Snapdragon 820: Qualcomm lifts kimono on its shiny new GPUs

Adreno 530 and 510 to power next-gen mobile graphics

Qualcomm has yet to publicly share hard specs on the Snapdragon 820, its forthcoming flagship mobile system-on-chip (SoC), but on Wednesday it served an amuse-bouche by unveiling the new chip's pixel-bashing components.

The Adreno 5xx line is Qualcomm's latest generation of mobile graphics-processing units (GPUs), and they will find homes inside both the top-end Snapdragon 820 and the mid-market Snapdragon 620/618.

In addition, Qualcomm has a new, 14-bit image signal processing (ISP) unit, dubbed Spectra, that it claims will provide a DSLR-quality camera and imaging engine for the Snapdragon 820.

Minor details of the top-end 820 and its accompanying Adreno 530 were leaked in January. On Wednesday, Qualcomm revealed that there will also be an Adreno 510 model for the Snapdragon 620/618 SoCs.

As expected, the new GPUs will run faster and draw less power. Qualcomm claims the Adreno 530 will offer up to 40 per cent better performance for both graphics and GPU-accelerated compute as compared to the Adreno 430, while simultaneously sipping up to 40 per cent less juice – although you'd be wise to take such claims with the proverbial pinch of NaCl.

The chipmaker didn't offer any performance comparison for the Adreno 510, except to say that it will be "software compatible" with its beefier sibling.

The 5xx series will support a basketful of the latest graphics APIs, including OpenGL ES 3.1 with the Android Extension Pack (AEP), Renderscript, OpenCL 2.0, and even Vulkan, support for which won't be available in Android until a future version of the OS.

The 530, at least, will also support 64-bit virtual addressing, making it possible to do shared virtual memory and more efficient co-processing when paired with 64-bit CPUs. It's not clear yet whether the 510 will also have this feature, although the Snapdragon 618 and 620 SoCs that will feature it both use 64-bit ARM CPU cores.

Like its predecessor the 430, the 530 will include Qualcomm's TruPalette and EcoPix technologies for tarting up the image quality and improving battery life, respectively. It will also be able to drive 4K video using the High Efficiency Video Encoding Coding (HEVC) standard at 60fps over HDMI 2.0.

Qualcomm says the Adreno 530 is its highest performance GPU, but the 530 isn't the only thing lending the Snapdragon 820 some graphics oomph. It will also include Spectra, the company's snazzy new camera engine – so snazzy, apparently, that it's the first time Qualcomm has given a name to one of its ISP units.

Spectra includes dual 14-bit ISPs, which Qualcomm says deliver more natural skin tones and can capture 25-megapixel images at up to 30fps without shutter lag. And it can do it while powering up to three cameras simultaneously (for example, one facing the user and two rear-facing), which sounds ideal for recording Google Cardboard style VR and use in drones.

"We're significantly enhancing the visual processing capabilities of Snapdragon to support next-generation user experiences related to computational photography, computer vision, virtual reality and photo-realistic graphics on mobile devices, all while maximizing battery life," Qualcomm veep Tim Leland waxed poetic in a statement.

He also mentioned that he expects the new chips to find their way into newer applications, such as automotive infotainment systems, which demand increasingly sophisticated graphics.

So when and for how much? We're not sure. As is typical for Qualcomm, it has said nothing on pricing.

As for shipping dates, details on the Snapdragon 620/618 are scant, but they'll presumably arrive sometime in 2016. Qualcomm says the first devices containing the Snapdragon 820, on the other hand, should arrive by "the first half" of next year – which makes it a good candidate for whatever shiny new handsets hit the stands at Mobile World Congress next year. ®

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