Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 spreads its wings for the 5G future

Qualcomm's annual tech summit is underway this week in Hawaii, and the term that emerged from presenters' mouths every two seconds there was "5G." The next generation of mobile connectivity is set to arrive soon, and Qualcomm wants to ensure that designers of next-gen flagship phones choose its wares for that task—in this case, the Snapdragon 855 Mobile Platform.

That "mobile platform" is actually composed of two chips: the brand-new, 7-nm Snapdragon 855 SoC and Qualcomm's already-announced X50 5G modem. The Snapdragon 855 SoC is the star of the show here, so let's talk about it. The CPU portion of the chip has eight next-gen Kryo 485 custom cores with a three-speed arrangement. One is a "prime" core ticking away at up to 2.84 GHz, bolstered by three "performance" cores at a max of 2.42 GHz and four high-efficiency units at up to 1.8 GHz.

Next in line, the company claims its Adreno 640 GPU should be 20% faster than the Adreno 630 before it. The company touts support for physically-based rendering (which isn't anything special on its face but might be worthy of note for a mobile GPU) as well as 10-bit color depth, thereby enabling HDR10, HDR10+, HLG and Dolby Vision image formats. The Adreno 640 should also be capable of playing back 8K videos in 360-degree formats.

Qualcomm also made a pretty big deal about the 855's neural networking chops. The company says the Hexagon 690 DSP on this SoC should offer "three times the performance" of the previous-generation Hexagon DSP, and it's apparently capable of doing 7 TOPS of non-descript precision for AI workloads. For that purpose, there are four vector processing units—twice the number of units of the Hexagon in the Snapdragon 845—along with a dedicated "tensor accelerator" block. There's also dedicated hardware for enabling voice assistant capabilities by helping out with echo cancellation and noise suppression.

The fourth piece of the puzzle is the Spectra 380 image processing unit. It now has what Qualcomm calls two 14-bit computer-vision image signal processing (CV-ISP) units, letting the Spectra 380 deal with 22-MP images at 30 FPS when using two cameras, or 48-megapixel at 30 FPS for a single snapper. The "CV" moniker means the Spectra 380 can do hardware-accelerated depth sensing, enabling object identification and tracking as well as stereo depth processing on incoming video. The company was quick to point out the chip's ability to do live, 4K "portrait mode" video during its presentation.

Altogether, Qualcomm says the Spectra 380 is a major boon for augmented and virtual reality applications. The Spectra 380 also contains a caboodle of image stabilization and multi-frame filtering functionality. Impressively, the new ISP can shoot 4K HDR video at 60 FPS, and do slow-motion shots at up to 480 FPS in 720p. There's also support for hardware-accelerated HEIF image and HEVC video format handling.

Beyond the obvious building blocks composing the Snapdragon 855, there's a grab bag of additional goodies. For audio, there's support for Qualcomm's aptX and TrueWireless protocols. Big-battery phones can certainly make use of Quick Charge 4+. The Wi-Fi radio in the Snapdragon 855 supports the potentially faster and more spectrum-efficient 802.11ax standard (also called "Wi-Fi 6"), as well as 802.11ay 60-GHz (mmWave) connectivity for speeds up to 10 Gbps. Coupled with the integrated X24 LTE modem and the companion X50 5G modem, the answer to "can I get multi-gigabit wireless connectivity" with the 855 Mobile Platform is probably several varieties of "yes."

As the premier provider of flagship SoCs today, Qualcomm unsurprisingly expects more than a few design wins for its silicon. Indeed, the company already counts Samsung, Motorola, Ericsson, Telstra, Netgear, and Inseego as its partners. Execs from AT&T, EE, and Verizon also join Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon on stage to talk up their 5G deployment strategies, naturally in the context of using Qualcomm gear.

All told, Qualcomm expects 5G-enabled devices and networks to pop up in "early 2019" and flagship devices built on the Snapdragon 855 Mobile Platform to pop up in the first half of 2019. The curious can check out the 855-MP's full specs in this handy PDF here.

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