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Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 is a glimpse into how much better your next Android phone will be

The Snapdragon 888 will be in devices from LG, Motorola, OnePlus, Oppo and others, starting in the first quarter of 2021.

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Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 will be in 5G devices in the first quarter of 2021.

Qualcomm

The chip that will power most high-end 5G phones next year is here: the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. And for the first time in its ultra high-end lineup, Qualcomm has integrated its 5G modem on the same chip as the brains, AI and other processor features, likely giving 5G phones a boost in battery life. 

Smartphones need a lot of components to operate, but two key parts that make a phone a phone are the application processor that acts as the brains of a device and a modem that connects it to a mobile network. The first 5G devices needed standalone modems that worked alongside the main computing processor. That was because 5G technology was so new, it was too difficult to combine it with the brains. 

Last year's Snapdragon 865 also had a standalone modem, while Qualcomm integrated 5G connectivity with the processor system on its midrange Snapdragon 765 and 765G systems on a chip, or SoCs. Many people expected Qualcomm's highest-end chip to be the first Snapdragon SoC to have an integrated modem, but the company at the time said if it didn't pare back the modem or the app processor features, the resulting chip would be too big and too power hungry for high-end smartphones. Qualcomm chose not to compromise on either feature for its high-end phones but was willing to make some compromises for its midrange chip lineup.

The Snapdragon 865 paired with the X55 modem to power the majority of high-end 5G phones released in 2020, starting with Samsung's Galaxy S20 lineup

With the Snapdragon 888, Qualcomm gets back to its SoC strengths, and phone users will benefit. The biggest advantages of SoCs are better battery life and lower cost. Instead of two chips taking up room in a phone, there's just one, resulting in thinner, sleeker phones or more room for bigger batteries. Having an integrated chip also enables device makers to quickly develop phones for essentially any 5G network in the world, and it makes 5G handsets cheaper for consumers.

"It gives you everything you need in a single package and theoretically makes phone design easier, cheaper and just better integrated," Technalysis Research analyst Bob O'Donnell said.

The continued advance of 5G is more critical than ever now that the coronavirus has radically changed our world. People are stuck at home and are maintaining their distance from each other, forcing them to rely on home broadband service -- something 5G could amp up. The next-generation cellular technology, which boasts anywhere from 10 to 100 times the speed of 4G and rapid-fire responsiveness, could improve everything from simple video conferencing to telemedicine and advanced augmented and virtual reality. Gaming is one area that's expected to benefit from 5G's responsiveness and fast speeds. 

Qualcomm is hosting a two-day virtual Tech Summit in lieu of its annual in-person event in Hawaii. Instead of releasing a flood of new chips and news, the company is keeping its digital event focused on the Snapdragon 888's capabilities. Wednesday featured technical deep dives into features like Snapdragon 888's camera

5G's improvements

The world may be grappling with a widespread pandemic, but that's sure not slowing down 5G's rollout. The super-fast technology reached more customers this year than expected and will cover about 60% of the global population by 2026, according to report from Ericsson on Monday. That makes 5G the fastest deployed mobile network ever, the Swedish networking giant said.

By the end of this year, there will be 218 million 5G subscriptions around the world, up from Ericsson's forecast in June for 190 million -- which itself was an increase from an earlier estimate. 

A lot of those people are using phones powered by Qualcomm's processors. Even the new iPhone 12 lineup, which uses Apple's own application processor, relies on Qualcomm modems to connect to 5G networks.

For Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888, the focus is on four areas: 5G, artificial intelligence, gaming and camera, Alex Katouzian, Qualcomm senior vice president and general manager of mobile, compute and infrastructure, said in an interview ahead of Tuesday's news. 

"It really rounds off all of the use cases and capabilities that this device has," Katouzian said. "We concentrated on really core technologies for low power compute as well as communications." 

The integrated modem is Qualcomm's X60, which is capable of downloading data at up to 7.5 Gbps and uploading information as fast as 3 Gbps. The modem, unveiled in February, taps into super-fast but unreliable millimeter-wave airwaves favored by Verizon and the slower and steadier sub-6 spectrum preferred by virtually all other carriers in the world. It supports many features that allow for faster speeds and other network benefits. 

"On the 5G side, the communication capabilities are going to become much better," Katouzian said. 

While the peak download speed isn't much faster than the previous generation, the X60 aims to boost the average speed on devices by aggregating different types of wireless signals. The X60 has the ability to aggregate the slower sub-6 networks with the faster mmWave spectrum, boosting overall performance. 

The X60 also increases network capacity and expands coverage. Networks operators will be able to double sub-6 peak speeds in standalone mode (that's where the phone goes straight to 5G instead of today's non-standalone networks, where 4G works as the anchor to make the initial handshake between a phone and a network before passing the device along to a 5G connection). 

T-Mobile is one carrier that will benefit from carrier aggregation. Users of the earliest T-Mobile 5G phones haven't seen speeds much faster than 4G connectivity. But when T-Mobile can combine its different airwaves, users should see faster download and upload rates. The modem in 5G phones this year, the X55, couldn't aggregate that spectrum together. 

"The X60 is really the first modem that does all the 5G stuff you really need," Technalysis' O'Donnell said. Qualcomm "now really has a modem that can be leveraged more successfully to get the best possible 5G speeds."

And AI, gaming and camera

When it comes to artificial intelligence, the Snapdragon 888 includes Qualcomm's new, sixth-generation AI Engine. Qualcomm re-engineered its Hexagon processor, which it said provides a "pivotal leap forward in AI" when compared with the previous technology. It improves performance and power efficiency and crunches data at 26 tera operations per second, or TOPS. Qualcomm also included its second-generation Sensing Hub, which includes lower-power, always-on AI processing. 

AI "underpins so many different applications that [are] very widely used today," including in photography and videography, Katouzian said. It "really just takes [out] all of the headaches that were there before in terms of choosing the right parameters, putting it in the right mode, making sure the lighting is correct, even recognizing scenes and faces and backgrounds and depth. All of those things are taken care of through AI capabilities."

And the Snapdragon 888 features a faster Spectra image signal processor that lets users capture photos at videos at 2.7 gigapixels per second. That equates to about 120 photos in one second at 12MP resolution, which is up to 35% faster than the previous generation. 

"That's huge," Katouzian said. "When this capability comes out, people will start to [develop] different applications and services associated with it." That could include things such as ultra-sharp video conferencing or giving users the ability to capture photos of what they're doing throughout the day and share those on social media with others, he said. 

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Alex Katouzian, Qualcomm senior vice president and general manager, mobile, compute and infrastructure, talks up some of the companies that will be using the new Snapdragon 888 processor. 

Qualcomm

The Snapdragon 888 adds a third image processing module that allows flagship smartphones to handle three simultaneous video streams, all in 4K resolution with high dynamic range imagery. And for photos, the chip now uses artificial intelligence training to better judge photo focus and brightness.

That will result in better low-light and night photos and action shots of something moving very quickly -- or very slowly. Combining AI and the camera, the phone will automatically know which setting to select for each circumstance, and users won't have to "worry about the technical details, Katouzian said.

The processor also supports TruePic technology that verifies photos and videos are real, an effort to prevent deepfakes. And Qualcomm's third-generation Snapdragon Elite Gaming technology that boosts the video effects on mobile devices. 

Qualcomm's new Kryo 680 CPU, the brains of the Snapdragon 888, is 25% power powerful and 25% more battery efficient than its predecessor. The updated Adreno 660 graphics processor renders graphics 35% faster while being 20% more power efficient.

Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 888 is expected to power most high-end Android phones next year. Companies that plan to use the Snapdragon 888 in devices include Asus, Black Shark, LG, Meizu, Motorola, Nubia, Realme, OnePlus, Oppo, Sharp, Vivo, Xiaomi and ZTE

"I'm glad that our new flagship smartphone Mi11 will be the one of the first devices with Snapdragon 888," Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun said in a press release. "This is another cutting-edge product from us and will be loaded with various hardcore technologies." 

Qualcomm didn't specifically name Samsung, but it's likely the next Galaxy S handsets will include the Snapdragon 888 when they launch early next year. The first phone to have last year's Snapdragon 865 was the Galaxy S20