Antenna RuggedyDecember 07, 2020 13:54:23 PM
Qualcomm’s annual Snapdragon Summit has just concluded and provided us with the details of the flagship SoC that will power the most capable Android smartphones in 2021.
The main SoC in question is called Snapdragon 888 and promises a huge jump in performance over the previous Snapdragon 865 chip that powers phones so far.
Of particular note is the new and improved camera system (3x Spectra 580 ISP) and the much-improved AI chip (Hexagon 780). The 888 also takes advantage of more powerful CPU cores, supports faster RAM, and finally features an integrated 5G modem. The manufacturing process is also experiencing a shrinkage to 5 nm.
In terms of capabilities, Qualcomm says the GPU is 35 percent faster than before, the AI chip has 1,000 times less latency and sees performance rise from 15 TOPS to 26, and that the new triple ISP system supports larger images and 4K HDR on three cameras simultaneously.
The new X60 modem is completely integrated – it was a separate unit in the 865 – which will lead to some improvements in efficiency and power consumption.
In short, this is the biggest YoY rise in performance Qualcomm has ever provided.
Here’s a quick overview of the slide:
|Model||Snapdragon 865||Snapdragon 888|
|Prime Minister||1x Cortex A77 @ 2.84GHz||1x Cortex X1 @ 2.84GHz|
|Large kernel||3x Cortex A77 @ 2.42GHz||3x Cortex A78 @ 2.42GHz|
|Small core||4x Cortex A55 @ 1.8GHz||4x Cortex A55 @ 1.8GHz|
|GPU||Adreno 650||Adreno 660|
|DSP||Pistol 698||Pistol 780|
|memory||Up to 2750MHz LPDDR5||3200MHz LPDDR5|
|ISP||2x Spectra 14-bit 480||3x Spectra 14-bit 580|
|Take a single photo||1 x 200 MP / 64 MP ZSL *||1 x 200 MP / 84 MP ZSL|
|Take multiple photos||2 x 25 MP ZSL||64 MP + 25 MP ZSL / 3 x 28 MP ZSL|
|Video||8K 30 / 4K 120 10-bit H.||8K 30 / 4K 120 10-bit H.|
|Mfg. Process||7 nm||5 nm|
CPU: New cores and design focused on sustainable performance
The SD888 sticks to the Tri-Cluster configuration, which features a high-performance core, three performance cores, and four efficiency cores. This time, the high-performance “Prime” core is the latest Cortex X1 clocking at 2.84GHz. This core can register to just over 3GHz, but Qualcomm says it is stuck at 2.84GHz to deliver better sustainable performance under heavy workloads.
The performance cores are also seeing an upgrade to the new Cortex A78 cores (from the A77 last year), but they are still clocked at 2.42GHz for the reasons mentioned above.
Note that the 865+ features a Prime core clocked at 3.09 GHz – versus 2.84 GHz on the regular 865 – so it would be safe to assume the 888+ variant will arrive later next year.
It appears that the third set of 4x Cortex A55 cores have been carried over as they have been from last year.
Qualcomm says overall CPU performance has improved by about 25 percent, focusing on better sustainable performance rather than peak performance.
GPU: 35% faster and support for VRS
Qualcomm’s secret sauce has always been GPU and DSP (more on that a little bit). While Samsung and Huawei have both preferred ready-made ARM designs in the past, Qualcomm has, for a while, been designing its own GPU and DSP chips.
We don’t know much about the inner workings of the new Adreno 660 GPU, but Qualcomm has stated that it’s now 35 percent faster and 20 percent more efficient than last year’s Adreno 650, and that the GPU now supports VRS or variable rate shading.
VRS is a feature that has recently arrived in computer graphics cards and game consoles. VRS essentially allows for a faster in-game scene to be viewed by spending less time and effort viewing portions of the scene that wouldn’t be important to the player anyway. For example, areas under deep or farther shade need not be presented with texture detail and color fidelity equal to those closest to the player.
Since the SD865 can actually support 120fps and 144fps, this extrusion can be used in graphics performance to greatly improve the graphics quality in-game.
Other features like QuickTouch help improve touch response, enhancing the gaming experience.
Hexagon DSP: Significantly improved AI performance
Now that’s something Qualcomm has been very excited to talk about. Snapdragon 888 features built-in artificial intelligence accelerators.
Essentially, previous iterations of the Hexagon DSP (Digital Signal Processor) featured discrete, vector, and tensor standard accelerators – cores that perform specific mathematical operations required for AI calculations. Each accelerator had its own memory and a set of shared memory, and the system was running very well, giving Qualcomm an important role in the AI performance compared to the competitors.
This year, Qualcomm completely redesigned the DSP and “merged” the functions of the three accelerators. The result, according to Qualcomm, is a significant improvement in AI performance. This improved AI engine communicates 1,000 times (yes, a thousand times) faster than before, while consuming less power and nearly doubling performance in some AI workloads.
Other updates like wider memory bus and memory pool also helped.
Overall, performance is up 73 percent compared to 865 last year.
Unfortunately, AI performance updates are difficult to understand in the real world. What are tensor operations, for example, and why are they important?
Well, improvements in AI performance mean that smart computing features like intelligent noise suppression (audio and video), real-time object replacement in video, AI-based autofocus, faster image processing, and more can now become a reality for Android.
Camera upgrades: interlaced HDR and simultaneous recordings
By far the most interesting news from the event was the mention of interlaced HDR support for stills and video.
Before we get to that, let’s first look at the hardware upgrades. Basically, the SD 888 brings the total number of ISPs to three. An ISP or Image Signal Processor is the chip responsible for processing imaging data from phone cameras. With three ISPs (out of two in the 865), Snapdragon 888-powered phones can now, finally, capture images and video from three cameras simultaneously. Apple introduced this feature last year with its iPhone 11 Pro line.
ISPs now allow 28 MP ZSL simultaneous capture (without shutter delay). Single-camera ZSL camera was shot up to 84 MP (from 64 MP), and 200 MP is supported for single-shot capture without ZSL.
ZSL is simply Qualcomm’s term for a photo-capture mechanism where the sensor actively records data before the shutter is pressed, ensuring that image data is recorded the moment the shutter is pressed, not after the fact.
ZSL triple camera capture means you can stack images and zoom smoothly between, say, an ultra-wide, ultra-wide, and tele-lens (as Apple has been doing since 2019).
The camera system now allows for 120 shots at 12 megapixels per second, and auto focus in low light (up to 0.1 lux).
The video recording features remain largely unchanged, with 8K 30fps and 4K 120fps with HDR being the highest resolution supported.
A new AI-based autofocus system claims to improve AF performance by intelligently identifying the subject in the scene and appropriately tracking focus.
The most interesting upgrade, however, is the progressive HDR support.
HDR photo / video capture occurs when several different exposures are taken and combined together, resulting in an image with greater dynamic range (greater detail in the bright and dark areas) than a single image.
In normal HDR, the camera’s shutter captures at least three distinct frames: one frame low exposure, one frame wide exposure, and one frame exposed properly. However, new phones capture a lot of frames, but the point is that each frame is captured as a whole, one complete frame at a time. Recording for the next frame does not start until the previous frame is recorded and processed.
This is very effective for stationary objects, but when the scene includes moving objects (dogs, cars, inclement weather), there can be some shadows and blur due to the time it takes to capture individual frames.
Staggered HDR reduces this delay by not waiting for a single frame to be captured. When each line is read from the sensor for one frame, capture for the next frame on that line begins. HDR data is recorded continuously, resulting in significantly less lag between frames, thus reducing motion blur and ghosting.
X60 modem: compact, faster, more efficient
The SD865 last year did not include an integrated modem. Qualcomm had their own reasons for this, and they stated that the modem was independently developed and was ready before 865, allowing manufacturers to work on their 5G applications. Regardless, now that the x60 is integrated into the 888, this should lead to lower prices and improved performance and energy efficiency. However, the exact amount of benefit remains to be seen.
The x60 is also claimed to be faster and more efficient than the x50, which provides less power consumption in edge cases, and adds better bus-clustering support, resulting in significantly higher signal quality and bandwidth.
In addition, the platform supports WiFi 6, WiFi 6E, dual-radio Bluetooth 5.2, and AptX Adaptive Wireless Audio.
Miscellaneous Features: Hypervisors, CAI
An important feature of Snapdragon 888 is support for hypervisors. Hypervisor is a system for isolating one user space from another and creating multiple secure virtual machines.
In simple English, hypervisor, for example, will allow a secure working profile on your phone that can operate independently of your profile. The data from the two personal files will be handled independently and securely. Hypervisor can also be used to completely isolate sensitive applications from the rest of the system.
SD 888 now also supports the CAI standard or the Content Authenticity Initiative. Any image you take with this system contains an encryption key that verifies that the metadata (location, time of capture, etc.) is correct and that the image has not been tampered with. Any mod changes the key and marks the image as tampered with.
In this world of deep fake and manipulated photos, the CAI sealed image is likely to be trusted.
Calling all developers!
Waiting for realistic tests and benchmarks, this time Qualcomm seems to have overtaken itself. The SD 888 platform is an important upgrade compared to the 865 last year, and it introduces a number of exciting new features to boot.
It’s a really cool upgrade and I’m so excited to see what the Android flagship has in store for us for 2021. I just hope the developers take full advantage of the capabilities the new platform provides them with.
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