p>WAILEA, Maui — Qualcomm announced a new SoC for flagship smartphones and its first Snapdragon variant for its ongoing drive into Windows PCs. The 7nm chips demonstrate remarkable engineering execution at a time of unprecedented business, market and technology challenges.

The Snapdragon 855, along with its X50 modem, position the company to dominate the first wave of 5G devices. However, the initial wave could be a small one given gradual network buildouts, and its expansion into Windows devices has so far gained negligible traction.

Long term, the company faces a slowing smartphone market where it has lost a top customer due to patent disputes with Apple. After mergers with Broadcom and NXP were blocked, its road into the Internet of Things and automotive markets remains cloudy. And it sacrificed its hopes to stake out a beachhead in the data center to cost cuts appeasing shareholders.

On the technology front, it will have to eke out performance gains in next year’s chips with little help from new process nodes. The enhanced 7nm processes ramping up for 2019 and beyond promise manufacturing efficiencies with the introduction of extreme ultraviolet lithography that mainly will benefit its foundry vendors.

The good news is its hard work on the 855 positions it well for the next wave of handsets where it is again on the rise.

Qualcomm bounced back to a 40% share in smartphone applications processor in the first three quarters of this year. It regained most of the ground it lost in 2016-2017 to OEMs such as Huawei and Samsung using their own handset chips and rival Mediatek getting design wins at China’s rising handset makers, according to International Data Corp. (IDC).

“Over the last few years Qualcomm has really expanded its product line from the lower 200 series through a wide range of mid-tier 400 and 600 series and added a 700 series,” said Phil Solis of IDC. That’s helped win back business from China’s Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi, where the midrange business has been described as a dogfight with Mediatek.

Cellular basebands have been Qualcomm’s big guns. It claims 20 operators and 18 OEMs will use its latest 5G modem.

The 855 integrates the prior X24 Category 20 LTE modem supporting 7x carrier aggregation. It also supports two flavors of Wi-Fi — the 60 GHz 802.11ay and the pre-standard .11ay, both claimed to be capable of 10 Gbit/second data rates.

Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon shows the company's reference design for a Snapdragon 855 handset with 5G. (Image: EE Times)
Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon shows the company's reference design for a Snapdragon 855 handset with 5G. (Image: EE Times)

Qualcomm claims the CPU complex of its Snapdragon 855 sports a 45% performance gain over its prior 10nm 845, its largest leap ever. That’s a stunning claim given the new chip got almost no frequency gains out of its 7nm process as one of its engineers predicted.

The 855 uses versions of Cortex-A76 and -A55 cores customized with help from Arm. The eight-core cluster is divided into a 2.84 GHz prime core, three 2.42 GHz performance cores and four 1.80 GHz efficiency cores.

Each core group can be separately clocked, but the prime and performance cores share a power plane. The net result is a block that beats rivals in sustained performance, the company said.

The star of the 855 is a set of enhancements across the SoC to accelerate neural network inferencing jobs. They include:

  • 50% more ALUs in the GPU block, boosting performance 20%
  • 4x the vector extensions in its DSP
  • A new tensor accelerator core controlled by the DSP
  • A DSP block dedicated to functions for voice assistants
  • New dot product instructions in the CPU cores

The extensions target a range of formats from 32- and 16-bit floating point operations to 8-bit integer work. “It’s more than one core, it’s a complete system,” said Gary Brotman, a Qualcomm product manager.

The tensor core is said to be a matrix math array. The voice support targets a growing range of systems embedding Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and other assistants, driving interest in far-field mics and noise cancelation techniques.

Analysts said spreading AI tasks across multiple cores makes sense and seems to be a trend already set by Nvidia’s GPUs. The net result is a 3x performance improvement in AI jobs over its 845 and a 2x improvement over its nearest “7nm Android” rival.

Snapdragon 855 performance compared to competitors
The 855 outperforms smartphone SoC rivals, the company claims. (Source: Qualcomm)

In terms of 8-bit integer tensor work, the chip is capable of more than 7 tera-operations/second but “the most important thing is the user experience… the way to see it is how much AI software runs on a handset and how much power it uses,” said Keith Kressin, who leads product management.

To that end, two Google engineers talked about reducing latency and power consumption by running text recognition and other smart camera algorithms on the chip using Android’s neural net API. A dozen other software AI partners include companies working on noise reduction for video chats, image editing and payment systems secured by 3D face recognition.

The 855 includes a laundry list of other advances for smartphones including:

  • A computer vision pipeline in the image processor
  • Support for 4K video at 60 frames/second
  • Hardware acceleration for H.265/VP9 codecs
  • Support for the Vulkan 1.1 API, HDR 10+, the High Efficiency Image Format and lower latency audio

The enhancements add features and lower power consumption for cameras as well as apps from game play to virtual reality. As a cherry on top, the company upgraded separate chips that least one OEM will use in 2019 for fingerprint recognition using 3D ultrasound maps.

Independent benchmarks of the 855 were unavailable. Nevertheless, the chip already snagged design wins with some of the first 5G handsets from OnePlus, Samsung and Lenovo’s Motorola subsidiary.

Reaching beyond the smartphone, Qualcomm rolled out its first SoC tailored for Windows-based portable PCs and said it has several more designs in the works. The first of them, the Snapdragon 8cx, sports expanded GPU and I/O blocks, aiming to catch up with the performance and flexibility of mobile x86 chips from Intel and AMD.

The dedicated PC chips mark a bold step forward for the two-year old Always Connected PC initiative that to date has sold only a few thousand systems, according to IDC. Qualcomm bills the 8cx as the first 7nm processor for PCs in a dig to Intel’s challenges at the 10nm node.

The new chip sports a GPU with twice the transistors and memory bandwidth as the 835 used in first-gen systems that debuted last year. Its Qualcomm’s largest graphics core to date, running 3.5x faster than the 835 and 60% more efficiently than the 850, a speed upgrade of the 835 launched in June.

The eight-core CPU complex uses the same modified Arm A76 and A55 cores as the Snapdragon 855, but the PC processor puts them in a more traditional Big.little 4x4 arrangement and loads them up with cache. The four performance cores double L2 cache to 512 Kbytes, and all cores have shared 4-MByte L3s and a shared 6-Mbyte L4 or system cache. The 8cx also drives the performance cores at higher frequencies than on the 855.

Qualcomm said the chip sports peak performance similar to Intel’s 15W Core i5 U-series mobile processors while using 50% less power. It delivers twice the sustained performance of Intel’s 7W Y-series, it added. However, as with the 855, the company supplied no independent benchmarks.

Snapdragon 8cx solution compared to competitor
The 8cx compres favorably to Intel’s mobile processors, the company claims. (Source: Qualcomm)

The processors use 2133 MHz LPDDR4x memories. In terms of peripherals, the 8cx supports four PCIe Gen 3 links, USB 3.1, two external 4K displays as well as NVMe and UFS 3.0 solid-state drives.

Overall Qualcomm bills the systems as similar to x86 machines in performance but sporting longer, multi-day battery life and always-on cellular connections. They come at a time when PC notebooks also are becoming thinner and more power efficient — and Intel said early last year it will deliver 5G modems for notebooks, too.

Carriers are currently considering data plans that range from early Sprint subsidies on the first batch of systems to $50+/month for unlimited data. Interestingly, Lenovo reports that in early sales of its 835- and 850-based systems, less than half of users are activating cellular.

So far, the early systems are selling for about $699, about $200 above mainstream notebook prices. In addition, Qualcomm is said to be charging similar prices for its chips as Intel does.

Qualcomm knows prices need to come down. Some of the chips on its road map target mid- or low-end models, and Qualcomm is considering support for other operating systems, said Sanjay Mehta, a former group CFO and Qualcomm China manager who now heads the company’s PC initiative.

Closing the performance gap with Intel is a challenge for two reasons, said analyst Linley Gwennap of the Linley Group.

“Fundamentally, Arm cores are less powerful than Intel cores, so as long as Qualcomm uses standard Arm cores it’s not clear how they will close the gap…if you don’t have code compiled for Arm, it has to run it in emulation mode, and at that point performance goes to hell in a handbasket,” Gwennap said.

Mozilla is working on a native version of Firefox for Arm portables, but it’s not clear how many other third-party developers are following suit. Compilers and SDKs for 64-bit Arm processors on Windows were released earlier this year.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Why would software companies invest in Arm versions when all the volume is in x86?” said Gwennap.

On the other hand, “Qualcomm is clearly spending a lot of money to address the PC market with custom silicon. Even though the IP is heavily leveraged, the 8cx tape out alone is millions of dollars and in total probably tens of millions — they clearly hope to get some return on it,” he added.

The 8cx boosts the Snapdragon GPU, CPU caches and I/O. (Image: Qualcomm)
The 8cx boosts the Snapdragon GPU, CPU caches and I/O. (Image: Qualcomm)

Five Snapdragon notebooks tested by another analyst delivered 2-3x more battery life than x86 portables.

“Qualcomm is removing nearly all objections of a connected PC. Connected speeds are higher, overall compute performance is now at the levels of a standard laptop and users get true multi-day battery life,” said Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy.

An executive for SoC rival Mediatek expressed skepticism.

“My first job out of college was getting a dual PowerPC to run x86 instructions. It was a big fiasco that cost a couple million dollars, and the biggest problem was promising compatibility with the x86 — that’s more of a challenge than building the hardware,” said Russ Mestechkin, a senior director of sales and business development at Mediatek.

The PC is a bold gambit for a slice of a big, but mature market. Longer term, Qualcomm’s chief executive now says the combination of 5G and AI will lead it into the emerging markets in smart cars and IoT. That will be even more strategic as the company seeks a future beyond smartphones.

— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times