Qualcomm pushes latest Arm-powered Snapdragon chip amid bitter license fight

Wi-Fi 7, TSMC 4nm, faster GPU, INT4 and AI everywhere – and a rocky relationship with its CPU designer

Qualcomm today finds itself in the peculiar position of announcing its latest flagship mobile processor that relies heavily on technology from an outfit suing the pants off it.

The Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 system-on-chip features eight off-the-shelf cores from Arm, which is locked in a bitter legal fight with Qualcomm over licenses and contracts.

Qualcomm routinely designs chips that feature Arm-based technology, and is set to continue to do so, so its use of the Arm architecture in the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 SoC is expected. Qualcomm's chipsets, including its Snapdragon series, are used in a wide range of Android phones and tablets, Windows on Arm laptops, and other devices.

What is extraordinary here is that Qualcomm, at its Snapdragon Summit in Hawaii, is telling the world it's still a force to be reckoned with in the mobile world, while its relationship with one of its key technology providers – namely Softbank's Arm – hits the rocks. Arm provides the application CPU cores that run people's apps, drivers, and operating systems. Qualcomm is also no stranger to litigation, particularly over patents.

As we've previously reported, Qualcomm bought a startup called Nuvia last year for $1.4 billion. Nuvia was designing its own custom server-grade chips using technology and CPU architecture licensed from Arm. When Qualcomm – already an Arm licensee for its Snapdragon series – absorbed Nuvia's Arm-derived designs, seemingly with the intention of using these blueprints for future datacenter or personal computing products, Arm sued Qualcomm.

Arm claimed that, due to the licensing agreement with Nuvia, Qualcomm had to ask for Arm's permission to transfer the acquired technology. Qualcomm shot back with various wild claims, primarily that no such permission was needed and that Arm was doing this so it could force Qualcomm to pay a lot more in royalties and other fees to use Nuvia's designs.

Due to the amount of time it takes to develop a system-on-chip, it's unlikely Nuvia's designs, obtained by Qualcomm in 2021, would have made it into the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2. Still, Arm earlier demanded Qualcomm destroy its copies of Nuvia's blueprints, Qualcomm said it had, though Arm believes the designs will appear in products at some point, hence its lawsuit.

So, what is under the hood in the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2?

As the name suggests, it's a follow-on from the Gen 1 that was announced this time last year. That first generation used a cluster of eight CPU cores, with a single Arm Cortex-X2 high-performance core running at up to 3GHz, three Cortex-A710 "performance" cores with a top frequency of 2.5GHz, and then four Cortex-A510 power-efficient cores at 1.8GHz for background applications and mundane activity. It was fabbed on a 4nm Samsung process node.

Then there was the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1, announced in May of this year, with a slightly faster 3.2GHz Cortex-X2, three 2.8GHz A710s, and four 2GHz A510s. It also had a slightly faster GPU and used TSMC's 4nm node, rather than Samsung's, to achieve higher speeds and power efficiencies.

The Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 is more of the same and demonstrates how wedded Qualcomm is to Arm: the system-on-chip uses a single Arm Cortex-X3 at 3.2GHz for high-performance needs, two mid-performance Arm Cortex-A715 cores at 2.8GHz, two other performance A710 cores at 2.8GHz, and three efficiency cores, refreshed Cortex-A510s, at 2GHz. That's eight cores in total using a 4nm TSMC process node, with 8MB of L3 cache.

The 64-bit-only Armv9 Cortex-X3 was made public by Arm in June along with the 64-bit-only A715, which is a step up from an A710. The refreshed A510 has the option of handling 32-bit code, just as the A710 does 32-bit, too, which is handy for devices that need to retain that support. So the Gen 2 mainly brings, in terms of compute, one extra performance core, and one fewer efficiency core, and a boosted Cortex-X series.

What this all means for people is what appears to be a faster top-end processor for premium Android phones, tablets and other mobile devices, which are due to arrive from the end of 2022 and into 2023. Brands expected to use the chip include Asus, Sony, Honor, Xiaomi, ZTE, Oppo, OnePlus, and Sharp.

According to Qualcomm, the CPU core cluster "improves performance up to 35 percent, while new micro-architecture allows up to 40 percent more power efficiency," versus the 8 Gen 1. This will be pretty much from Arm's step-increases to its Cortex cores and the use of TSMC's node.

The Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 comes with more than just Arm CPU cores as Qualcomm has to add its own technology to differentiate its chipsets from its rivals also using Arm intellectual property and architectures. This is why the compute core cluster is little more than a bullet point on the 8 Gen 2 system-on-chip's spec sheet, so that Qualcomm can focus on the stuff it's added itself.

This includes an AI acceleration engine that is, we're told, up to 4.35 times faster than the previous generation, and with a potential 60 percent increase in performance-per-watt, depending on how it's used. This unit can be used to speed up machine-learning tasks on the device without any outside help, such as object recognition, and real-time spoken language translation and transcription. The dual-processor engine can handle as low as INT4 precision for AI models that don't need a lot of precision but do need it done fast on battery power, which the 4-bit integer format can afford developers, according to Qualcomm.

Qualcomm is pushing the INT4 capabilities as a precision ideal for modern mobile apps. It said a cross-platform Qualcomm AI Studio is due to be made available in preview form in the first half of next year that will optimize developers' models for this precision as well as other formats. This studio looks like a typical IDE in which programmers can organize their training workflows.

Blemish-free snaps

This AI acceleration extends into the image capturing parts of the system-on-chip, allowing the processor and its software stack to identify hair, clothes, backgrounds, and such things in footage from a device's camera and optimize the appearance of those sections of the image. For example, grass can be made to look sharper, skin softened, glare removed from someone's eyeglasses, and colors adjusted to stand out. These adjustments can be done in real time for video and photos, we're told.

The SoC supports up to 200MP image capture and 8K HDR video capture in 10-bit HDR, according to the specifications. Qualcomm said it worked with Samsung and Sony to develop large sensors that the 8 Gen 2 can handle. There are direct paths in the chip that link the Hexagon AI engines to, say, the image-processing units so that pictures and video can be manipulated more efficiently.

The processor, according to Qualcomm, can also be made to reduce the amount of data read and written during neural network inference – which saves power – by breaking input data into not just tiles as other chipsets do, but micro tiles that apparently do a better job of cutting down information transfer.

Connectivity

The chip includes a Snapdragon X70 5G modem and RF electronics, a step up from the X65 5G in the Gen 1 and 8+ Gen 1. The modem supports a 5G Dual-SIM Dual-Active (DSDA) mode for the simultaneous use of 5G+5G or 5G+4G SIM cards, according to the specs, and has mmWave and sub-6 GHz covered. There's also artificial intelligence, Qualcomm claims, infused in the modem to improve its wireless bandwidth and latency and other performance points by analyzing and reacting to signal integrity and signal-to-noise readings.

There's also Wi-Fi 7 connectivity that can shift data over the air at up to 5.8 Gbps, depending on your setup. Wi-Fi 7 is not expected to be used in a meaningful way by folks until next year into 2024, mind you, as routers and other hardware just isn't generally out there yet.

Qualcomm also says its chip can provide low-latency Bluetooth audio streaming (less than 48ms latency) for those who notice the lag between what's on screen and what's in your ears. The facial-recognition system for unlocking devices has been enhanced, we're told, and can spot the difference between a live user and (say) someone holding up a rubber mask or picture of them to gain access. The processor includes Qualcomm's usual security coprocessor for secure boot, trusted execution zones, and whatnot.

Are you game?

On the graphics side, the Adreno GPU is supposed to be "up to 25 percent faster performance, with up to 45 percent better power efficiency" over the previous generation. It also supports Vulkan 1.3 APIs. The support for hardware-accelerated real-time ray tracing makes the chip ideal for playing games on one's mobile device, in Qualcomm's mind: the California giant really hopes its processors will eventually power what are effectively handheld consoles that happen to be phones that run AAA titles. The chip designer was quite keen to talk up how well its silicon works with games built using the Unreal 5 engine.

The whole chip can handle up to 16GB of LP-DDR5x RAM clocked up to 4200 MHz. Qualcomm didn't want to share its TDP or battery life predictions. There are plenty of other bits and pieces, such as improved sound capabilities that produce 3D spatial audio for listeners with suitable headphones, that will be announced here today.

As we've said, the Gen 2 is a continuation of Gen 1, and may illustrate why Qualcomm was keen to get its hands on Nuvia's blueprints for its own chips to further differentiate its processors from other Arm licensees. In the past, Qualcomm has designed its own custom and semi-custom Arm cores, and is lately using Arm's off-the-shelf parts. Qualcomm may be happy with Arm's latest cores, a situation Arm may wish to exploit financially, or it may not, hence its purchase of Nuvia, to the ire of Arm. ®

Full disclosure: Qualcomm paid for this correspondant's flights and accommodation to cover the Snapdragon Summit in Maui, Hawaii, today, though as should be abundantly clear from our past, current, and future coverage, this will have no effect on our independent reporting.

For instance, we couldn't help but note that during the Tuesday summit keynote, for the section on audio, the speaker came on stage silent with a muted mic, ironically enough.

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