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Galaxy S20 could be crazy-fast. We tested the Snapdragon 865 chip likely to power Samsung's phone

Samsung's rumored Galaxy S20 could be up to 25% faster than last year's Galaxy S10 -- and 35% more battery efficient.

snapdragon-865-reference-device-front

Testing Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 865 chip gives us a peek at speedier phones to come this year.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Signs suggest that Samsung's upcoming flagship phone, rumored to be called the Galaxy S20 and not the Galaxy S11, could be the first in 2020 to run its photographygaming features5G-ready data connection and live maps navigation off the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 chip. What does that mean? Up to 35% more power efficiency and up to 25% more powerful speeds overall. I got a chance to test the new Snapdragon chip on a working reference device. The results? Impressive.

Considering how fast phones were in 2019 at processing power-intensive video streams and advanced photography on top of day-to-day tasks, getting double-digit improvements from an already supercharged chipset is a big win. While the working prototype model I tested with wasn't a "real" phone, it's real enough to give us an idea of what we might get with Samsung's upcoming phones.

Scroll down to see the benchmarking test scores below, and specs for Qualcomm's reference phone.

snapdragon-865-5g-mobile-platform-chip-front

Qualcomm's Snapdragon 865 chip is for premium phones.

Qualcomm

Speed improvements on chipsets are always welcome. How many shots have you missed because the camera won't launch in time? A zippier chip can speed up how long it takes to complete a task and move on to the next one. The faster you can take that picture, the sooner you can carry on with the next moment.

But a faster processor can also manage a larger or more complicated task in a shorter period of time than a slower chip, which might make it possible to do something you wouldn't have been able to do or wanted to do on last year's device. 

Back to our photography example, you might lose patience waiting 10 seconds to process an advanced night mode shot, but if it takes only five seconds, you may find yourself snapping more of those photos. That will enrich your experience and get you more photos you can enjoy and share. For gaming and videos, that could add up to greater detail, or a smoother image.

So, just how fast is the Snapdragon 865?

Qualcomm says its 865 chipset brings speeds about 25% faster than last year's already blazing Snapdragon 855 CPU. In fact, many of our test results far exceeded this figure, with one benchmark result jumping up as far as 77%. But before you blast the confetti cannons, there are a few things you should know.

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The test was run on reference devices that Qualcomm passed out to journalists at its annual Snapdragon Summit in December. These are working devices that come preloaded with benchmarking apps. They run on Snapdragon 865, with multiple cameras and sharp screens (again, see the specs below if you're curious). Reference devices are useful for testing apps and features, but they aren't branded phones that you might one day buy.

Since there are so many factors that go into creating a marketable device, there could be a gap between the test results here and what you get on your phone. 

Keep in mind, too, that benchmarking tests are synthetic -- they try to approximate a real-world scenario, but aren't measuring real-world results. So your experience might be different when you actually open the app and process the photo, or play a real game rather than running through a series of controlled images. 

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The back of Qualcomm's reference device shows off antennas and the camera sensors.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

In the end, the percentage of performance gain on a finished phone may not matter to you as much as what you can do with the device. So why even use benchmarking tests? Because they can be useful for creating a baseline that you can compare to the results from current devices. It's a way to try to normalize all the variables that come with a device, from the feature set to the software that each phone-maker uses to tune the handset. 

For this test, I compared the 865 reference phone with the Galaxy Note 10 Plus, which runs Snapdragon 855, and the OnePlus 7T, which uses Qualcomm's souped-up 855 Plus chipset and has more RAM than the Note 10 Plus. This combo makes the 7T (and 7T 5G McLaren edition) theoretically the fastest Android phones you can buy today. 

Because Qualcomm's speed claim applies to the Snapdragon 855 and not the 855 Plus, you'll see a smaller gap between the 865 and the faster 855 Plus model. In one test, the 865 actually scored lower than the OnePlus 7T with the 855 Plus, even when averaging two tests.

Finally, my reference device came with something called Performance Mode turned on. This would yield even higher scores, but it also takes a greater toll on the battery. My testing partner and I turned off Performance Mode to bring our results closer to the real-world experience.

Here are the scores from common benchmarking tests that measure CPU performance, graphics processing and so on.

Snapdragon 865 benchmarking test results


Snapdragon 865 reference device Galaxy Note 10 Plus with Snapdragon 855 OnePlus 7T with Snapdragon 855 Plus Percentage gain over Snapdragon 855 Percentage gain over Snapdragon 855 Plus
GeekBench 5 single-core 926 635 790 46% 17%
GeekBench 5 multi-core 3,452 2,414 2,828 43% 22%
GeekBench compute benchmark RenderScript 2,882 2,446 2,712 18% 6%
PCMark - Work 2 10,203 9,999 10,595 2% -4%
GFxBench ES 3.1 1080 Manhattan offscreen 1 89 fps 69 fps 79 fps 29% 13%
GFxBench ES 3.1 1080 Carchase offscreen 1 51 fps 42 fps 47 fps 21% 9%
JetStream 2 116.62 65.928 66.729 77% 75%
AnTuTu 557,906 457,954 489,194 22% 17%

What these Snapdragon 865 processor tests really mean

If you buy a new phone in 2020 that uses Qualcomm's new chip, you might not load up these benchmarking apps to see how quickly it renders gaming graphics or simulates a complex workload. That's not a bad thing.

Each branded phone has its own set of specific ingredients that make it perform faster or slower than others, even if they use the same chip.

What matters is that phones that run this chipset should be significantly faster than phones using the 855. That makes it more advanced, but it doesn't mean that 2019's models are only good for the trash heap. They're still plenty fast, and can be an excellent cheaper alternative to phones coming in 2020.

That said, if you're always looking ahead to the next advancement, these 865 benchmarks suggest you'll be able to process more imagery and tasks faster without draining the battery, a combination that, along with ultrafast 5G speeds that can pull down great amounts of data, could open up new ways for us to use our phones in 2020 and after.

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Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 reference design specs

  • 5.9-inch screen with 2,880x1,440-pixel resolution
  • Two rear cameras, one front-facing
  • Storage: 128GB
  • CPU: 4xA77 plus 4xA55
  • Memory: 12GB LP5 dual rank