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Qualcomm crams more smarts into flagship mobile chip: It's the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1

Do you want a smartphone to know you that well?

Snapdragon Tech Summit Qualcomm today will unveil its latest flagship chip, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, a greatest-hits compilation of the US giant's fastest CPU, GPU, camera, and modem technology.

The company is claiming a 20 per cent performance improvement and 30 per cent power savings from its predecessor, the Snapdragon 888, which was announced last year.

Premium smartphones with the Snapdragon chip – which is now a standalone brand – will be announced by the end of the year, said Ziad Asghar, vice president of product management at Qualcomm.

The chip stresses personalizing smartphones with a richer mix of on-board probabilistic and AI processing that delve into, among other things, human traits.

So before picking up a smartphone, ask yourself: how much do you want your smartphone to know about you?

AI is important for face recognition, better images and health tools. As a tone-setter in mobile chips, Qualcomm is pitching on-chip AI to improve health and mental wellness, or possibly using it for sentiment analysis to prioritize notifications.

Qualcomm said it has adopted an "ethical" design philosophy for AI, and the trend for the future will be putting even more AI capabilities directly on devices. The firm's view: AI that happens on the device stays on the device, and AI on the chip is better than data going out of the confines of the device.

Nonetheless, here's a deeper look at the chip.

The processor

The chip's Kryo CPU subsystem is Qualcomm's first based on the Armv9 architecture, which was introduced earlier this year as Arm's latest architecture in a decade.

The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 has cluster of eight cores, with a single Arm Cortex-X2 high-performance core running at 3GHz, three Cortex-A710 "performance" cores with a frequency of 2.5GHz, and then four Cortex-A510 power-efficient cores at 1.8GHz for background applications and mundane activity like phone calls.

The chip's basic CPU configuration is similar to its newest competitor: Mediatek's Dimensity 9000, which was introduced a few weeks ago.

The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 is Qualcomm's first chip made using a 4nm process, which is also being used for Mediatek's Dimensity 9000.


The new X65 5G Modem-RF System tops out at 10 gigabits per second in terms of wireless data transfer; your results will vary by cellular network and location. The modem can work in millimetre wave and sub-6GHz bands, and introduces 5G carrier aggregation for the first time.

The chip has Wi-Fi 6 and 6E with 3.6Gbps transfer speeds. A big change is the inclusion of Bluetooth Low Energy capabilities like CD-quality lossless audio for high-bandwidth sound transfers to wireless headsets, and related features such as stereo recording and voice back-channel.


Qualcomm spent more time talking about gaming than the actual new Adreno GPU in the system-on-chip during a press briefing.

A new feature, we're told, is the ability to run games at double their frame-rate while maintaining the same power level. Alternately, that feature will allow mobile devices to reduce the game power draw by up to 50 per cent. The company claims a double-digit boost in performance and power savings compared to the GPU in Snapdragon 888.

"We are also adding a new desktop-level capability to our gaming arsenal by providing support for desktop-level volumetric rendering on our latest Snapdragon 8 platform next year," said Dave Durnil, senior director of product management


The imaging features are geared to the pro camera user with an 18-bit-per-color-channel image signal processor, up from a 14-bit-per-channel ISP in the Snapdragon 888. The triple-camera system can capture 4,096 times more camera data for deeper images.

"Not only can we do 8K, 30 frames per second video capture in HDR, but also we're able to do that with electronic image stabilization as well as being able to shoot simultaneously 64 megapixel photos all at the same time. That's really enabled by the throughput that we've added in the ISP," said Judd Heape, vice president of product management for cameras at Qualcomm.

The raw speed of the ISP means it can handle up to 240 12-megapixel photos in one second, double that enabled by the hardware on Snapdragon 888. The imaging chip will support HDR 10 and HDR 10 Plus at full 8K. The ISP has increased dynamic range by four stops, which Qualcomm claims will provide brighter brights and a lot darker darks with more detail.

A new hardware core will handle "video super resolution," with the ability to do "extreme zooming with very good detail," Heape said, adding that "with this core we are going to basically eliminate all of the bad drawbacks of digital zoom."

An AI feature in a hardware engine is dedicated to video bokeh up to 4K video capture. That is in addition to AI-based autoexposure and autofocus features already on the chip. The face detection feature uses 300 facial landmarks to recognize faces even with masks on.

The camera has Leica Leitz Looks filters to recreate bokeh-like capabilities from on the camera company's still shooters.

AI invasion

Qualcomm for years has talked about loading smartphones with brains that can anticipate user needs. The chip has AI features throughout subsystems with neural nets performing pattern recognition to personalize a device.

But with AI comes responsibility. Qualcomm is trying to bring more AI features on device "to make sure that the data that is there stays on the device [and] has no option of going anywhere else," Asghar told The Register during a press briefing about the chip.

One such feature is face recognition, which is important to unlock smartphones, but is also facing a backlash, with tech players like Facebook at least partially dumping it off their agendas.

The chip has an always-on camera feature in the low-power sensing hub. The main use will be to unlock a phone, or preventing unauthorized people from looking at the screen over your shoulder.

"The always-on camera will be an OEM enabled feature. So OEMs will be able to put in various user controls or options to turn that on and off," Asghar said.

The chip has a seventh-generation AI engine and new Hexagon digital signal processors. Qualcomm claims the chip quadruples AI performance when accounting for improvements in hardware and software.

Qualcomm pitched the AI technology helping in mental and physical health. In a COVID-19 world, the chip's AI features could pick out patterns in voice, decipher breathing and combine it with other trends to assess if there is a problem, such as whether it is asthma or something like a coronavirus infection.

"[W]e're going to be able to bring in use cases like sentiment analysis so you can be able to... listen in to a sentence and be able to tell if it's a positive sentiment or a negative sentiment," Asghar said, adding that could help prioritize notifications.

"Once your phone can understand what the text means, rather than just a notification, we can open up a whole slew of new use cases," Asghar said.

For those willing to mix on-device AI with cloud services, Qualcomm is integrating Google Cloud's Vertex AI solution, which is its neural architecture search tool, into the Snapdragon neural processing software development kit. That will allow the enhancement and improvement of AI models in weeks rather than months. The integration could help eke out better performance, less latency, and better accuracy in AI models.

One size fits all

The Snapdragon system-on-chip is not based on the now-Qualcomm-owned Nuvia CPU architecture, a ground-up redesign in which Qualcomm will step away from using Arm Cortex designs.

The Nuvia CPU was created under an Arm architectural license, much in the same way Apple has designed its own Arm-compatible chips for Macs and mobile devices. The first Nuvia chips will come to Windows PCs next year, then automotive, and then to Snapdragon families running on premium mobile devices with the Android OS.

The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 is more of a one-size-fits-all chip, like Intel's x86 chips for PCs, but the smartphone market is trending to designing custom silicon for smartphones.

Qualcomm seemed perturbed by Google dropping Snapdragon and using its first homegrown chip called Tensor in its premium Pixel smartphones, and took to Twitter to make its displeasure known.

The level of customization on Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 for smartphones is mostly about tweaks as the development of this chipset was a heavy investment, and completely new silicon would not give Qualcomm much more of an advantage, Asghar said told The Register during the briefing.

"We can always get more or less in terms of specs like speeds and feeds very comfortably," Asghar said, adding: "we prefer to actually do it with a single investment in general just because it makes a lot more financial sense."

By the time you read this, more details on the chipset can be found here. ®

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