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Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 Delivers Major Performance Gains, Integrated 5G Modem

The Snapdragon 888 is declared to be the first mobile processor to support Arm's Cortex-X1 CPU microarchitecture and a GPU technique known as variable rate shading.
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Qualcomm  (QCOM) - Get Qualcomm Inc Report promises its newest flagship processor will deliver substantial CPU, GPU, AI and camera performance gains relative to its predecessor, while also packing an integrated 5G modem and delivering superior power efficiency.

On Wednesday morning, a day after Qualcomm officially unveiled its Snapdragon 888 mobile system-on-chip (SoC), the company is sharing a host of technical details about the chip, which will succeed the Snapdragon 865/865 Plus as Qualcomm’s flagship processor and is expected to power a large percentage of the high-end Android phones that launch in 2021.

The Snapdragon 888's Technical Specs

As rumored, the 888 is made using a 5-nanometer (5nm) Samsung manufacturing process that offers performance, power efficiency and transistor density improvements relative to the 7nm TSMC  (TSM) - Get Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. Report process used by the Snapdragon 865.

Also as expected, the 888 integrates Qualcomm’s next-gen, high-end 5G modem, the Snapdragon X60. The 865, by contrast, has to be paired with a discrete Snapdragon X55 modem.

Qualcomm has promised that the X60 will both be more power-efficient than the X55 and (thanks to its support for a technique known as carrier aggregation) enable better real-life 5G transmission speeds. As with the X55, Qualcomm is pitching OEMs adopting the X60 on using its end-to-end modem-RF system, which includes RF front-end products for both millimeter-wave (mmWave) and sub-6GHz 5G networks.

Qualcomm claims the 888’s CPU subsystem -- known as the Kryo 680 -- will deliver up to 25% better performance than the Kryo 585 subsystem found in the 865. Notably, the Kryo 680 is the first CPU subsystem to support Arm’s powerful Cortex-X1 microarchitecture.

Like other recent flagship Qualcomm processors, the Snapdragon 888 contains eight CPU cores. It has one Cortex-X1 core clocked at 2.84GHz, three Cortex-A78 “performance cores” clocked at 2.4GHz and (for handling less demanding tasks) four Cortex-A55 “efficiency cores” clocked at 1.8GHz.

An excerpt from Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 product brief. Source: Qualcomm.

An excerpt from Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 product brief. Source: Qualcomm.

The 888’s GPU, known as the Adreno 660, is said to deliver 35% better graphics rendering performance than the Adreno 650 GPU designed into the 865.

Qualcomm also notes the Adreno 660 is the first mobile processor to support a technique known as variable rate shading (it’s supported by Nvidia  (NVDA) - Get NVIDIA Corporation Report and AMD’s  (AMD) - Get Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. Report latest gaming GPUs), something that the company claims can improve game-rendering performance by up to 30% while also improving power efficiency. And a feature known as Game Quick Touch is said to improve touchscreen responsiveness by up to 20%.

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The 888’s AI co-processor, known as the AI Engine, is said to deliver 26 trillion operations per second (TOPS) of performance -- 11 trillion more than its predecessor -- while being up to three times as power-efficient. And its image signal processor, known as the Spectra 580, is promised to capture photos and videos at a speed of 2.7 gigapixels per second, 700 megapixels faster than its predecessor.

(Of note: The Snapdragon 888’s CPU and GPU performance gains relative to the 865 Plus will be a little smaller than its gains relative to the standard 865, since Qualcomm has claimed the 865 Plus delivers 10% greater CPU and GPU performance than the standard 865).

Qualcomm, Apple and Samsung

Apple  (AAPL) - Get Apple Inc. Report and Samsung’s mobile processor R&D teams aren’t standing still either, of course.

In October, Apple claimed the A14 Bionic SoC found inside of its 2020 iPhone lineup -- it’s made using a 5nm TSMC process and packs 2 high-performance and 4 low-power CPU cores -- delivered up to 50% better CPU and GPU performance than “the fastest competing smartphone chips.”

Samsung, which has been using both its own SoCs and Qualcomm’s to power its high-end phones, hasn’t yet unveiled its flagship processor for 2021 smartphones. It did recently unveil the Exynos 1080, a 5nm SoC for mid-range phones that packs an integrated 5G modem and is promised to deliver major performance gains relative to its predecessor, the Exynos 980.

When asked during a press briefing about what portion of Samsung’s 2021 high-end phone lineup will rely on the Snapdragon 888 as opposed to Exynos SoCs -- typically, Samsung launches Snapdragon-powered phones in certain markets (including the U.S.), and Exynos-powered phones in others -- Qualcomm SVP Alex Katouzian suggested it would be business as usual.

“[We] don't anticipate anything different in 2021. I think our relationship is going to continue very strong with Samsung,” Katouzian said. “[There are] going to be multiple geographical regions that will be using Snapdragon-based solutions, and I think that partnership will remain strong for the foreseeable future.”

The comments come amid expectations that Samsung’s next flagship Galaxy S phone -- expected to be called either the Galaxy S21 or the Galaxy S30 -- will launch in January.

Katouzian also argued that Qualcomm’s success at getting large mobile game developers such as Tencent to optimize their titles for Snapdragon SoCs, via support for the Snapdragon Elite Gaming platform, is becoming a key differentiator. He also indicated the percentage of high-end phones supporting mmWave 5G networks, which to date have only seen limited deployments outside of the U.S., would gradually improve.

“I would say premium-tier [phones] in the U.S., which is the bulk of [U.S.] sales, I think we'll have millimeter-wave...throughout,” he said. “And we're pushing to do the same thing in Japan and Korea, and other locations as well.”