Qualcomm Snapdragon 888: What you should know and why it matters!
With Apple calling it a wrap on the 2020 range of iPhones (and the sole iPad Air) powered by its new A14 Bionic chip, it was Qualcomm’s turn to announce its next-generation flagship Snapdragon chipset that will power the 2021 class of top-shelf Android superphones from Xiaomi, Samsung, OnePlus and more. If you’re even remotely interested in picking up a high-performance Android smartphone in the coming year, this is the chip to watch out for. Headlining this year is significantly better CPU and graphics performance over the already blazing Snapdragon 865, integrated 5G and big gains on AI and image processing, all wrapped up in a chip built on the latest 5nm manufacturing process. With Xiaomi readying the Snapdragon 888 to be launched next week, here’s what you need to know about the Snapdragon 888 and what you can expect from flagship smartphones in 2021.
Here’s the successor to the 865: Snapdragon
No, not the Snapdragon 875 as many expected, breaking the naming pattern for the highest end Snapdragon chips over the years. This time, it’s all about Qualcomm charming Lady Luck with the number 8, which is considered lucky in major markets like China and India. One wonders, with Qualcomm picking the all-8s combination for 2021, how will they top that in 2022?
So, what’s new on the Snapdragon 888?
If you go purely by clock speeds on the chip, the Snapdragon 888 matches the 2.84GHz on the current 865, but it’s the kind of cores on the chip being used that’s making all the difference on the 888. The interesting bit is that in a first, Qualcomm has used three different cores in a flagship chip – first, there’s a new high-performance Cortex-X1 core, which promises a 23% speed bump on top of the three existing Cortex-A78 performance cores, and then there are four low power Cortex-A55 cores for lower-power consuming everyday tasks. What this means is that courtesy the Cortex-X1, you’re going to see a meaningful difference in power-intensive compute tasks, while the rest of your phone tasks are going to be more than ably handled by the slower Cortex-A55 chips at 1.8Ghz to preserve battery life. Then there’s the new Adreno 680 graphics, which promises a massive 35% boost in performance (the biggest in recent history, also includes new machine learning instructions too for up to 43% faster AI performance) alongside a 25% improvement in battery efficiency.
What are the big gains one can start seeing with the Snapdragon 888? Some are immediate, some not so much. Machine learning (AI) processing – scalar, tensor and vector processing – is now fused inside the Hexagon 780 DSP, together with 16X the amount of shared memory, which leads to big gains in efficiency. Granted, very few workloads will tax the Snapdragon 888’s various AI processors all at once, but it's solid for future proofing. Another big change is the inclusion of an integrated Snapdragon X60 5G modem, which by itself sees moderate gains over the X55 on the Snapdragon 865, but the fact that it is now integrated into the chip can only mean better power efficiency and longer battery life when on 5G…when it finally lands in some pockets here in 2021.
There’s more where that came from. The new Spectra 580 image processing chip moves from a dual to triple processor setup, which allows for three concurrent image or video streams – to take simultaneous video streams from three cameras at once or perform real-time processing on images from three different image sensors at once! Qualcomm has added a bunch of new AI algorithms for auto-focus, auto-white balance and auto exposure for smartphone makers to add new features that are available on the chip directly, thereby avoiding a performance overhead or a hit to battery life.
Among other broad improvements include support for the latest network and wireless connectivity standards, such as Bluetooth LE Audio, and spec bumps on the Snapdragon Elite gaming with support for 144Hz displays and a feature called Game Quick Touch which lowers touch response latency for faster response time while gaming.
When does one see phones with the Snapdragon 888?
Xiaomi’s first out of the gate with the Mi 11 series next week, with other brands like Asus, Lenovo, LG, Realme, OnePlus, Oppo and Vivo all set to launch phones in early to mid 2021 with the new chip. All these phones should see direct benefit from the power efficiency gains of the Snapdragon 888 along with the new imaging, ML and graphics capabilities that Qualcomm has delivered.
Sounds good! Any gotchas?
Just recently, Qualcomm released benchmark scores for the new chip, running the reference hardware through a bunch of popular tests tests like AnTuTu, Geekbench, GFX Bench, and AITuTu. Geekbench? 25% GFX Bench? ~35%! In each of the tests, the 888 proves one thing – it’s hella fast, and more than a marginal upgrade over its predecessor. That said, it’s yet to be seen how actual phone models and apps leverage that raw power, so one should take benchmarks as a “best case scenario”, with the real numbers and performance gains only visible once 888-powered phones start hitting the market. Personally though, I’m excited to see how the new imaging features play out alongside the power efficiency improvements – if Qualcomm and phone brands end up delivering competitively there, Qualcomm has a real shot at regaining its performance crown in the mobile landscape.
Tushar Kanwar is a tech columnist and commentator, and tweets @2shar