Qualcomm had a pretty rough 2015, they weren’t the only ones in the mobile world to have a rough year, however. Their flagship Snapdragon 810 processor wasn’t necessarily bad, it just generated more heat than the smartphone that it was powering could handle. Which then forced other problems with handsets, for instance the thermal throttling would kick in and slow down the device so that the temperature could decrease. The heating problems with the Snapdragon 810 actually forced Samsung out of using their chip in their four flagships (Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 Edge, Galaxy S6 Edge+ and Galaxy Note 5) in 2015. Samsung is Qualcomm’s largest customer, that should be no surprise to anyone. Having their largest customer decide to go with their own Exynos processor over Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 left a huge hole in their business. In 2015, we also saw other smartphones opting for the Snapdragon 808 processor over the higher-end and faster Snapdragon 810 – namely the LG G4 and Moto X Pure Edition/Style. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for Qualcomm’s financials (as that is still better than buying processors from a competitor), but it definitely showed that there were issues with the Snapdragon 810 SoC.
The company knew they had to make a change in 2016, a big change. After all, they did end up laying off around 15% of their 31,000 workforce. Including over a thousand at their headquarters in San Diego, California. Qualcomm, luckily, recognized their issues and resolved them quickly. Following Mobile World Congress 2016, they are off to a pretty big year. But why? Enter the Snapdragon 820. Actually announced last fall (and teased as early as Mobile World Congress 2015), the Snapdragon 820 was present in every flagship announced at the show in Barcelona, Spain last week. LG announced their G5 with the Snapdragon 820, so did Samsung with their Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge. Xiaomi also announced the Mi 5, and Sony’s Xperia X Performance both feature the Qualcomm flagship processor. So what’s so special about the Snapdragon 820? Why are all these manufacturers flocking to this new SoC? Let’s explore and find out.
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 SoC is a powerhouse, as you’d expect. It’s a quad-core processor clocked at 2.2GHz, using Qualcomm’s custom-made Kyro cores, and is a 64-bit chip. It’s paired with the Adreno 530 GPU, which is the latest and greatest GPU, making it the best on the market. We’re looking at LTE speeds of up to 600Mbps download and 150Mbps upload on the new X12 LTE modem from Qualcomm. The company’s “Haven” security suite is also included here which brings a ton of security features to your device. The Snapdragon 820 can also support up to a 25-megapixel camera, 4K displays, USB 3.0, NFC and a few other goodies. It really does check all of the boxes. When the Snapdragon 820 was officially announced last fall, Qualcomm did a Q&A over on Twitter, and the most popular question was about the heat in the Snapdragon 820. Their engineers stated that the new processor stays nice and cool. Which is perhaps the biggest feature on the new processor over the Snapdragon 810.
Simply put, everyone is choosing the Snapdragon 820 because it’s the best out there. Sure there are other competitors out there like MediaTek, Exynos, NVIDIA and plenty of others. However none of them are as popular as Qualcomm. You see, Qualcomm does more than just processors. In fact, many of the hardware parts inside your phone are still made by Qualcomm even if the processor isn’t. Something that many Galaxy S6 owners found out last year when there was a “Qualcomm” sticker on their new Galaxy S6 that used an Exynos 7420 processor. You see, Qualcomm makes modems. They also lead the way in CDMA modems, which is why Samsung uses Qualcomm processors in the US in their devices and Exynos elsewhere. CDMA really only exists in the US and China (and China is close to having it completely phased out). So even if your smartphone doesn’t feature a Snapdragon chipset, it likely has some component from Qualcomm.
Aside from the cooler processor, the Snapdragon 820 has another feature that consumers will really care about. And that is Quick Charge 3.0. Quick Charge started in 2013 with Quick Charge 1.0. It was a pretty small breakthrough when you think about it. The technology charged your devices a little bit faster, but many didn’t see a huge difference. Quick Charge 2.0 came out later that year with the Snapdragon 800, and promised 75% faster charge times compared to conventional charging. Most flagship smartphones have Quick Charge 2.0 already, and it allows most of them to charge in under 2 hours. Take for instance the Moto X Pure Edition, it can go from 0 to 100% in just about one hour and 40 minutes. With a conventional charger, it would be closer to three hours. Now with Quick Charge 3.0, it can charge your device twice as fast as with Quick Charge 1.0, which was already 40% faster than conventional charging. This means you can charge your phone faster than ever before, great for topping off your device before leaving the house. Quick Charge 3.0 is built into the Snapdragon 820 and a few other processors that are going to be mainstream in 2016. This is perhaps the only feature from Qualcomm that most consumers are going to care about, and they should.
When we talk about the manufacturers that chose to use the Snapdragon 820, it’s pretty obvious for at least two of them (LG and Samsung, because their devices are coming to the US and need CDMA compatibility). What about Sony? Well Sony doesn’t make their own processor like Huawei, Samsung, and a few others. So it’s either choose Qualcomm, MediaTek or buy from Samsung. Which is something they don’t want to do. The majority of their smartphones already sport a Qualcomm chip, in fact out of the three they announced last week, only one is running without a Qualcomm chip. The Xperia XA uses the MediaTek Helio P10. While the Xperia X uses the Snapdragon 650 and the Xperia X Performance on the Snapdragon 820. We don’t have a confirmed reason for why Sony opted for Qualcomm in the Xperia X and Xperia X Performance, but it’s pretty likely that they liked what they saw from the Snapdragon 650 and 820 when Qualcomm sampled the SoC’s last year. Sony is bringing these devices to the US, so that may have played a part. Then there’s Xiaomi. The company that is Qualcomm’s third largest customer. Xiaomi has used Qualcomm in just about every smartphone (and just about every Qualcomm processor). So they are likely going to stick with Qualcomm for the foreseeable future. Qualcomm already has a pretty large market share, and it’s likely going to get even bigger now thanks to Sony, Xiaomi, Samsung and LG picking up the Snapdragon 820.
Qualcomm may have gotten back on track in 2016, but that doesn’t mean the competition is going away. Perhaps their closest competitor, MediaTek has been announcing new processors quite often. With their Helio X line of processors, they are in the race to out-do the Snapdragon 800-series processors from Qualcomm. The Helio X20 is a deca-core processor, with three clusters of cores. So you have a slower core which will do things in standby mode, a higher-speed for doing things like gaming and such and a set that’s right in the middle for things like checking Facebook, Twitter, etc. It’s a great idea, but a processor that we won’t likely see in the US. MediaTek isn’t backing down from Qualcomm though, neither is NVIDIA, or Exynos. While Samsung is using the Snapdragon 820 in their Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge, some markets are seeing the Exynos 8890, including Canada and the UK. This means Qualcomm can’t sit back and do nothing while the Snapdragon 820 is getting used by everyone, they need to continue innovating and making an even better Snapdragon 230 for 2017 flagships. Otherwise they could have a repeat of 2015, and that’s something the chip maker doesn’t want to have happen.
When we talk about Mobile World Congress, we typically wonder “who won” in terms of the show. Seeing as we have plenty of high-end flagships being announced at the show every year. Most were debating between LG and Samsung, and even Mark Zuckerberg who took part in Samsung’s presentation at Unpacked. LG came out with their modular smartphone in the LG G5, while Samsung came out with a refined version of their Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge, dubbed the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge. All three of these devices are great smartphones that will be available shortly (on all of the carriers here in the US), and got some great reactions from the press as well as the public at the show last week. Now the question is who really won Mobile World Congress? That would be Qualcomm.
Now, don’t think that this wasn’t the plan for Qualcomm. They definitely had a hand in helping out their partners and in turn their partners helping them out, with these announcements. As with any other trade show, Qualcomm had been working for months in advance to release this barrage of Snapdragon 820 news. Whether that was working with LG, Samsung, Xiaomi or Sony, or by themselves, Qualcomm was making sure that they were in the spotlight this year in Barcelona. We’ll see later this month when the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge both launch in the US (and about 60 other countries) how well the Snapdragon 820 is really going to perform, when compared to the Snapdragon 810. But for now, it appears as if Qualcomm definitely won Mobile World Congress without announcing a single thing, themselves.