Inside the Snapdragon 865: Qualcomm reveals the features you'll find in 2020's best Android phones

We dive deep inside the capabilities of Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 865 and Snapdragon 765 chips

Credit: Qualcomm

Qualcomm’s next-gen Snapdragon 865 smartphone chip will support 5G, certainly. But more practical features will probably affect phone users in more immediate ways, such as 200 megapixel still photos, 4K HDR/8K video capture with optional portrait mode and Dolby Vision support, dynamic lighting options for mobile gaming, and real-time audio translation. 

Qualcomm unveiled the Snapdragon 855 a year ago, and unveiled its successors—the Snapdragon 865, the Snapdragon 765, and the Snapdragon 765G—on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Qualcomm dove deep into what phone makers and end users can expect from its new processors. Improvements to each of its cores—the new Kryo 585 CPU, the Adreno 650 GPU, the Spectra 480 image signal processor, the Sensing Hub, and the X55 5G modem—will all add new capabilities to phones.

Many of the most popular premium smartphones are built upon Snapdragon, including flagships from Google, Samsung, and OnePlus. (Apple uses its own chips.) 

What’s inside the Snapdragon 865

Below is a high-level overview of the Snapdragon 865, which will be manufactured on a 7nm process like its predecessor. Some of the basics, like the GPU speed, are still not being disclosed. We’ll go into more of what features these will enable afterward. Keep in mind, however, that some of these capabilities are theoretical. In the case of 5G, for example, certainly don’t expect the 7.5Gbps download speeds Qualcomm is promising. 

  • Kryo 585 CPU: Octo-core architecture; 1 ARM Cortex-A77 (2.84GHz, prime) + 3 ARM Cortex A-77 (2.4GHz, performance) + 4 ARM Cortex-A55 (1.8GHz efficiency)
  • Memory support: embedded LP-DDR5 (2750MHz), LPDDR4x (2133MHz); up to 16GB
  • Adreno 650 GPU: displays up to 4K/60Hz, or 3200x1800/144Hz; HDR10+ support
  • Spectra 480 ISP: 200 megapixel still photos; 4K video (with 64Mpixel stills) or 4K HDR or 4K/120; 8K capture; 720p at 960fps; Rec 2020, 10-bit color
  • Hexagon 698: Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise (THD+N) Playback: -108dB
  • Connectivity (5G): X55 5G modem (7.5Gbps down, 3Gbps up, via 5G); mmWave (800MHz bandwidth, 2x2 MIMO), Sub-6GHz (200 MHz bandwidth, 4x4 MIMO); LTE support (CBRS, WCDMA, HSPA, TD-SCDMA, CDMA 1x, EV-DO, GSM/EDGE)
  • Connectivity (Wi-Fi): FastConnect 6800 (802.11ax, 802.11ac Wave 2), 1.774 Gpbs peak speeds,1024 QAM, OFDMA, ; 60GHz WiFi, 10Gbps peak speeds; always-on ambient Wi-Fi sensing
  • Connectivity (Bluetooth): Bluetooth 5.1, with support for Qualcomm aptX specifications
  • Qualcomm Sensing Hub: Always-on far-field detection and echo cancellation; support for multiple voice assistants
  • Power: Quick Charge 4+ plus Quick Charge AI

Qualcomm’s promising the Kryo 585 CPU will deliver more than 25 percent more performance than the processor inside the older Snapdragon 855, as well as 25 percent more power efficiency. The Kryo core uses what you might call a BIG-big-little architecture, with a upclocked “prime” core, three “performance” cores, and four “efficiency” cores to handle low-power tasks.

Qualcomm says the Adreno 650 GPU will deliver 20 percent faster graphics rendering, with a 35 percent power savings over the the Adreno 640. The Hexagon 698, the dedicated AI processor, will deliver 4 times the performance of the Hexagon 690, the first “retooling” of the digital signal processor for AI.

5G

qualcomm snapdragon 865 5g mobile platform reference design Qualcomm

While next-gen 5G technology was a controversial subject in 2019, it looks far more viable for 2020, as both carriers and chipmakers move toward the finish line. My colleague Mike Simon does a great job breaking down what Qualcomm’s X55 modem means in the real world: in a nutshell, integrated LTE and 5G capabilities means that it will save power and switch faster between the two, both benefiting you. The X55 is a standalone chip, however, meaning that there’s still more room to save even more power in the future by combining it with some successor to the Snapdragon 865. For now, however, the fact that it’s a discrete chip means that it can be combined with multiple platforms. It also allows a company like Apple the freedom to buy (or make) its own 5G modem.

Qualcomm decided to make a strategic bet three years ago to keep the 5G modem separate, explained Cisco Cheng, a managing director at Qualcomm. “To pack the amount of gaming, camera, and AI features into the SOC while maintaining all of the awesome features, we have to keep the two separate,” he said.

Qualcomm also expects the X55 platform to be faster than its predecessor, with up to 7.5Gbps downloads. Again, you’ll never see those speeds in the real world, but in general more theoretical overhead means more capability. Finally, there’s support for global multi-SIM, so if you have a 5G phone you’ll be able to roam worldwide with a second SIM, possibly to areas that might have pervasive 5G connectivity before the U.S. does.

AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the other key linchpin of the Snapdragon 865, and like Intel’s own AI capabilities, it can be a little hard to define. Qualcomm’s touting its 5th-generation AI Engine as the, well, engine of all of this. It mainly consists of the company’s new Hexagon Tensor Accelerator and Sensing Hub.

The latter’s relatively simple to understand. One of the 855’s new features was dedicated low-power logic to understand “wake words” like “Hey, Google.” Inside the Snapdragon 865, the low-power dedicated Sensing Hub does the same, as well as for other assistants. There’s also some logic to support contextual AI, so a phone will “know” what you’re talking about. The Sensing Hub also adds to the traditional sensors (a gyrometer, accelerometer, even a barometer) with voice, data streams, and more, applying things like noise cancellation in real time to improve how it understands your voice. 

In the 855, Qualcomm retooled the Hexagon DSP to be optimized for AI. The new Hexagon 698 within the Snapdragon 865 delivers 15 trillion operations per second, more than twice its predecessor, and with 35 percent less power. It’s the engine that SDKs like Qualcomm’s Neural Processing SDK will run on top of, to give app developers access to the AI smarts at the heart of the chip.

qualcomm snapdragon 865 5g mobile platform american coin Qualcomm

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, with a penny for comparison.

Camera improvements

A lot of people buy a phone specifically to take better pictures. For the past few years, Android phones have dominated our camera comparisons, but Apple’s latest iPhones have stolen some of that magic back in our latest smartphone camera shootout

Qualcomm’s new Spectra ISP has been rearchitected to run much more efficiently. While the previous camera sensor was able to process one pixel per clock cycle, the current Spectra ISP processes four in the same time. Qualcomm didn’t actually announce the clock speed, but the sensor can process 2 gigapixels per second, according to senior marketing manager PJ Jacobowitz. That simple efficiency helped spur several improvements, including the ability to simply slow down the core’s clock speed, saving power.

But there’s a number of tricks that Snapdragon 865-powered smartphone cameras will be able to do that current phones can’t.

First, the camera will be able to capture a whopping 200 megapixel still images, which apparently is not a hypothetical number—and it’s not two sensors working together in concert, either, Jacobowitz said. “We’ve been working with a major sensor provider to bring 200 megapixel images, image sensors, to smartphones,” he said. Even better, it should be in place by the end of spring, in 2020, he added.

Next, the 865’s Spectra core will also be able to capture still photos more effectively while recording video. Currently, Jacobowitz said, “snapping” a still image while recording video essentially just captures a frame: at 1080p, that’s about a 2 megapixel image. With the 865, the smartphone camera will be able to capture 64 megapixel still images while it’s recording 4K HDR video. Snapdragon 865-powered phones will also have the option of capturing 8K video (without HDR), which requires the ability to capture 33 megapixels per second.

“That’s significant, because there are a lot of phones on the market, even in the premium section, that their photos...aren’t even 33 megapixel,” Jacobowitz said.

Then there’s a phone’s slo-mo capabilities, which will also be beefed up. Snapdragon 865-powered cameras will capture 4K video at 120 frames per second, for a “4X” slow-motion option. At a more standard 720p resolution, the Spectra will go much, much further, capturing an amazing 960 frames per second, at what Jacobowitz called “indefinitely,” up to the limits of the available storage. Conversely, if a camera has an advanced 120Hz display, the Spectra inside the Snapdragon 865 will be able to play that 4K video back at 120Hz, too.

Finally, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 plans to increase its HDR capabilities one more time. After the 845 introduced HDR10 video capture and the 855 launched HDR10+, the Snapdragon 865 plans to be the first on the market to capture in Dolby Vision. Normally, this usually requires capturing raw video, which is then taken to Dolby’s labs and then processed, Jacobowitz said. The Snapdragon 865 will be able to do it natively.

Gaming

The bulk of the Snapdragon 865’s gaming improvements will arrive through the 20 percent speed boost in the Adreno 650 GPU. But there’s also something a bit PC-like that Qualcomm has planned as well: downloadable GPU driver updates.

Simply put, Qualcomm plans to decouple the Adreno drivers from the overall Android updates, and it will be up to the phone maker itself to validate the update and ship it to users. Qualcomm will write the drivers, Jacobowitz said, but each individual OEM will qualify and distribute them. Put another way, you’ll receive an Asus-specific gaming update straight from Asus itself.

Qualcomm is also adding support for Game Color Plus version 2.0, which essentially brings HDR lighting effects into platforms that don’t natively support HDR displays—“not just jacking up saturation across the board, and contrast... but taking select parts of the game and making them look better,” Jacobowitz said.

Even better, Qualcomm worked closely with Unreal and its Unreal 4 engine to bring what’s called the “desktop forward rendering” to the Snapdragon 865 platform. According to Jacobowitz, “many” of the lighting effects used in the Unreal 4 engine will be supported by the Snapdragon 865, allowing them to be used in games. Examples include desktop motion blur, planar reflections, multiple shadows, and more.

Meet the Snapdragon 765G and 765, too

There’s another gaming angle that Qualcomm is bringing to the Snapdragon platform, and that’s the Snapdragon 765G. It’s specifically designed for the emerging market of gaming smartphones like the Razer Phone 2, which is much more PUBG than Candy Crush.

qualcomm snapdragon 765 5g mobile platform chip front Qualcomm

A chipshot of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765 5G.

Qualcomm built the 765G with a pumped-up Adreno GPU that increases performance by 20 percent over the base Snapdragon 765. It also adds 5.5 TOPS of AI performance, Qualcomm said. Both the Snapdragon 765 and 765G were designed as cheaper alternatives to the top-tier 865 chip, keeping the most important attributes—5G and AI—while cutting a bit from some of the other elements.

The Snapdragon 765 and 765G share the same basic characteristics. Both are paired with the X52 modem, a 5G-capable discrete modem that’s “only” capable of 3.6Gbps download speeds and 1.6 Gbps up, with support for both mmWave and sub-6GHz frequencies. Inside them, too, is Qualcomm’s 5th-gen AI engine. 

In comparing the specifications of the 765 and 765G, we could only find only one significant difference: The 7nm octo-core Kryo 475 CPU at the heart of the 765 is clocked at 2.3GHz, while the 765G’s Kryo is clocked at 2.4GHz. (Remember, Qualcomm’s not disclosing the GPU clock speed.) 

  • Kryo 475 CPU: Octo-core architecture, otherwise unknown
  • Memory support: up to 2133 MHz, 12GB total
  • Adreno 620 GPU: displays up to 3200x1800 (QHD+) at 60Hz; FHD+ (at least 1080p) at 120Hz; HDR10+ support
  • Spectra 355 ISP: 192 megapixel still photos, 36MP single-cmaera with zero shutter lag; 4K HDR video capture; Rec 2020, 10-bit color depth
  • Hexagon Voice Assistant accelerator: Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise (THD+N) Playback: -108dB
  • Connectivity (5G): X52 5G modem (3.7Gbps down, 1.6Gbps up, via 5G); mmWave (400MHz bandwidth, 2x2 MIMO), Sub-6GHz (100 MHz bandwidth, 4x4 MIMO); LTE support (CBRS, WCDMA, HSPA, TD-SCDMA, CDMA 1x, EV-DO, GSM/EDGE)
  • Connectivity (Wi-Fi): FastConnect 6200 (802.11ax-ready, 802.11ac Wave 2)
  • Connectivity (Bluetooth): Bluetooth 5.0, with support for Qualcomm aptX specifications
  • Qualcomm Sensing Hub: Always-on far-field detection and echo cancellation; support for multiple voice assistants
  • Power: Quick Charge 4+ plus Quick Charge AI

Qualcomm hasn’t disclosed its 6-series Snapdragon chips, which are designed for even more inexpensive devices. It’s the Snapdragon Snapdragon 865, 765, and 765G that you should care about, however, as they’ll be powering premium smartphones throughout 2019.

Note: Because Qualcomm would provide certain information only via an in-person briefing in Hawaii, with no alternative venue in the continental United States or by virtual means, we accepted the company’s offer to pay for the flight and hotel in order to get the story.

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Mark Hachman

Mark Hachman

PC World (US online)
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