The Honor 7X was released in the USA on December 5 2017 and was initially geared towards the lower-midrange market ($150-$250). At publishing time, we estimated that the Honor 7X would cost around $200 USD but since the phone is not in the retail channels yet, we cannot be certain. Here’s our review of the Honor 7X. Phone makers typically let their retail partners announce street prices. Although this product […]
Like clockwork, Qualcomm has announced its Snapdragon 845 system on chip (SoC) and high-end Snapdragon platform which will power numerous high-end smartphones and possibly always-connected laptops throughout 2018.
As always, a major architecture change brings new performance, efficiency, and features. After a very comprehensive briefing at the Snapdragon Summit 2017, here is our overview of Snapdragon 845, split into different areas of interest: Camera, Performance, Battery life, Connectivity, Immersion, AI, and Security.
Let’s start with the best understood, most desirable feature for many users: the camera. With Snapdragon 845, camera performance will reach new levels, both in terms of raw capabilities, but also in image quality.
First, the camera will be capable of capturing 4K Ultra HD Premium HDR video. This is a mouthful, but it is similar to the feature-set used in Hollywood movies (1 Billion colors + HDR). Obviously, this is not exactly Cinema-quality, but in general, this is a huge improvement in video recording (16.7M colors, no HDR). Today’s best devices can “play” this kind of content, but Snapdragon 845 phones will be able to create that content.
“A HUGE IMPROVEMENT IN VIDEO RECORDING”
If you are unaware, Ultra HD Premium is not a technical standard, but rather a marketing umbrella that federates different TV makers around a certain quality level for 4K, HDR and color rendering. You will hear a lot about “Color Volume”. That is a 3D representation of the colors that devices can record (camera) and reproduce (display). The color volume can be visualized by using color gamut (reproducible colors) and luminance data (how bright tings are). The image below shows the larger color volume of Snapdragon 845 (Rec. 2020) vs, Snapdragon 835 (Rec. 709). This is leading-edge stuff.
Secondly, the camera ISP (Image Signal Processor) and overall subsystem are so fast that it is now possible to capture 720p video at 480 FPS. This will allow video creators to capture amazing slow-motion videos without having buffering limitations often encountered with this kind of extreme situations. For example, Sony has an extreme 960 FPS slow-motion recording, but only for a very short time. And yes, you can capture 1080p at 240FPS and 4K UHD HDR at 60FPS.
Still photos also benefit from the same resources allocated to image processing. Snapdragon 845 can process 16 Megapixel photos at a rate of 60 FPS (talk about bursting!). You might think of this as a video, but photos are treated differently because they are meant to be seen and saved as individual frames, while videos are an animated stream.
Snapdragon’s performance is due to various high-performance computing units, some with a distinct purpose such as the ISP (Image Signal Processor) or the GPU (graphics unit) and others with a slightly more general role such as the DSP (Digital Signal Processor) and of course the CPU cluster.
Snapdragon 845 is manufactured using Samsung’s second-generation 10nm process, which is an optimization of last year’s introductory 10nm semiconductor node. There are very small improvements in performance and efficiency derived from this.
Kryo 385 CPU
The CPU cluster is divided into two groups of four cores: four high-performance cores (ARM A75 derivatives, 2.8GHz max) to process workloads as fast as possible. There are also four other low-power cores (ARM A55 derivatives, 1.8 GHz max) to handle less intensive tasks with the best possible power-efficiency. You can read our article about ARM’s big-LITTLE architecture to understand more about heterogeneous CPU core clusters.
“DOUBLE-DIGITS CPU PERFORMANCE INCREASE: WORTHY OF ATTENTION”
Qualcomm did some custom work on the CPU cores and therefore named it Kryo 385. Qualcomm often tunes a specific core design or can build CPU cores from the ground up if necessary. This time, Qualcomm has done some custom work on the A75 and A55 designs from ARM but did not rebuild the cores from the ground up.
For Snapdragon 845, the engineers have added a 2MB L3 cache along with a 3MB “System Cache.” The main difference is that the L3 cache is only accessible to the CPU cluster, while the System Cache is accessible to other computing units as well (GPU, DSP, etc…). In both cases, the caches can drastically reduce the latency of getting information (from RAM) along with memory bus traffic.
With all of this, Qualcomm is expecting a ~25% CPU performance boost from last year’s Snapdragon 835 chip (see image above for details). I have to say, double-digits CPU performance increase: that is worthy of attention.
Adreno 630 GPU (Graphics Processing Unit)
As its name implies, this is the unit responsible for 3D gaming and VR performance. A GPU can also be used for artificial intelligence and other non-graphics workloads, but it’s fair to say that 3D graphics is the main purpose here.
At the moment, Qualcomm has not revealed the inner-workings of the GPU, so we don’t know exactly how many GPU cores there are, texture units, etc.… however a 30% graphics performance improvement should come out of this new design.
Additionally, Qualcomm also claims a 30% power-efficiency increase, which means that Snapdragon 845 can perform the same rendering while using 30% less energy as its predecessor. That is a rather large increase in both efficiency and speed.
Snapdragon 845 can support 2K per eyes in VR applications to improve one of VR’s pain point: the blockiness of the in-headset graphics. Incidentally, Qualcomm has also developed a Foveated rendering framework to help developers boost performance. I’m not 100% clear on what engines are supported, but the principle is sound can significantly accelerate pixel-level rendering. I previously explained how Foveated rendering works on Desktop PC, and this is the same principle, but in one sentence, Foveated rendering consists in reducing the detail away from your gaze point.
“THESE ARE CUTTING EDGE RENDERING TECHNIQUES”
To accelerate rendering, Qualcomm has added “multiview rendering,” a very effective technique that can reduce geometric (per-vertex) operations by nearly 50% in VR apps. The principle is simple: to achieve stereo rendering, the same scene is being rendered TWICE from slightly different points of views (LEFT+RIGHT eyes). Multiview rendering allows some computation to be shared between the LEFT/RIGHT frames because they are extremely similar (although not identical). There are other applications of similar multi-projection techniques, and they have proven to be highly efficient.
The graphics and extended reality framework of Snapdragon 845 allow it to support 6 Degrees of Freedom (DoF) and SLAM (Simultaneous Location And Mapping). SLAM is used to sense where you are in the room and track your motion in space by looking at your position relative to the environment. This is the foundational technology for 6 Degrees of Freedom without wires. Although some of this was available before, it is now fully baked into the Snapdragon platform and will be available to more OEMs.
The compound optimizations offer a very high potential for boosting VR (and AR) performance. These are cutting edge rendering techniques previously available only on desktop computers, or in a small number of engines. Qualcomm could democratize this further by supporting them in the Snapdragon Platform.
Hexagon 685 DSP
The DSP (Digital Signal Processor) is a specialized computing unit that can perform vector math on large quantities of data with extreme power-efficiency. It can be used for a vast array of things such as, but not limited to 2D image processing/effects, depth sensing for face-recognition, artificial intelligence inference and more.
People often think of the GPU when it comes to massive math workloads, and it is not a bad reflex. However, the DSP and the GPU are complementary tools that serve different situations. It is impossible to generalize completely, but DSPs are often more appropriate to use when you need to quickly process relatively small quantities of data. GPUs can be great at churning super-massive quantities of data, but they also require more setup and have more overhead. In reality, it’s not DSP vs. GPU — both can be extremely useful depending on the app.
Hexagon 685 is 3X faster than last year’s Hexagon 682. Without a doubt, Qualcomm must have increased the number of math units but hasn’t yet revealed the implementation details. This kind of performance increase matches the arrival of Google’s Neural API for Android 8.1+.
With battery life being the #1 concern for users, Power optimizations are always at the top of the list for mobile chip engineers. There are several ways to increase the power efficiency, and without a major manufacturing node change, it had to come from the architectural and software efforts.
The software can be optimized to offload work (when possible) to the most efficient sub-systems we discussed previously.
The addition of multiple cache layers reduces RAM access by as much as 75%, thus helping save power as well. The hardware has multiple clock domains and voltage domains, which means that the chip has several power islands that can use the most optimum amount of power at any given time. This leads to continuous savings if the tuning is done properly.
Snapdragon 835 was 50% more power-efficient as Snapdragon 821. A large chunk of this was due to the manufacturing node change. This time, the delta is not as large, but Eliane Fiolet checked power draw tests comparing Snapdragon 845, 835 and 660 and for the exact same task (4K video playback, 30FPS) Snapdragon 835 uses ~8% more power while Snapdragon 660 draws ~15% more power as Snapdragon 845. Not bad at all!
Earbuds battery savings
This time, Bluetooth (BT) will have the ability to broadcast to multiple devices at once under the Qualcomm TrueWireless name. You may not know, but BT wireless earbuds are currently set up to have one of them as the “master” that will orchestrate the communication with the phone, and with the other earbud. The master essentially does 2X more work as the other earbud, causing an imbalance in power consumption between the pair. That situation can be fixed by having the phone talk to both at the same time.
Last year’s world-class X16 LTE modem is replaced by a more advanced X20 model that can reach 1200 Mbps in theoretical peak speed (vs. 1000 before). That is of course if your wireless carrier supports it locally.
Even without an advanced network, Qualcomm uses MIMO (multiple inputs multiple output) techniques with up to four antennas that lead to large performance increases due to sheer parallelism on existing networks.
Qualcomm has added support for 60 GHz WiFi AD (802.11ad) which is a 4.6 Gbps short range WiFi connection ideal for large data transfer from within your network. Today many people still use wired Ethernet which is considered to be faster and more reliable. However, this technology could, in theory, replace wires within a 30-feet range. Keep in mind that the range is typically a distance without any physical obstacles that could disturb the signal.
Extended Reality tasks such as Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are two of the most challenging tasks that the GPU can handle. In both cases, there are other units at play. Typically, the GPU would render the 3D scene or 3D overlay.
At the same time, the Hexagon 685 DSP could treat signals coming from the real world such as the room’s environment while the Spectra 280 ISP processes incoming data from the cameras, maybe to spot AR beacons. Qualcomm’s real technique for peak performance and power efficiency is to offload work to the best-suited, most power-efficient, unit – sometimes at the same time. If you think of it, game console programming is sometimes exactly like that. It’s about maximizing your hardware utilization.
Artificial Intelligence (A.I)
As of late, several silicon vendors have announced their flavor of “Neural Processors” with various marketing claims. However, the same OEMs have been dodgy when asked for details about the specs and capabilities of said neural computing units. To Qualcomm’s point, “neural processors” for mobile are almost always “DSP” units being re-marketed.
“A WIDE ARRAY OF AI TOOLS”
As we have seen earlier, the Qualcomm Hexagon 685 DSP is the 3rd generation that has been used in an AI context. The 300% performance increase from last year’s model shows that Qualcomm’s customers are taking AI very seriously and demanding more horsepower for that kind of workload.
However, Qualcomm’s AI effort doesn’t rely on a single unit. The DSP is surely the central nexus, but the embedded Adreno GPU supports FP16 numbers, and the CPU has been optimized to support 8-bit operations that are commonly used in AI. With these changes, developers have a wide array of AI tools at their disposal to optimize different types of workload.
Maybe the most obscure but important aspect of Snapdragon chips is security. First, it is important to know that security is not equal for all chips and that standards can be pretty loose (if there are any outside of payment). Not so long ago, some phones stored the fingerprint sensor data in the public area of the phone’s storage!
Previous generations of Qualcomm Snapdragon chips as a trusted execution zone which was secure. However, with the recent apparition of hacks for that kind of trusted environment, Snapdragon 845 has a new “Secure Processing Unit” which is more isolated from the rest of the SoC’s sub-system.
It is an island that has its memory, CPU and power gates. It can also generate random numbers internally (this is the base of all encryption) and its cryptographic engine. Services that need a very high level of security will go through this unit. Things like biometric data, for example, should transit through this unit to be processed so that only some kind of digital key (or Hash) is accessible by apps and services. A 3rd party should never see the biometric data.
Biometric data is not like a password. You cannot change your biometric data, and once stolen, you can never take it back, so it’s best to protect it as much as possible.
HP was one of the OEM partners that has presented a new Snapdragon-powered laptop at the Qualcomm Snapdragon Summit in Maui, Hawaii. The HP Envy x2 is an extremely thin 12.3-inch laptop built with a detachable tablet chassis. It is essentially a thin …
After announcing its plans to enter the PC Windows 10 market at Computex in July, Qualcomm and its partners from ASUS and HP have announced upcoming “always-on” laptops powered by Snapdragon 835, the same chip used in most high-end Android smartphones. This marks an inflexion point in the PC space as two of the most frequent consumer demands might finally be addressed: always-on connectivity and more than a full day of battery life.
The benefits of using a Qualcomm chip are the consequence of decades of innovation in smartphones and the relentless drive to drive higher performance per watt. The obsessive power-savings habits of the cellphone industry has made it possible for handsets to be connected and use as little power as possible. Today, many PCs aren’t even updating emails over WIFI when they are closed. Phones do, and Qualcomm’s Always-Connected PC should too.
At its Snapdragon Summit in Maui, Hawaii, Qualcomm has invited two sizable partners: ASUS and HP. Both companies presented upcoming laptops which are based on Snapdragon 835, and promise to deliver similar benefits, namely 20hrs of video playback, many days (up tp 30) of standby power and a real Instant On that makes the computer usable as soon as it is turned on.
Today’s most power-conscious Intel-powered laptops might play video for 10-13 hours and that is one of the best-case scenarios when it comes to battery testing. We haven’t picked up those PCs for a real spin yet, but the technicals make it seem possible to achieve such a goal. The Snapdragon platform consumes less power than the Intel one. It is possible to further optimize communications and standby time.
The wild card here is also the level of performance that one is getting on these chips. However, there is a market that can be efficiently addressed: the basic productivity ultralight PCs. People who edit documents, lightly browse the web, stream movies, update social media and work on PowerPoint documents – that kind of things. These use cases can successfully be served within the compute power envelope of Snapdragon 835.
HP has announced the Envy x2 Always Connected, a 6.9mm thin 2-in-1 detachable that HP says match the 20 hrs battery life and connectivity goals. It is built with machined aluminum and should be available in Spring 2018, according to HP. No pricing has been announced.
ASUS has more details about its NovaGo always-on laptop: It is also a 2-1 laptop (360-degree screen rotation). In addition of the Gigabit-class LTE from the Snapdragon 835, the laptop also features WiFi 4×4 MIMO for higher peak speeds. We spotted one full-size HDMI port on the side, but we’ll have to take a closer look to see how many USB ports there are.
The ASUS NovaGo uses a physical nano-SIM card or an eSIM card, to accommodate use cased where you have one account with multiple devices. ASUS say that it can play 22 hrs of video, and 30 days of standby. It is compatible with Windows Ink, Windows Hello and Cortana. Configurations and prices are: $599 USD 4GB / 64GB or $799 for 8GB / 256GB. It will be launched in the USA, Europe, China and Taiwan.
The Lenovo Yoga 920 succeeds the Yoga 910, a rather impressive laptop that we rated at 9/10 when we reviewed it in April of this year. This new laptop comes with Intel’s latest 8th Generation processor of course, as Lenovo made the series evolve to the latest technologies, but the company also solved nearly all the friction points we pointed out in the 910. Let’s take a closer look at […]
The Samsung Connect Home (model AC1300) is a WIFI mesh network system that has several features which are highly desired by users. First, it provides a wireless connection to the whole home and helps to eliminate “coverage holes.” Secondly, it has been designed to be simply to install and configure. Finally, it is also a smart home hub so you won’t have to set up more “boxes” to control simple […]
With a strong showing in the form of the HTC U11, HTC now wants to trickle down the same kind of technology and design into the ~$350 price range, where there is typically more sales Android phones volume. With a strong showing in the form of the HTC U11, HTC now wants to trickle down the same kind of technology and design into the ~$350 price range, where there is typically […]
In San Jose, California, T-Mobile and Qualcomm jointly announced that T-Mobile users across hundreds of markets would see their maximum broadband speed climb, thanks to the roll out of a combination of technologies from both companies. The high-speed broadband experience described as “Gigabit-class LTE” because it nearly reaches the 1 Gbps barrier in one of many steps on the way to 5G, the fifth generation wireless broadband.
LTE Advanced is a broad definition of high-speed LTE, while Gigabit-Class LTE typically means 0.8 Gbps and above. As it stands, T-Mobile USA says that about half of the market it serves is Gigabit-class capable. Australia was the first country to deploy a Gigabit-class commercial LTE network, and we were there to experience it firsthand. It is unbelievable to see such speed on wireless broadband, but this is what the future looked like, and it is rapidly becoming available
To make LTE Advanced happen, the T-Mobile network had to be upgraded using technologies such as 4X4 MIMO which increase the number of radio transactions occurring in parallel. You can think of it as concurrent downloads. There’s also QAM-256 which increased the quantity of information that can be transported within a single radio wave.
The combined technological advances lead to a drastic increase in data transmission rates. This is not only good for download speeds, but it also decongests the LTE network, which makes the experience better for everyone on it.
Handsets have to support this of course, and that’s where Qualcomm plays a visible part (the company also has a hand in the infrastructure side). With platforms such as the Snapdragon 835, which integrated the Qualcomm X16 gigabit-class modem, high-end handsets can operate with networks such as T-Mobile’s and reach the full potential of the network.
In San Jose, live speeds around 670 Mbps (download) and 58 Mbps (upload) where demonstrated on stage, and it is fair to say that it puts to shame most home Internet connections in America.
Because the network changes happened slightly out of sync of the latest phone releases, not all Snapdragon 835 handsets support the new speeds. Sometimes, small antenna changes are required, and that is not something you can fix with a firmware upgrade. Today these phones can work on T-Mobile’s new network to various degrees:
I think that the LG V30 is the one handset that can exploit *all* the new features, although the others benefit from higher speeds too. You can expect nearly all T-Mobile high-end phones in 2018 to support the new network. The iPhone X has partial support, but does not handle the 600 MHz frequency.
Even before Essential shipped its first product, the hype was mile-high. As a company founded by Android creator Andy Rubin, it was normal that the expectations were through the roof. The Essential made its debuts in September, shortly after the Galax…
We met with Leilani DeLeon from Qualcomm’s VR team to discuss an interesting topic: how the Snapdragon Virtual Reality (VR) platform could improve healthcare. Better Healthcare is a topic that could affect any of us, and with literally “life and death” in the balance, VR could be much more impactful (although less entertaining) than VR gaming.
The improvement would, of course, come from VR Training. After “knowledge,” the most important thing in the medical world is “experience.” VR may not provide the level of experience that real situations do but it is the best next thing and present no potential danger when the trainee makes a mistake. Failure is an integral part of learning, and VR is an entirely safe and realistic-enough way to train.
On multiple occasions, we spent time with the Snapdragon 820 VR headset, but this latest experience is powered by Snapdragon 835, the same platform found inside the best Android phones today. Snapdragon VR is compelling and provides a complete freedom of motion since it is not tethered at all. It has sensors to follow the headset’s position and orientation in the room. The user can freely walk around without having to deal with the large video and power cable seen on PC.
It is a very different experience from something like the HTC Vive headset, which requires a PC to render the image. Qualcomm’s headset has all the VR system in one device.
Mobile platforms such as Snapdragon VR are powerful enough to render graphics that provide a meaningful context. It’s true that PC graphics would be more realistic. However, a mobile setup is infinitely easier to move around from place to place by the instructors. In the end, it’s about getting the job done well, but conveniently. For that, mobile VR has the most potential.
As 5G Networks make their way into people’s lives, it becomes increasingly frictionless to access better experiences using huge data sets. It is also possible to stream the action to different locations, possibly to train even more people in “spectator mode.” It is also possible to replay VR experiences (real or not) to look at it from a different viewpoint.
To demonstrate the concept, Qualcomm has worked with ForwardXP and Leap Motion to build a “brain stroke” training program called “Think F.A.S.T. It starts with treating a patient who is not feeling well.
The VR app trains to spot multiple stroke symptoms such as face drooping, arm weakness, and speech difficulty. I went through the diagnostic process but ultimately failed – not because the tutorial was weak, but because I rushed to judgement. My virtual patient didn’t make it (sorry!), but I’ve learned something valuable.
The app could be an excellent training tool, and I can imagine how this might look 4 to 5 years from now. When I started programming computer graphics, arcade games were running on flat-shaded polygons, and after seeing how far we’ve come since, it is not difficult to imagine where mobile VR is headed.
There is another aspect to VR health training which is less glamorous: (medical) devices training. Just like flight simulators, VR training puts the students in the real context and makes everything much more realist and easier to remember in my opinion. It is not unlike flight simulators: when it comes to piloting a 747, how much do you think you can learn from a book, versus a flight-sim?
VR has been used for some time to help people deal with the fear of heights, phobia of certain insects and other visually/emotionally stressful situations. None of these programs are widely implemented and available at your local medical facility. Qualcomm’s mobile healthcare VR push could help change this.
Healthcare is one of the fastest-growing markets, and VR can make a significant impact on the outcomes, through better training. I love VR Gaming, and I think that gaming will continue to lead the technology edge, but I am a firm believer that VR can make an enormous impact on education and other forms of training, which in turns will contribute to society in more meaningful ways than “entertainment.”