Preview round-up: Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 SoC

Qualcomm's fortune with its Snapdragon 810 SoC wasn't the best. This powerful chip, used in several manufacturers' flagship phones, was prone to overheating and thermal throttling. The SoC's performance wasn't that stellar, either. Some reviewers pointed out that the company's Snapdragon 801 and 805 chips often delivered similar performance in many tasks.

The firm isn't just sitting around, though. Qualcomm is putting the finishing touches on its new and improved Snapdragon 820 SoC. The company claims this chip has significantly better performance and power consumption than the 810.

To fullfill that promise, the company designed Kryo, its first custom 64-bit CPU core built on a 14-nm FinFET process. Kryo packs two "performance" cores and two "low power" cores, a bit like the 810's "big.LITTLE" 4+4 core arrangement. Qualcomm says that its Kryo core purportedly offers twice the performance and power efficiency over the Snapdragon 810. The company also claims the new Adreno GPU onboard should be 40% faster than older parts, too.

Qualcomm recently let a handful of reviewers take a poke at a test phablet containing a Snapdragon 820 MPD/S SoC. This test chip's big CPU cores are clocked at 2.2 GHz, and its low-power units run at 1.6 GHz. The test handset was equipped with 3GB of RAM and a 6.2" 2560x1600 display.

The CPU results the reviewers gathered are promising but somewhat inconsistent. Geekbench tests present the 820 as a definite improvement over the 810 it replaces, particularly in tasks using floating-point arithmetic. The new core arrangement also looks to be a better fit for most workloads—Basemark and PCMark results show the Snapdragon 820 test system beating many other devices, particularly the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6.

Only AnandTech tested the Snapdragon 820 against the Apple A9-equipped iPhone 6S Plus, though. Seeing how the 820's CPU isn't much faster than the iPad Air 2 (and sometimes slower), it's not a surprise that the 820 testbed loses out against Apple's latest-and-greatest SoC most of the time. Things take a turn for the worse when it comes to JavaScript performance, too. In the Kraken and Octane tests, the 820 struggles to keep up with, let alone beat its direct competitors. Meanwhile, the iPhone 6S Plus is in a league of its own when it comes to handling JavaScript.

The new Adreno GPU fares quite a bit better. Graphics tests show the Snapdragon 820 as a clear winner over every other mobile device tested in GFXBench and Basemark. In 3DMark, Qualcomm's latest matches Apple's A9. Overall, the Snapdragon 820 looks like it could deliver excellent graphics performance.

The overall picture for the Snapdragon 820 in its current form is kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the Snapdragon 820 is indeed faster in a number of CPU-related tasks than the 810 it replaces. On the other, the CPU improvements don't show up in every test, and the 820 often trades blows with its Snapdragon 810 brother, as well as with Samsung's Exynos 7420 and Apple's A8X. The new Adreno GPU looks particularly strong against its direct competitors, though, often besting them by wide margins.

If there's an fly in Qualcomm's ointment, though, its name is "Apple A9." The chip inside the iPhone 6S Plus wipes the floor with the Snapdragon 820 when it comes to CPU-related tasks, and matches it for GPU performance. It should also be noted that the reviewers weren't able to test battery life, so it's not clear yet whether Qualcomm's promises of better energy efficiency will hold.

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