With the Snapdragon 845, Qualcomm turns many small steps into one giant leap.
When you’re hanging out with other people as obsessed with the intricacies of technology as oneself, competitors and friends alike become sounding boards for whether you’re on the right track with an idea.
One of the ideas I’ve been noodling with recently is the subtle way Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 — its flagship platform that debuted in late 2016 and came to devices in the spring of this year — upended the battery conversation in smartphones. Every year before this one I’d read about how, unless a phone had a massive battery, uptime was disappointing. No one really needs a phone to last a weekend, but there should be no anxiety about having to top up during the day. For the most part, barring a few outliers, phones running Snapdragon 835 delivered on that promise.
Like gas in a car, you only start to notice battery life when it begins to run out; as long as you stay within a certain (self-imposed) comfort level — and as long as you don’t approach zero — your phone continues to work, and life goes on. I have a Pixel 2 sitting next to me at 55%; it’s been off the charger since 6 a.m. and now it’s closing in on 3:30 p.m. I won’t have to charge it until I go to sleep, of that I am sure. It’s a comfort thing.
Similarly, much ado (and rightfully so) has been made about improvements to camera quality in 2017, from devices like the Galaxy S8 and LG V30 to the champion, the Pixel 2. (Of course a Snapdragon 835 doesn’t guarantee a great camera — see Essential Phone.) Then there’s the gigabit movement, which pushed carriers and manufacturers to take more care about freeing up much-needed spectrum to make all LTE networks more efficient. I could go on.
This brings me to the Snapdragon 845. On the surface, it doesn’t appear to move the needle much in terms of whiz-bang, marketable upgrades. It’s faster and more efficient, sure, but the same line is trotted out year after year. What makes the Snapdragon 845 really interesting is how the minor individual improvements add up to something substantial.
It really is faster
Just because the chip is built on the same 10nm Samsung FinFET manufacturing process as the Snapdragon 835 doesn’t mean the sequel can’t be significantly faster. Back when the Snapdragon 835 was in development, Samsung Foundry’s 10nm process was fairly young, so companies like Qualcomm couldn’t necessarily push them to their full potential. A year later, that’s changed with the Snapdragon 845.
Not only is the new Kryo 385 CPU built on the newer Cortex-A75 and Cortex-A55 cores (for power and efficiency, respectively), but the designs are brand new, allowing Qualcomm to push clock speeds to 2.8GHz and 1.8GHz. That should turn into meaningful improvements in single-core and multi-core benchmarks, sure, but real-world applications will also feel the upgrades. Qualcomm also sought to minimize power usage by adding two megabytes of L3 cache, which should prevent the chip from having to dig into RAM as often to recall oft-repeated processes, reducing battery usage significantly.
Similarly, the Adreno 630 GPU is promising a 30% improvement in both performance and efficiency. Given that almost every app loaded onto a phone these days is graphically-accelerated, that should bode well for battery junkies and game enthusiasts alike.
The takeaway: The Snapdragon 845 isn’t reinventing the performance wheel, and it’s certainly not going to compete with Apple’s A11 in single-core performance, but Android users will have nothing to complain about come 2018.
There are meaningful improvements to the camera
These days, it’s not enough for a phone to have the best sensor or sharpest lens. They’re physically limited by their size, so software — and the silicon pipes that software passes through — have to pick up the slack. A phone like the Pixel 2 has decent hardware credentials, but Google performs a bunch of its own magic behind the scenes.
Qualcomm has a part to play in that process, too: every photo captured on a Snapdragon-powered phone runs through the Hexagon DSP and Spectra ISP. And while running a Snapdragon chip doesn’t guarantee great photos (see the Essential Phone, for instance) it does offer a turnkey solution to manufacturers that are willing to put in the effort to build on an already-strong base.
The Snapdragon 845 provides an even stronger base for manufacturers. Yes, being able to capture photos in 10-bit color with a Rec. 2020 gamut is impressive, but there’s no real-world advantage to that just yet. What’s more impressive to me is how the new Spectra 280 ISP facilitates 60fps photo capture at up to 16MP, and uses on-device programming to interpret the photos and bring out their best qualities. The only reason phone cameras are able to get photos as good as they do on such tiny sensors and stubby lenses is through intelligent pipelines that provide APIs the right tools to work. Google has the best APIs (with Samsung, Huawei and LG not far behind) but I’m excited to see how 2018 flagships will use with war chest of tools.