over WiFi and its impact will be most heavily felt in dense urban areas. The X12 also offers 150 Mbps upload and 600 Mbps down in best case scenarios, a healthy jump over the last gen.

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Speaking of WiFi Qualcomm has gone all in here as well. The 820 supports MU-MIMO Wi-Fi, the 802.11ad standard, and seamless switching between the 2.4, 5, and 60 Ghz bands. The demo show a 2.3x advantage for a MU Wi-Fi connection over a single user connection and an astounding 18.4x gain using a 60 Ghz connection. According to our Qualcomm reps the use case for this much bandwidth is steaming 4K videos and doing a full back up of your device in minutes.

Additionally, Qualcomm has cut the active power use of its WiFi hot spotting hardware by 45 percent over the Snapdragon 810. This improvement will be a boon to road warriors who constantly have to fight with bad hotel and event space WiFi.

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Qualcomm has also refined its hardware for switching between LTE and WiFi calling on the fly. The 820 will now keep tabs on which signal, LTE or WiFi, has the best connection and can seamlessly switch back and forth between the two up to multiple times a second.

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While not directly a part of the Snapdragon 820 Qualcomm also spent some time promoting and detailing its on-the-fly cellular antenna tuning chip called TruSignal Antenna boost. This chip is designed to allow phones to compensate for user holding them wrong way, *cough* Apple, or to reduce the signal noise ratio in scenarios where the phone is on the edge of the cellular coverage area.

There are two advantages to this for the device, a better connection to the network and less power required to communicate with the network. Qualcomm say that users can see up to 49 better data rates in poor signal areas and up to 20 better battery life thanks to a reduction in the amount of transmission power required to achieve the same signal strength as a conventional device.

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The Adreno 530 GPU is said to bump raw GPU performance by a whole 40 percent over the GPU subsystem in the Snapdragon 810. Qualcomm seemed eager to show this advantage off and spent quite a bit of time talking up the 820 as the mobile chip to have for VR devices. Qualcomm expects Snapdragon 820 powered VR offerings to start showing up in late 2016.

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For regular gaming the 820 can now do 4K 3D rendering. But Qualcomm believes that for gaming 720p @ 30 FPS upscaled to 4k will be the best compromise between quality and performance for graphically intense games. In our hands on testing this is level of performance and graphics quality felt about on par with a late-cycle Xbox 360.

Qualcomm also highlighted its ongoing efforts to release a Vulkan driver in addition to its current OpenGL ES and render-script driver for its Adreno 530 GPU. Just so we’re all clear a decent VR experience isn’t a possibility on the Snapdragon 820 until that Vulkan driver is out in the wild and game developers have done their part to optimize their rendering engines for the Adreno 530’s architecture.

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Lips were a bit tight about battery life and power consumption outside of a few hardware block specific numbers and general comparisons to the 810. This is understandable given that the devices that OEMs will launch in the first half of next year will have little in common with the reference designs that the press played with at this launch event. But Qualcomm’s senior staff made it very clear that most of the hardware updates in the 820 were aimed at reducing or controlling power consumption in some way. They even took the time to state in no uncertain terms that Snapdragon 820-based devices would not suffer from any overheating issues.

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One of the Snapdragon 820 feature that Qualcomm was showing off was Scene Detect. This feature leverages the Zeroth neural processing engine to locally identify and organize objects in the photo library of your Snapdragon 820 device. In the image above a Qualcomm rep is showing how Scene Detect is recognizing that hamburger photo below the tablet is a hamburger and that it’s made of a bun, lettuce, and other components. Then it’s indexing the device’s photo library based on those items it’s identified. This feature uses the data its interpreting to continuously train itself and should get more accurate as you use it.

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Speakers on mobile device universally suck. Qualcomm is doing something about that with the Snapdragon 820 by identifying the x-max of the speaker’s cone which is the farthest point away from its resting position it can move without damaging itself. And the amplifying the signal that’s sent to the speak to get as close to the x-max point as possible. That in and of itself isn’t all that impressive but what is impressive is how Qualcomm is dealing with audio clipping that happens when you push past the speaker’s x-max and start damaging it. They are capping the amplitude of the signal sent to the speaker just below the x-max so at no point will the device sound like it’s clipping to the user and it won’t damage the speaker. There’s no downside to this effort to make speaker phone mode less awful.

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In this demo Qualcomm was showing off its ultra-sonic finger print reader technology. The key point here are that ultra-sonic waves can penetrate though any dirt, oil, or grim that have built up on your fingers and it can also read your finger print through a thin layer of aluminum. This means that finger print reading should be both more accurate and consistent on Snapdragon 820 devices. You may also see devices that can be unlocked with a rear facing finger print sensor without requiring a hole to be machined into the shell of the device.

Many of the new features that were being promoted at this launch were solutions to problems that were part hardware and mostly software like the image processing stack. These features require the OEMs to invest dollars in to enabling them, they are not finished solutions. Thus there is the potential that 820-based devices may not have everything detailed here enabled. For its part Qualcomm believes that the volatile landscape in the Android market will ensure that OEMs implement all of the software features that Qualcomm is promoting. Qualcomm doubled down on this sentiment in saying that it wanted to help OEMs to differentiate from each other by leveraging the programmable DSPs on the 820 in new and interesting ways.

In the end the basic value proposition that Qualcomm is offering with the 820 is good CPU cores, hooked up to a bigger than ever GPU that’s soon to support Vulcan, coupled with more low power fixed function hardware than you could ever want, and a crazy fast modem to feed data to the whole mess. At a philosophical level Qualcomm has consistently built the best mobile chips because they’re willing to appropriate whatever technologies they need from whoever is selling them to win and because they (unlike Intel and Nvidia) intimately understand what both users, carriers, and OEMs want. The Snapdragon 820 executes on that philosophy and sets a new bar for the level of excellence expected from high-end mobile SoCs.S|A

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Thomas Ryan is a freelance technology writer and photographer from Seattle, living in Austin. You can also find his work on SemiAccurate and PCWorld. He has a BA in Geography from the University of Washington with a minor in Urban Design and Planning and specializes in geospatial data science. If you have a hardware performance question or an interesting data set Thomas has you covered.