We all care about screens and battery life, but one of the most unsung parts of any phone is the chipset inside it, the one that makes the majority of your features and functions possible, from the Galaxy S9 to the iPhone XS and Pixel 3. So when Qualcomm announced its Snapdragon 855 processor platform last week, so many of use sat straight up in our seats.
While the Snapdragon 855 is the chipset most likely to appear in 2019's premium phones, Samsung, OnePlus, Google, LG and other brands aren't obliged to include any or all of the features the chip enables. It's kind of like a burger in a restaurant that makes everything to order -- you can have all the fancy toppings you want, but only if you're willing to pay for the extras.
These extras, from camera features to new forms of face and fingerprint unlocking, come within the chip, but it's up to the phone maker to turn them on and make them work with the phone's unique software chemistry. They aren't guaranteed. All of this lays out the context for the Snapdragon 855 demos I saw at Qualcomm's third annual Snapdragon conference last week. Qualcomm paraded around some (but not all) of the 855's most interesting features, which various global phone makers could roll into their devices for 2019 and beyond.
Two of the best were notably missing. We didn't get a chance to see ultrasonic fingerprint unlocking, which gains passage to your locked phone by bouncing sound waves off your finger's unique ridges and valleys (luckily, we saw it earlier; watch the video below). Also conspicuously missing was the demo for portrait 4K HDR video, which applies the portrait mode (bokeh) that you love so much with still photography to a moving video. Qualcomm claims you'll be able to switch the backgrounds on your depth-effect video if you want to, choosing from a library of other scenes.
On the other hand, some of the demos are quietly interesting features that we hope phone makers will implement on the (unannounced, but probably inevitable) Galaxy S10, Pixel 4, LG G8 and OnePlus 7. Google worked closely with Qualcomm to advance the camera's ability (through the Google Lens app) to quickly isolate and identify large chunks of text. That has implications for translating menus, wordy signposts and even pages of text on the fly.
There's also a new way to unlock the phone with your face, that could be cheaper than the 50,000 infrared dot-mapping solution from the Snapdragon 845, an iPhone-challenging feature we were sure would gain traction among Android phones in 2018 and sadly never did.
We also saw some a 5G gaming demo that streamed a graphics-intensive game wirelessly with almost no lag at all. We take demos with a grain of salt, but it was an impressive display that makes us hopeful for the future of 5G, once networks are up and running, and the phones and carriers are a more mature.
We're not entirely sure what the crop of 2019 premium phones will hold, but seeing Snapdragon 855 demos in action makes us hope that phone makers will fold in at least some of these features, while perhaps developing some new ones of their own.