AH Primetime: Qualcomm's 2016 Offensive For The Snapdragon 820

Qualcomm's flagship System-on-Chip for 2016 is the Snapdragon 820, the latest in the 800-series chipset. Previous Snapdragon 800-series processors have powered a number of Nexus devices, including the Nexus 5 (Snapdragon 800), Nexus 5X (Snapdragon 808) and Nexus 6P (Snapdragon 810) but before we draw a conclusion from this regarding what 2016's Nexus harvest may yield, let's take a look at the Snapdragon 820 and what devices we know are going to use this chipset.

First, let me deal with the overheating issue that has plagued Qualcomm's flagship 2015 chipset, the Snapdragon 810. This powerful chip has been used in a number of different devices across the industry including smartphones and tablets. Unfortunately, the Snapdragon 810's reputation for running warm meant that the chip was often forced to underclock itself and shut down the high-powered ARM Cortex-A57 application cores and revert to using the lower powered ARM Cortex-A53 cores, which made the chip in effect no quicker than the previous generation of Snapdragon 800 series chips (the 805, 801 and 800). Ultimately, the Cortex-A57 application core is powerful but is optimized for "bursty workloads," in other words, for completing a task as quickly as possible and then shutting down. ARM's later 64-bit high-performance core, the Cortex-A72, has been better optimized for continuous workloads although Qualcomm have engineered their own customized application core for the Snapdragon 820, the "Kyro." There are a number of reasons why ARM's first generation 64-bit high-performance application cores were not as refined as is the norm for the industry, and further reasons why Qualcomm did not have their own custom chipset ready for 2015: Apple's massive investment into their own chipset development has forced other mobile chipset designers and manufacturers to play catch-up.

Qualcomm's literature has already explained that the Snapdragon 820 is more powerful and more efficient than previous generation Snapdragon processors. We would be expecting this. The System-on-Chip is based on a big.LITTLE arrangement of four application cores arranged in a lower performance pair and a higher performance pair. Each application processor cluster consists of Qualcomm's custom Kyro chipset design; one pair have a lower maximum clock speed than the second pair. Qualcomm are using a number of clever features designed to keep the processor performing well across the full range of duties a modern smartphone or tablet might be expected to perform and the System-on-Chip contains sophisticated security and power management features. This includes deep learning technologies and the "Symphony System Manager," designed to reconfigure how the chipset handles its application processor cores and the Hexagon 680 DSP (Digital Signal Processor), which is more efficient at certain tasks. The 820 also includes sophisticated imaging functionality for improved camera performance together with reduced power consumption.

We've seen a number of manufacturers working with Qualcomm to release devices based around the Snapdragon 820, including a couple of Chinese devices; the LeTV Le Max Pro and the Xiaomi Mi 5. The Le Max Pro is the world's first device based around the chipset. This handset comes with a 6.3-inch high resolution, 1440p (or 2,560 by 1,440 pixel) display, 4 GB of RAM, a choice of 32 GB, 64 GB or 128 GB of internal storage and a 21MP rear camera. Conversely, the Mi 5 is still an unreleased device and the rumored specification includes the Snapdragon 820, a choice of 3 GB RAM with 32 GB of storage or 4 GB RAM with 64 GB of storage, a 5.2-inch high-resolution display and a 16MP rear camera.

Another manufacturer with rumored links to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 is Samsung, which has been building at least one variant of the Galaxy S7 based around the new Snapdragon flagship chipset. Samsung decided not to use the Snapdragon 810 chipset in the Galaxy S6, instead opting to use their internal Exynos 7420 chipset for all variants of the 2015 flagship device, but there is still a viable business partnership. All the same, Qualcomm's earnings update did not explain that the business has secured a significant contract with any customer, so we will need to wait and see what Samsung bring to the table with their new device.

So far, we've covered three smartphones but the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 is far more adaptable than just for a smartphone. We've seen virtual reality headset, NextVR, talking great things about the 820 from the context of virtual reality. Virtual reality technology is necessarily demanding of the hardware as the chips need to shunt around a lot of high-resolution imagery with minimal lag. Low latency - that is, a very quick response from the image to a movement - is essential as it is this lag that causes many people to feel sick after using a virtual reality headset. NextVR have worked with Qualcomm to produce a live virtual reality streaming application, designed and optimized to work well with the Snapdragon 820. NextVR have said that Qualcomm's next flagship chipset will propel devices based around this new technology ahead of the best mobile virtual reality devices currently available. NextVR have announced that they are working on a high-quality, 360-degree virtual reality content application for devices running the Snapdragon 820.

Qualcomm have also announced the Snapdragon 820A and 820Am chipsets, optimized for automobile infotainment and navigation systems. The difference between the 820A and 820Am is that the Am includes a 4G LTE modem. Both chipsets are purported to have a modular design meaning that it is relatively easy to upgrade individual components although it remains to be seen how practical (and expensive) this is when the product arrives integrated into dashboards. The Snapdragon 820A uses Qualcomm's "deep learning" rudimentary artificial intelligence systems so as to understand road signs and lane markings, may be used to drive different displays about the vehicle. The Snapdragon 820A has already started shipping in sampling quantities and has been demonstrated at this week's Consumer Electronics Show.

Over the course of 2016, we will see more and more manufacturers adopting the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 for their flagship smartphones and tablets: we would expect that the likes of Sony, HTC, Motorola and of course, Google with the Nexus line. We can also expect to see virtual reality products based around the chipset. We may also see auto manufacturers using the Snapdragon 820A line of chips in their infotainment systems in cars. Does Qualcomm have a lot riding on the Snapdragon 820 family? On the face of it, yes; some positive reports would be good away from stunning and thoroughly artificial benchmarks, and may remove the memory of the hot potato shaped Snapdragon 810 from memory. If the Snapdragon 820 is not a commercial success, it could accelerate Qualcomm's push into the Internet of Things technology and other similar technologies. However, on the face of it, the Snapdragon 820 has the right constitution, and customers, to restore some Snapdragon customer love.

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About the Author

David Steele

Senior Staff Writer
I grew up with 8-bit computers and moved into PDAs in my professional life, using a number of devices from early Windows CE clamshells and later. Today, my main devices are a Nexus 5X, a Sony Xperia Z Tablet and a coffee cup.