Qualcomm focused the technology enhancements of the Snapdragon 888 to improve three key areas - the camera, gaming, and AI.
Day two of the Qualcomm Snapdragon Tech Summit provided the details of Snapdragon 888. As we indicated in our previous article, Qualcomm focused technology enhancements of the new SoC on improving three key areas: the camera, gaming, and AI.
This is one impressive chip built on the latest 5nm process technology. While targeted for premium smartphones, this mobile marvel could easily power almost any intelligent device. With an estimated 20 to 30 processing cores, the Snapdragon continues to be the most heterogeneous processing system-on-chips (SoCs) available. And Qualcomm continues to enhance every aspect of the chip with each generation. As a result, it is difficult to capture all the enhancements at one time, but I will try to cover the highlights.
Photography with 3 ISPs
The camera improvement almost seems like an obvious decision. With most premium smartphones using three front facing image sensors for standard, wide, and telephoto formats, Qualcomm added three Image Signal Processors (ISPs) into the Spectra 580 of the Snapdragon 888. The company developed one ISP for each image sensor.
This significantly increases the performance of the camera function. Not only can the SD 888 handle 28 Mega Pixel (MP) images, but it can also process a burst of 120 12MP images per second for a total rate of 2.7 Giga Pixel per second. That’s a 35% performance improvement over its predecessor, the Snapdragon 865. That means all three image sensors can be capturing pictures or video in 10-bit HDR in 4K resolution all at the same time.
Combined with computational photography through the AI engine, the SD 888 can seamlessly transition between image sensors when zooming, combine images and video for crisper high resolution, and enhance low light images allowing for use in almost complete darkness at 0.1 lux.
The SD 888 also leverages the AI engine to improve the camera user experience through improved auto focus, auto balance, and auto white balance for a true point and shoot experience even when the user or the image is moving. The enhancements also include the ability to capture and playback video in 4K at 120 frames per second (fps). From a security standpoint, Qualcomm is working with TruePic to create a cryptographic seal for photos. This help verify the authenticity of images to ensure that they have not been manipulated by hand or through new AI capabilities.
For an improved gaming experience, the SD 888’s Adreno 660 GPU is capable of variable rate pixel shading for the first time on a mobile platform.
By allowing the GPU to just render visible pixels rather than every pixel in every frame, Qualcomm was able to increase the performance by 35% and improve efficiency by 20%. More importantly, this eliminates the performance vs fidelity trade-off in developing mobile games.
Qualcomm also introduced a new technology for gaming called QuickTouch. The new feature improves the touch response time by up to 20%. The SD 888 enhancements to the camera function and AI can also be leveraged for improving the gaming experience. With mobile gaming growing faster than any other gaming segment, developers are looking to create a PC/console experience and these enhancements will bring mobile gaming a few steps closer.
For AI, the 6th generation Qualcomm AI engine includes several key enhancements. The most significant is a redesign of the Qualcomm Hexagon processor. Not only does it include enhanced scalar, tensor, and vector accelerators for greater individual performance, the new Hexagon 780 fuses the three accelerators together through a unified memory architecture for better overall performance.
In addition, the Snapdragon 888 includes a second-generation sensor hub that includes an always-on ultra-low-power core that can monitor the sensors in offline mode. The sensor hub is being used as an offload engine for the Hexagon processor for functions that can be done more efficiently on a lower-power core.
These enhancements combined with enhancements to the other two AI processing elements, the Adreno GPU and the Kryo CPU, result in an overall AI performance up to 26 TOPS, a 73% performance boost over the Snapdragon 865, and a 3X improvement in performance per watt efficiency.
Qualcomm also enhanced the software for the AI engine by offering a new toolkit called the AI Engine Direct that allows programmers direct access to the Kryo CPU, Adreno GPU, and Hexagon processor. In addition, Qualcomm worked with Google to add TensorFlow Micro support and improved the AI Model Efficiency Toolkit that includes mixed precision support.
Another key enhancement to the Snapdragon 888 was in connectivity. This includes the X60 modem-RF system and Wi-Fi 6E support, the first in a mobile platform. The SD 888 includes an integrated X60 5G modem, a first in Qualcomm’s 5G premium tier lineup. The X60 system is truly a global modem that supports all current frequency band combinations. It also adds 4K QAM and carrier aggregation between sub-6GHZ, mmWave, TDD, and FDD.
The deep dive did not include a breakout of the new Kryo CPU core, but Qualcomm did provide the information. The new Kryo 680 is an 8-core processor featuring an Arm Cortex-X1 running at 2.85GHz, three Cortex-A78 performance cores running at 2.4GHz, and four Cortex-A55 power-efficient cores running at 1.8GHz. I am including these for completeness, but the overall performance and differentiation in mobile SoCs is driven more by the multimedia and AI functions than the CPU cores. The improved CPU cores, however, do provide higher performance and power efficiency.
As with prior generations, Qualcomm will be introducing other products for the volume and low-cost segments in coming months and already announced the latest PC processor, the Snapdragon 8cx gen 2 in September. Many of the features in the 888 will likely be integrated into the 7-series mobile platforms and next generation PC processors in 2021.
Qualcomm indicated that thirteen OEMs already plan to use the Snapdragon 888 in their next premium smartphones. This did not include Samsung, which will also undoubtedly use it in some regional versions of its premium smartphones. If the OEMs leverage all the hardware and software features of the Snapdragon 888, we will see some impressive smartphones that take photography, videography, and mobile gaming to a whole new level.
— The author is Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research