Qualcomm on Tuesday finally announced its long-rumored Snapdragon 855 and is detailing it today as part of the second day of its Snapdragon Tech Summit 2018 taking place on the exotic island of Maui, Hawaii. While some information tidbits are yet to be disclosed by the company, the majority of what makes the Snapdragon 855 tick is now out in the open, meaning that the majority of what will make the best 2019 smartphones tick is out in the open as well. Without getting too technical, here are the top five things you need to know about Qualcomm's latest and greatest system-on-chip and how those will reflect on the (Android) handset industry as a whole.
Mobile photography is about to get a lot better (and a lot more gimmicky)
The Snapdragon 855 improves mobile photography in a wide variety of ways but most notably in making it more efficient. The devices powered by it will hence be able to take more images and shoot video for longer on a single battery charge; Qualcomm estimates that the chip is some 30-percent more energy-efficient at filmmaking than its direct predecessor. The SoC is also the world's first mobile platform to offer HDR10+ capture support, so the dynamic range of your mobile smartphone videos is about to become even richer and more amazing, providing you have a screen capable of displaying the new standard. The file sizes of your photographs and videos will also get about 50-percent smaller without any noticeable quality loss thanks to the inclusion of new HEIF and HEVC standards developed by the Moving Picture Experts Group.
While all of those novelties seem to be impressive improvements, the rest of the new additions to Qualcomm's mobile photography formula gives a more gimmicky appearance. Perhaps the most potentially useful of those features is built-in support for video bokeh powered by the world's first computer vision image signal processor. However, most industry watchers remain highly skeptical about how that feature will work in the context of real-world applications. Nearly two years ago, Google showed a less impressive take on automated image editing powered by machine vision wherein Google Photos (i.e. Lens) removed a thin fence from an image showing a child playing baseball. While that action required relatively simple detection and masking, it never arrived in the form of a consumer-grade service, so while Qualcomm now claims that its new chip can do much more than that, it remains to be seen whether any developer will be able to utilize the full power of the Snapdragon 855 and its cutting-edge ISP. Other miscellaneous functionalities of the Snapdragon 855 include what appear to be total gimmicks, such as the ability to create cinemagraphs, i.e. add videos to static images, which is something that's been possible with apps for many years now and hardware-level support for that feature likely won't change much.
5G will soon be here... kind of
The Snapdragon 855 also comes with Qualcomm's 5G-ready Snapdragon X50 modem, or at least its top model does. While all of the major carriers in the United States and many other network operators around the world will be deploying next-generation wireless infrastructure starting with 2019, those technologies are still likely to have limited global coverage for the next several years and many manufacturers are hence expected to circumvent them, even in the flagship segment of the market. Qualcomm hence decided to give phone makers a choice of whether they want to invest in making their handsets fully future-proof or save some production costs and settle with 4G LTE compatibility seeing how most of their customers likely won't enjoy 5G coverage until at least 2020 anyway. Those that opt for the latter option will be able to get their manufacturing hands on Snapdragon 855 units with Qualcomm's X24 modem, the same one found inside last year's Snapdragon 845. Everyone else will eventually be able to enjoy multi-gigabit wireless speeds - at least in theory.
Mobile gaming is about to get serious... no, really
Qualcomm is launching the Snapdragon Elite Gaming Experience in conjunction with its latest mobile chip, which is a buzzword for a wide variety of technologies meant to take your smartphone-based interactive entertainment to the next level. The SoC's Adreno 640 GPU is hence up to 20-percent faster than the one used by the Snapdragon 845 and supports the Vulkan 1.1 API, as well as high-dynamic-range (HDR) content spanning over a billion colors and physically based rendering, a shading technique that renders objects in a way meant to mimick the real-world flow of light, i.e. the manner in which the human eye sees things. In layman's terms coming straight out of Qualcomm's PR office, mobile gaming is about to become more realistic than ever.
Frame rate drops are said to have been reduced by over 90-percent with Qualcomm's new chip, whereas online multiplayer mobile gaming should also benefit from reduced latencies, at least assuming you get a device with the Snapdragon X50 modem and play your Android games over a 5G connection. Qualcomm's aptX Adaptive audio codec and TrueWireless Stereo Plus specifications are also part of the package, here to ensure your audio effects and soundtracks sound as good as they can, regardless of whether or not you're using headphones.
Virtual reality is getting a dose of pure power
Qualcomm didn't forget mobile virtual reality either, which is more than what can be said for most other major players in the industry. The Snapdragon 855 hence comes with support for volumetric VR video playback at 8K resolutions and should be much more energy-efficient while offering six degrees of (tracked movement) freedom, meaning both smartphones and standalone VR headsets utilizing it will last longer in use on a single battery charge. How much longer exactly remains to be seen but if you've been keeping up with the Android VR space and want to stay on top of the latest games, videos, and other experiences the industry has to offer, you'll surely want to buy yourself a Snapdragon 855-equipped Android device in 2019.
Artificial intelligence has everything it needs to come back to Earth
The new SoC features Qualcomm's fourth-generation multicore AI engine which is rated for up to seven trillion operations per second, or three times as much as the one found inside the Snapdragon 845. The new processor based on the Hexagon 690 architecture is also two times as powerful as the previous solution and offers a tensor accelerator, the Kryo485 has an improved instruction set specifically designed for machine learning, and the Adreno 640 has around 50-percent more arithmetic logic units. In other words, compared to the Snapdragon 845, its successor will do a significantly better job at everything from facial recognition to computer vision, intelligent content suggestions, and anything other associated with the emerging field of AI. All of that should allow developers to cut costs on the infrastructure part of their equation and start relying on their customers' smartphones in a more significant manner.
Eventually, your voice assistant should be faster to answer questions, and your computer vision apps like Google Lens and Bixby will be quicker to identify objects in your vicinity, among other things. With AI computing now being able to move away from the cloud to a degree and come back to Earth, the security of such applications should be improved as well seeing how a smaller number of online interactions equates to fewer attack vectors hackers can potentially attempt exploiting.