One of the fascinating outcomes of the pandemic is that PCs have regained center stage as the core device for many people. Despite that shift, however, interest in technologies that power smartphones hasn’t waned. Indeed, as Qualcomm clearly demonstrated at its Snapdragon Summit event in Hawaii, it is still possible to drive meaningful innovations in the mobile world, across AI processing, graphics, imaging and, yes, 5G. Before getting into the technical details of the new chips, however, it’s worth analyzing the company’s new naming strategy as well.
Qualcomm has developed a consistent, annual refresh cycle for its top-of-the-line Snapdragon SOCs (System on Chips), so in many ways the company’s latest smartphone-related news wasn’t particularly surprising. Industry watchers and smartphone enthusiasts have come to expect a line of new chips to be introduced at the end of a calendar year and then the debut of phones that use those new chips shortly thereafter. What caught several people off-guard this year was the company’s decision to adjust its branding for Snapdragon—news that the company publicly previewed before the event.
The new Snapdragon 8 Mobile Platform Gen 1 naming is something that will take some getting used to, but it is, in part, a response to a purely practical issue. Given last year’s Snapdragon 888 and its penchant for raising the latest version number by a noticeable amount, it wasn’t going to be terribly long before Qualcomm started to run out of three-digit options. In addition, the company wanted to create a consistent naming structure that it could use across its offerings for smartphones, PCs, and other devices, as well as avoid the confusion that can happen when trying to decipher three-digit product names. Finally, Qualcomm realized that the Snapdragon brand had reached high levels of consumer awareness on its own and wanted to leverage its popularity.
In terms of the technical details, many of the specific advancements in each of the SOC’s core areas were arguably somewhat modest, but as a collective whole, they continue to set the standard for high-end Android-based smartphone performance. (Mediatek’s latest Dimensity 9000 line of SOCs looks to provide some of the strongest competition Qualcomm has seen in some time, however.) The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 offers 20% better CPU performance, a 30% jump in its Adreno GPU performance and, most importantly, a 4x improvement in AI processing versus its predecessor thanks to its 7th generation Qualcomm AI Engine. What makes the AI advances particularly interesting is Qualcomm’s arrangement with Google Cloud to incorporate support for Google’s Neural Architecture Search (NAS), a technology that allows developers to create neural network models significantly faster and easier. Devices that incorporate Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 and its new AI Engine will benefit from improved performance running models created with NAS.
Given the growing importance of smartphone cameras and imaging applications, Qualcomm also chose to provide important improvements in the imaging system, which the company has dubbed Snapdragon Sight. The new device adds support for an 18-bit ISP (Image Signal Processor), which allows a massive 4,096x increase in the amount of potential camera data that can be captured and processed. This enables things like support for 8K HDR video capture, video bokeh, a 5x improvement in Night Mode image quality, and more.
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As important as raw compute and graphics performance may be, another critical element for smartphones and other mobile devices is their range of connectivity options and performance. This is where Qualcomm continues to provide industry-leading capabilities across the board. On the 5G side, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 includes the company’s x65 fourth generation 5G modem along with the company’s latest RF front end solution. Together these two offer the theoretical potential performance of 10 Gbps—as fast as older wired Ethernet—which is a step up from the 7.5 Gbps potential of the x60 found in last year’s Snapdragon 888. In addition, the modem-RF combo adds support for carrier aggregation of both mmWave and sub-6 signals on 5G standalone networks and support for 3GPP Release 16 standards (see “Look Out, Here Comes 5G, Phase 2” for more).
Admittedly, some of these capabilities really won’t be useful until major carriers upgrade their 5G networks to support them, but it is critical to get these types of advancements to market in order to help push 5G’s capabilities forward.
While 5G gets all the attention, it’s clear that WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities are also critical for smartphones—a point that was really brought home during the pandemic. To that end, Qualcomm delivered some important firmware-based enhancements to its existing FastConnect 6900 and 6700 line of WiFi chips, which are part of the latest Snapdragon parts. Most notably, the company’s support for 4 Stream DBS (Dual Band Simultaneous) allows devices attached to supporting WiFi routers (only the latest models) to reach download speeds of up to 3.6 Gbps thanks to simultaneous use of as many as 4 WiFi channels (two each at two different frequencies). The bottom line is potentially significantly faster WiFi performance and lower latency, both of which are ideal for gaming-style applications as well as situations in which you use your phone as a WiFi hotspot.
The company also made improvements to its Snapdragon Sound technology (see “Qualcomm Highlights Mobile Audio With Snapdragon Sound” for more) in the FastConnect 6900 component of mobile Snapdragon, bringing lossless audio compression for higher-quality music and sound experiences to the latest versions. In addition, the company added support for LE Broadcast, a new Bluetooth LE feature that allows multiple people to share a high-quality streamed audio feed from a single device. This is ideal for shared listening or movie watching experiences, as well as public scenarios like museum tours for which a single audio source can be used to stream audio to new Bluetooth earphones or headsets.
As with many computing devices, advances in mobile phone technology have reached an era of more refinement than revolution, especially when compared to the immediately previous generation. But just as we saw lifetimes for PCs extend to multiple years, so too have smartphones’ lifetimes, making those comparisons less relevant than they used to be. It’s commonplace to now compare the latest generation PC chips with those of several years back to more closely emulate what people can expect to see when they upgrade. So, too, is it time to make that transition for smartphones. In that light, advances in the latest Snapdragon 8 Mobile Platform Gen 1 offer a significant improvement versus some of the first 5G-enabled chips and smartphones of several years back.
Plus, even though the individual changes may not be enormous, it’s the collective experience of the Snapdragon 8 Mobile Platform Gen 1 technology advances that provide the kind of refinement that makes modern smartphones faster, easier-to-use, more power efficient, and better connected. And that is hard to argue with.
Disclosure: TECHnalysis Research is a tech industry market research and consulting firm and, like all companies in that field, works with many technology vendors as clients, some of whom may be listed in this article.