Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Thought Leadership, Speed Desk and How-To. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds.
Jessica led CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
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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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
GeekBench 5 multi-core
GeekBench compute benchmark RenderScript
PCMark - Work 2
GFxBench ES 3.1 1080 Manhattan offscreen 1
GFxBench ES 3.1 1080 Carchase offscreen 1
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.
Watch this: What your future VR/AR goggles could do with Qualcomm's new XR2 chip