QUALCOMM HAS HAD a pretty tough year. Not only has the chip giant seen poor financial results, it has been forced to make job cuts, faced a slowdown in demand, seen a loss of interest from investors and struggled with the loss of a key customer.
However, nothing could quite prepare the company for the damage to sales when its latest flagship processor, the Snapdragon 810, was revealed to overheat many of the Android phones of which it powered.
Sparking outrage and distrust amongst Android users, the overheating issues were never really resolved, and Qualcomm to this day still denies that the problem even existed, leaving owners of some smartphones, such as the Sony Xperia Z3+ and the HTC One M9, with abysmal battery life, poor performance and a long and desperate wait until their next smartphone upgrade.
Nevertheless, Qualcomm is hoping all will be forgotten with the launch of its brand spanking new Snapdragon 820 processor, the successor to the too hot to handle 810 that promises some welcome improvements - one of which many are hoping is a decrease in temperature.
So what is it exactly that makes the Snapdragon 820 better than the previous flagship Qualcomm chip?
Debunking rumours earlier this year that it would feature a Hydra CPU, the Snapdragon 820 chip is built of four Kryo CPUs, making it Qualcomm's first custom 64-bit quad-core processor. This marks a departure from the ARM reference cores Qualcomm has used exclusively on its 2015 line-up.
While not octo-core like the Snapdragon 810 before it, the Snapdragon 820 is manufactured in an advanced 14nm FinFET Low Power Plus (LLP) fabrication process, which consists of 3D transistors, thus allowing for faster switching speeds and lower voltage operation in a smaller footprint when compared with Planar transistors. As a result, the Snapdragon 820 is said to deliver double the performance with lower power consumption, even with the lower core count.
The Kryo CPU also takes advantage Qualcomm's Symphony System Manager as a resource management tool for Snapdragon that extends control of task scheduling and power management across the entire processor. This makes multitasking between apps smoother and easier to control on the Android devices that make use of it.
Joining the Kyro CPU is an updated Qualcomm graphics engine, the Adreno 530, which promises up to 40 percent better graphics when compared to the previous-generation Adreno 430 as well as reducing power consumption by up to 40 percent.
This, Qualcomm said, will enable console quality gaming on mobile devices, as well as next-generation virtual reality applications.
Qualcomm is promising that its next flagship chip will bring better imaging than ever seen on any of its processors before due to its Spectra camera ISP, which is exclusive to the Snapdragon 820.
Designed to improve smartphone image quality, the Spectra 14-bit dual image signal processors claim to deliver high-resolution DSLR-quality images using heterogeneous computing for advanced processing and additional power savings.
The 14-bit sensors offer a wider range of colours and more natural skin tones. Qualcomm said that with the Spectra 14-bit, users can also expect better photos through the hybrid autofocus framework and multi-sensor fusion algorithms that support next generation computational photography.
This is because the Spectra 14-bit processors rely on a brand new Hexagon 680 digital signal processor (DSP), an imaging hardware feature designed to help boost the chip's DSP horsepower. The Hexagon 680 includes Hexagon Vector eXtensions (HVX) and Sensor Core with Low Power Island for always-on sensor processing and lower power consumption.
The Hexagon 680 DSP's HVX performance adds features like Low Light Photo and Video, which improve camera picture quality in low-lit conditions, and Touch-to-Track, a feature where the ISP and DSP work intelligently together to enhance imaging as well as track movements and improve zoom when taking photographs.
Another thing that Qualcomm is looking to advance with the Snapdragon 820 is connectivity. Integrating a whole new X12 LTE modem, the chip brings much better and faster connectivity with LTE download speeds of up to 600 Mbps as well as multi-gigabit 802.11ad Wi-Fi.
Qualcomm said this will provide 4G LTE and WiFi technologies for premium tier mobile devices, alongside addressing "unprecedented demand for blazing fast connectivity and seamless services".
The Snapdragon 820's upgraded X12 LTE modem brings: Cat 12 (up to 600Mbps) in the downlink; Cat 13 (up to 150Mbps) in the uplink; up to 4x4 Multi-Input Multi-Output (MIMO) on one downlink LTE carrier; multi-gigabit 802.11ad; LTE-U and LTE+WiFi Link Aggregation; and next-gen HD Voice and Video calling over LTE and WiFi.
Qualcomm said that this makes the 820 the first publicly-announced processor for use in mobile devices to support LTE Category 12 in the downlink and Category 13 in the uplink, providing up to 33 percent and 200 percent improvement over its predecessor's download and upload speeds respectively.
Also available as a discrete chipset, the X12 LTE modem is said to have demonstrated peak download speeds of up to 600Mbps through 3x downlink carrier aggregation and 256-QAM, as well as peak upload speeds of up to 150Mbps through 2x uplink carrier aggregation and 64-QAM.
The Snapdragon 820 is also the first processor to offer LTE support for 4x4 MIMO designed to double download throughput speeds on a single LTE carrier.
These improvements brought in the X12 LTE bring three times faster peak upload speeds and 33 percent faster peak download speeds compared to those of X10 LTE, Qualcomm said.
While these physical improvements on the inside of the latest Snapdragon chip might sound somewhat impressive, Qualcomm insists that they mean more than just a better-looking spec sheet.
The firm's senior marketing manager, Adam Kerin, claimed devices powered by the Snapdragon 820 will enable new virtual reality (VR) mobile experiences, in VR devices that rely on separate Snapdragon-powered devices to provide the display, like the Samsung Gear VR.
"I'm thrilled for the next wave of VR games and experiences, and I'm even more excited that the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor arrives in time to make them all that much better. The Snapdragon 820 is at the forefront of all the areas essential in delivering that feeling of true immersion"
It's the 4K image processing that the Snapdragon 820 is capable of that Kerin says will power this.
"If you ever needed the mobile 4K Ultra HD resolution made possible by the Snapdragon 820, VR is the reason. But it's not only about the number of pixels, it's also about the quality of those pixels, and that's where the Qualcomm Adreno 530 GPU steps in."
He adds that the new GPU architecture on the Snapdragon 820 offers high enough frame rates and smooth experiences so that users wanting to experience VR on their Snapdragon-powered mobile devices can do so without lag. This, in part, is helped by the firm's Spectra ISP, which supports the speed and performance necessary for "computer vision experiences".
"The final key component to true immersion in VR is the way in which you interact with the world," Kiren added. "When you look around, does your view change in the way you would expect? If the virtual world does not instantly turn when you do, that delay can break the immersion and even cause motion sickness. This is where the speed and efficiency of the major Snapdragon 820 technologies come together."
The sensor processing used in the Hexagon 680 DSP and the visual rendering of the Adreno 530 GPU work together to make this happen, "nearly instantaneously", so that users genuinely feel as though they are looking around within a 3D world.
Faster charging for Android
While convincing VR experiences on a smartphone might sound pretty unique, some users might just be pleased to know that the chip is also said to make smartphones better devices in general. For instance, the Snapdragon 820 comes with Quick Charge 3.0, the third generation of Qualcomm's speedy device charging technology and is also, apparently, "the first of its kind" to employ Intelligent Negotiation for Optimum Voltage.
This is a new Qualcomm algorithm that allows portable devices to determine the power level to request at any point for optimum power transfer. Qualcomm said that this is about 38 percent more efficient than Quick Charge 2.0.
Qualcomm claimed that a typical phone can be charged from zero to 80 percent in about 35 minutes with Quick Charge 3.0, compared with almost 90 minutes without the technology.
Where will we see the 820?
So far, little is known bar the odd rumour what mobile devices we are likely to see the Snapdragon 820 chip in first. However, we do know that these will all certainly be Android, as usual. Also not very surprisingly, it was also rumoured earlier this year that Samsung is preparing the chip for its upcoming Galaxy S7 smartphone.
Citing sources familiar with the matter, the report said that Samsung will release a version of the Galaxy S7 with the optimised 820 chip alongside its own next-generation Exynos 8890 AP using the firm's first custom core, codenamed M1, which will be produced in the Giheung plant from December and released in the first quarter next year. Although it could be that Samsung will offer these processor variations for the S7 smartphone depending on the target market.
Too hot to handle?
While the Snapdragon 820 looks like it will bring a number of performance improvements to future Android devices, the real question on everyone's lips is: 'will the damn thing have overheating problems like the Snapdragon 810?'
The Snapdragon 810 was announced at the end of last year and soon after launch, rumours about overheating circulated when several leading smartphone manufacturers ditched the chip in favour of other offerings.
Samsung decided to equip the Galaxy S6 with its own octa-core chip rather than Qualcomm's 810. Then LG announced in April that the G4 smartphone would use the less powerful hexa-core Snapdragon 808, fuelling further speculation that the 810 chip had problems.
Qualcomm denied the claims, saying that LG's decision to stuff the G4 with a Snapdragon 808 was made "over a year ago" and had nothing to do with the persistent rumours surrounding the 810.
Whether these heating problems will be ironed out in the Snapdragon 820 won't be known until it hits the market, so we'll just have to wait and see by testing out the devices it features in.
The Snapdragon 820 with the Adreno 530 and Qualcomm Spectra is expected to be in devices in the first half of 2016. µ
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