Meet Qual­comm’s Snap­dragon 855: AI boosts, a smarter cam­era, and mo­bile gam­ing

Qual­comm’s mak­ing dozens of im­prove­ments to the Snap­dragon 855, both large and small.

PCWorld (USA) - - News - BY MARK HACH­MAN

One year ago, Qual­comm un­veiled the Snap­dragon 845 ( s845), the brains be­hind flag­ship smart­phones like the Google Pixel 3, the U.S. ver­sion of the Sam­sung Galaxy S9, Oneplus phones, and oth­ers. Now, Qual­comm’s next-gen­er­a­tion Snap­dragon 855 prom­ises those plat­forms even more en­hance­ments: ded­i­cated logic blocks for dig­i­tal as­sis­tants, re­vamped cam­era logic for com­puter vi­sion, spe­cific gam­ing boosts. It also gives the tra­di­tional JPEG file for­mat the boot.

Ac­cord­ing to Qual­comm ex­ec­u­tives, the goal for the Snap­dragon 855 is to “un­lock” AI and XR (mixed re­al­ity), with the new 5G ca­pa­bil­i­ties lead­ing the way. The com­pany claims that it’s of­fer­ing the first com­mer­cial mo­bile plat­form to sup­port this tri­fecta.

Qual­comm’s next-gen­er­a­tion 855 is due to ship dur­ing the first half of 2019, mean­ing that phone mak­ers will be able to de­sign and an­nounce their own Snap­dragon 855–based phones for launch later in 2019.

Qual­comm’s Snap­dragon chips are truly sys­tems-on-a-chip (SOC), with an im­proved Adreno GPU and Kryo CPU, a Hexagon DSP that’s be­ing re­pur­posed for AI, and an in­creas­ingly more in­tel­li­gent Spec­tra cam­era sig­nal pro­ces­sor—of­ten a key fea­ture for phone buy­ers. Though each of the 855’s sub­sys­tems has been im­proved in its own right, Qual­comm also made one sig­nif­i­cant, over­all im­prove­ment: While the Snap­dragon 845 was man­u­fac­tured on a 10nm process, Qual­comm has made the leap to 7nm with the Snap­dragon 855.

Travis Lanier, Qual­comm’s se­nior di­rec­tor of prod­uct man­age­ment, put it sim­ply: The Snap­dragon 855 will de­liver 45 per­cent more per­for­mance than the 845 in the Kryo GPU, and 20 per­cent more per­for­mance in the Adreno GPU.


Keith Kressin, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of prod­uct man­age­ment at Qual­comm, sug­gested that ev­ery gen­er­a­tion of wire­less tech­nol­ogy took a decade to de­velop. What’s 5G bring­ing? “Mas­sive amounts of con­nec­tiv­ity,” Kressin said, to­gether with a new ecosys­tem of ap­pli­ca­tions that no one quite un­der­stands yet.

“One ques­tion that comes up quite fre­quently: What is 5G go­ing to do for me?” said Durga Mal­ladi, the se­nior vice pres­i­dent for 4G and 5G for Qual­comm. For a net­work op­er­a­tor, it means that users will stream more high-band­width movies, with less la­tency. 5G also en­ables con­nected PCS, he said.

More than 20 global op­er­a­tors and 20 global hard­ware mak­ers are on board with 5G, Mal­ladi said.

Though Qual­comm ex­ec­u­tives touted the ad­van­tages of 5G, cel­lu­lar con­nec­tiv­ity is just one por­tion of the Snap­dragon 855,

ex­ec­u­tives said. And for now, while the chip will work with 5G (, the spec is not na­tive to the plat­form: Though the Qual­comm X50 mo­dem will per­form 5G mil­lime­ter wave and op­er­ate in the sub-6ghz spec­trum bands, the X50 isn’t in­te­grated into the Snap­dragon 855. (AT&T and Ver­i­zon ap­peared on stage to sup­port Qual­comm’s 5G ini­tia­tive [].)

In­stead, it’s far more likely that phones will con­nect us­ing what Qual­comm calls the world’s first 2Gbps LTE mo­dem, the X24 mo­dem, which Qual­comm an­nounced in Fe­bru­ary and which is in­te­grated into the Snap­dragon 855.

But phones con­nect via Wi-fi as well as cel­lu­lar, and the Snap­dragon 855 makes im­prove­ments here, too. Qual­comm is also char­ac­ter­iz­ing the 855 as 802.11ax “ready,” also known as Wifi6. While to­day’s 802.11ac de­vices can push a max­i­mum of 3Gbps, shared be­tween sev­eral de­vices, 802.11ax ( will be able to sup­port up to 14Gbps. It will also sup­port 802.11ay, a 60GHZ Wi-fi solution, ca­pa­ble of 7Gbps, and be­lieved to be most ap­pli­ca­ble for short-range, high-band­width apps like un­teth­ered VR ( go. There’s Blue­tooth 5.0, too.


Each time you point a Snap­dragon-equipped smart­phone at a sub­ject and take a pic­ture, the first core that im­age passes through is the Spec­tra im­age sig­nal pro­ces­sor, or ISP. Within the Snap­dragon 855, the new core is called the Spec­tra 850.

Tra­di­tional smart­phones process color, white bal­ance, ex­po­sure, and other op­ti­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics to cre­ate an im­age. But as cam­eras have be­come smarter, they’ve be­gun rec­og­niz­ing ob­jects, peo­ple, and other de­tails of a scene. Un­til now, that’s re­quired tap­ping into the CPU, GPU, and DSP for ex­tra pro­cess­ing power. The re­sult, has been fea­tures like por­trait mode, which can in­tel­li­gently rec­og­nize the sub­ject of a pic­ture

and then blur the re­main­ing back­ground. Now, Snap­dragon-equipped smart­phone cam­eras will be able to do that for video, too.

What Qual­comm did was to rec­og­nize what por­tions of the CPU, GPU, and DSP the Snap­dragon ac­cessed, merged them with the color pipe­line, and pulled the whole thing into a sep­a­rate logic core. In the 855, Qual­comm cre­ated what it calls the first ISP op­ti­mized for com­puter vi­sion.

That’s re­sulted in a “huge speed boost” in com­puter-vi­sion ap­pli­ca­tions as well as 4X re­duc­tion in power sav­ings. Put an­other way, it will en­able the 855 to per­form all the tra­di­tional cam­era func­tions more quickly and at lower power, while en­abling a new range of fea­tures.

From a per­for­mance stand­point, the Spec­tra ISP can sup­port 22 megapix­els at 30 frames per sec­ond us­ing con­cur­rent dual cam­eras; or 48MP at 30fps us­ing a single cam­era. The 855 will do 4K, HDR10+ video cap­ture in por­trait mode at 60fps, and at 30 per­cent less power than the 845, said Judd Heape, se­nior di­rec­tor of prod­uct man­age­ment at Qual­comm.

Even bet­ter, the Spec­tra 850 can now per­form depth sens­ing at 60Hz, mean­ing that Snap­dragon 855–equipped cam­eras will now be able to take the “por­trait mode” of still images and ap­ply it to video. Like­wise, since Snap­dragon 855 cam­eras can now dis­tin­guish and iden­tify mul­ti­ple ob­jects, phones will be able to “pull out” the sub­ject

of a video and re­place it with an­other back­ground, in real time. There are even cine­mato­graph ca­pa­bil­i­ties, where part of the scene can be in mo­tion.

All this, un­for­tu­nately, means a big change in the way Snap­dragon phones store pho­tos— Qual­comm is mov­ing to the HEIF im­age for­mat. Though JPEG has been the pre­ferred file for­mat for the last 20 years, it can’t store the com­plex­ity of HDR, com­puter vi­sion, and so forth. HEIF can, stor­ing every­thing from burst-mode pho­tos to al­pha masks, and even video, all within one “im­age” for­mat.

HEIF also ac­knowl­edges that more and more smart­phones in­clude mul­ti­ple cam­eras—and with HEIF, you can store data from all of them. The goal? Shoot once, share every­thing.


While all of those fea­tures are de­signed to cre­ate con­tent, Qual­comm’s in­tro­duc­ing a “Cinema Core” op­ti­mized for video play­back. Cinema Core con­tains both H.264 and VP9 de­coders in hard­ware, op­ti­miz­ing the video for­mat used by Youtube. Again, the goal is to sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce power while play­ing back video.

Hiren Bhinde, a di­rec­tor of prod­uct man­age­ment, drew a dis­tinc­tion be­tween the typ­i­cal desk­top PC mon­i­tor (1080p with just 8-bit color depths) ver­sus what a smart­phone now of­fers: 2K res­o­lu­tion, HDR, and much deeper color depths.

Cinema Core also sup­ports what Qual­comm calls the next gen­er­a­tion of HDR video,

specif­i­cally HDR10+ play­back, of­fer­ing more dy­namic range per frame than be­fore. It will also of­fer 120fps play­back, as well as 8K video play­back of HDR video. From an au­dio per­spec­tive, Qual­comm’s in­tro­duc­ing Qual­comm aptx Adap­tive, a lowla­tency au­dio tech­nol­ogy, as well as what it calls True Wire­less Stereo Plus, for com­pletely wire-free stereo au­dio.


When most peo­ple think of mo­bile gam­ing, they think of time­wasters like Candy Crush. In Asia, how­ever, mo­bile games are in­creas­ingly thought of as mo­bile coun­ter­parts to desk­top games like Fort­nite. Qual­comm is in­tro­duc­ing what it calls the Snap­dragon Elite Gam­ing Plat­form to sat­isfy that mar­ket.

Mo­bile games will gen­er­ate over $70 bil­lion in rev­enues in 2018 alone, said Qual­comm’s Hiren Bhinde. Over 586 mil­lion mo­bile gamers are in China alone—twice the pop­u­la­tion of the United States, he said.

Qual­comm’s putting a num­ber of dif­fer­ent fea­tures in its Elite Gam­ing Plat­form bas­ket, but it all cen­ters around the Adreno 640 GPU found within the Snap­dragon 855, of­fer­ing a 30 per­cent boost in per­for­mance over the Snap­dragon 845. The Snap­dragon 835 added

HDR video play­back; the 845 added HDR video cap­ture.

With the 855, the com­pany is ad­ding true HDR ren­der­ing gam­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties, sup­port­ing 10-bit color depths and the Rec 2020 color gamut ( All told, over a bil­lion col­ors are sup­ported.

Qual­comm’s also bank­ing on what it calls phys­i­cal-based ren­der­ing—though it’s the sur­face tex­tures that are be­ing mod­eled on phys­i­cal ob­jects, such as stone. Small im­per­fec­tions and poros­ity are mod­eled, with the idea that ren­dered ob­jects will have a more life­like look. About 30 dif­fer­ent sur­faces will be mod­eled.


Although the Kryo GPU, Adreno GPU, and Hexagon DSP are all ca­pa­ble of run­ning the com­plex math li­braries that power AI, Qual­comm ex­ec­u­tives said that the Hexagon 690 has been lit­er­ally re­built for AI. In fact, AI per­for­mance will be three times more pow­er­ful than on the Snap­dragon 845, Qual­comm ex­ec­u­tives said, pro­cess­ing 7 tril­lion AI op­er­a­tions per sec­ond.

While Qual­comm added a pair of vec­tor en­gines and a ten­sor en­gine as ad­di­tional ac­cel­er­a­tors, a more in­ter­est­ing ad­di­tion is a ded­i­cated voice as­sis­tant core, specif­i­cally de­signed to power as­sis­tants like the Google As­sis­tant. That core is de­signed to help as­sis­tants iden­tify your voice. Google also said that in An­droid 9, the An­droid Neu­ral Net­works API is run­ning en­tirely on the Hexagon 690, said PJ Ja­cobowitz, a se­nior mar­ket­ing

man­ager at Qual­comm. That core is de­signed to be al­ways on, in a low-power mode, lis­ten­ing for a “wake word” like “OK, Google.”

Ra­jan Pa­tel, se­nior di­rec­tor of en­gi­neer­ing for Google Aug­mented Re­al­ity, said that the 855 would re­duce la­tency by about three times. A high-band­width, low-la­tency 5G con­nec­tion will make it eas­ier to down­load large as­sets for aug­mented re­al­ity, he said.

The Hexagon is also used for real-time noise-re­duc­tion al­go­rithms to cut back­ground noise in video calls from air­ports or clubs, and for third-party apps that can even show you what you might look like with a dif­fer­ent hair­style.

The Hexagon DSP will also be used to power what Qual­comm is call­ing a “3D Sonic Sen­sor,” an ul­tra­sonic bio­met­ric sen­sor that can be mounted un­der­neath a dis­play to log in users via their fin­ger­prints. Most smart­phones use ca­pac­i­tive sen­sors, which de­tect the elec­tri­cal im­pulses given off by a fin­ger­tip. Qual­comm be­lieves that the way in which an ul­tra­sonic sen­sor “paints” your fin­ger­tip’s whorls and lines with ul­tra­sonic sound is the fu­ture, in that it works while wet and through con­tam­i­nants like oil.


If a phone were a PC, the mi­cro­pro­ces­sor in­side of it would be front and cen­ter.

How­ever, the preva­lence of apps, ser­vices, cam­era hard­ware, and other fea­tures tend to di­min­ish the im­por­tance of the CPU hard­ware. Who buys a phone for its pro­ces­sor?

In part, that’s why Qual­comm doesn’t usu­ally talk much about its Kryo CPUS. But the new Kryo 485 core in­cludes some­thing un­usual: a “prime core.”

Typ­i­cally, a Snap­dragon chip in­cludes four “per­for­mance” cores and four “ef­fi­ciency” cores, the lat­ter op­ti­mized for lower power. The Snap­dragon 845 uses four ARM A75 cores at 2.8GHZ and four A55 cores run­ning at 1.8GHZ. Qual­comm says the Kryo 485 within the Snap­dragon 855 is 45 per­cent more pow­er­ful.

But there are some in­ter­est­ing dif­fer­ences be­tween the 845 and the 855. With the Snap­dragon 855’s Kryo 485, there’s still the low-power “ef­fi­ciency” cores, also run­ning at 1.8GHZ. But now there are three “per­for­mance” cores run­ning at a slower 2.42GHZ. But Qual­comm has added a new, even faster “prime” core run­ning at a faster 2.84GHZ.

That raised a few ques­tions: Is the CPU run­ning at di­min­ished per­for­mance? If so, is that de­lib­er­ate, per­haps be­cause those tasks are be­ing handed off to some of the other spe­cial­ized logic blocks? Or is the CPU ar­chi­tec­ture sim­ply more ef­fi­cient? The lat­ter an­swer turned out to be cor­rect, Lanier said in a Q&A af­ter the key­note: the Snap­dragon

855 ar­chi­tec­ture is more pow­er­ful be­cause of a higher in­struc­tions-per-clock ef­fi­ciency, in­clud­ing larger caches.

Qual­comm hasn’t dis­closed specifics such as the power con­sump­tion of the Snap­dragon 855, but we know the chip is small.

While 5G is rev­o­lu­tion­ary, you’ll prob­a­bly see more ben­e­fit in the LTE en­hance­ments.

In the Snap­dragon 855, the Spec­tra ISP com­bines the color pipe­line and the AI pipe­line for fea­tures like dy­namic back­ground re­place­ment.

This is what HEIF will of­fer as a file for­mat.

Com­pelling rea­sons for watch­ing video on your smart­phone.

All the ben­e­fits of Snap­dragon’s Elite Gam­ing Plat­form.

Qual­comm’s Snap­dragon 855 chip, and its Hexagon DSP, can power apps like this that can in­ter­po­late ex­tra de­tail in an im­age, ex­ec­u­tives said.

A per­for­mance sum­mary of the Kryo CPU and Adreno GPU.

Here are the speeds of each of the Snap­dragon 855’s Kryo cores.

The Kryo core in­tro­duces a new “prime” CPU core.

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