Qualcomm unveils Snapdragon 8s Gen 3 with Eye-of-Sauron camera

Wherever you go, whatever you do, your phone is watching

Qualcomm has unveiled the Snapdragon 8s Gen 3, pitched as a more affordable version of its flagship smartphone platform that keeps key features such as the support for on-device generative AI processing, and an always-sensing camera.

The San Diego-based chips and telecoms outfit explained that its latest mobile offering filters down "specially selected premium capabilities" from its top-of-the-line Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 platform, introduced late last year.

These include those on-device generative AI capabilities, plus enhanced photography and gaming features. Devices based on it are expected as soon as this month, Qualcomm revealed, from phone makers such as Honor, Redmi and Xiaomi.

"One of the most exciting capabilities that we bring to Snapdragon 8s Gen 3 is on-device generative AI," Qualcomm senior director for product management Ken Mok declared in a press briefing ahead of the announcement.

The platform is capable of multimodal support – which means users can have it create original content from spoken, written or image prompts in seconds, Mok claimed. It is also said to be capable of handling Gen AI models of up to 10 billion parameters, allowing for features such as AI-powered virtual assistants.

Qualcomm showed off a seven billion parameter large language model (LLM) running on an Android phone at Mobile World Congress last month, and introduced an AI Hub – a central location for developers to access resources for AI applications to run on Snapdragon hardware.

Another AI-enabled feature trotted out by Mok is Photo Expansion, which enables the phone to enlarge a photograph by extending the detail beyond the edge of the original shot.

Camera functions in this platform are supported by triple 18-bit image signal processors, enabling capabilities such as triple video capture from HDR image sensors at up to 36 megapixels, and up to 200 megapixel photo capture.

One alarming feature (to our mind) is support for an ultra-low power "always-sensing" camera, which Mok explained is there to enable ultra-fast unlock by facial recognition.

There are plenty of people out there who are perfectly happy for Alexa to be continually listening to every sound they make, so perhaps they won't be fazed by having a phone that's always watching them as well.

A Qualcomm rep told the following to reassure us about the camera:

The always-sensing camera utilizes a low-power ISP and a machine learning algorithm. To detect if there’s a face or not. If the ML algorithm detects a face, then the rest of the phone’s systems wake up and the device’s existing face ID systems either authenticates the user or denies access.

Each of these hardware and software stages are hardened, meaning that it’s impossible to inject code into the chain, and the rest of the phone’s systems (main SoC, Wi-Fi, BT, cellular radios, etc.) are all turned off during this process.

This low-power ISP cannot capture photos or video and no image or video is ever stored. In a low-power state, it is impossible to get an image through that process. Additionally, the always-sensing camera does not identify the faces it detects, since that process is handled by the phone’s existing face ID systems. OEMs can request to disable this feature at the hardware level.

Additionally, OEMs are working on ways to inform the user that the always-sensing camera is running, like for example using an indicator LED light. 

The Kryo CPU block powering the Snapdragon 8s Gen 3 features one "Prime" core, an Arm Cortex-X4 core clocked at 3GHz, plus four Performance Cortex-A720 cores at up to 2.8GHz and three Cortex-A520 Efficiency cores at up to 2GHz. These are lower speeds than in the "premium" Snapdragon 8 Gen 3. The whole system-on-chip (SoC) is being fabricated using a TSMC 4nm process node, Qualcomm revealed.

It also has Qualcomm's Hexagon neural processing unit (NPU) to help accelerate those AI functions.

In graphics, the Adreno GPU is capable of driving a 4K on-device display and up to 8K external display, as with Snapdragon 8 Gen 3.

However, there are some areas where it doesn't match the premium platform. While both support real-time hardware-accelerated ray tracing for realistic lighting, reflection and shadows in games, it doesn't extend to global illumination in this platform.

For audio, the Snapdragon 8s Gen 3 has what Qualcomm calls Aqstic Speaker Max Technology, said to reduce distortion when music is played at high volume directly from the device speaker.

In connectivity, this product features the Snapdragon X70 5G Modem-RF subsystem, rather than the Snapdragon X75 subsystem seen in the Snapdragon 8 Gen 3. The main difference between the two is that Snapdragon X75 is compatible with 3GPP Release 18, which brings in 5G Advanced capabilities.

In practice, this means that handsets based on this platform are limited to a maximum downlink speed of 5Gbit/sec on 5G networks, rather than the 10Gbit/sec of the premium platform.

For Wi-Fi, however, Snapdragon 8s Gen 3 has the same FastConnect 7800 subsystem as the premium product. This offers Wi-Fi 7, ability to use the 6GHz, 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands, and a peak speed of 5.8Gbit/sec.

Qualcomm divides its smartphone portfolio up into four tiers. At the top is the "premium" Snapdragon 8 series, with the "high tier" Snapdragon 7, mid-range Snapdragon 6 and Snapdragon 4 for budget devices.

This clear picture gets muddied by the intermediate versions. Snapdragon 8s is a step down from Snapdragon 8 ("optimized down" as Qualcomm would have it), while there are also "+" versions. Snapdragon 7+ has extra capabilities over Snapdragon 7, for example.

Qualcomm execs were rather nonplussed when a media hack asked if there would be a Snapdragon 8+, as this would mean having a tier above their flagship premium tier. We got the impression this was rather like asking for an amplifier that goes up to 11 – but Qualcomm didn't rule out adding it in future. ®

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