The Samsung Galaxy S9 will be revealed this Sunday, February 25 and there's little doubt the upcoming phone will be fast. And on a warm, sunny day at Qualcomm's headquarters in San Diego, California, we found out exactly how fast that might be.
The Galaxy S9 is expected to be one of the first phones in 2018 to use Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845 chipset. The chipset is the phone's brain. You can't run the operating system, connect to the internet or process photos without it. The Snapdragon 845 also comes with advanced features that will produce more colorful photos and videos, longer battery life and biometric security that guards your privacy with your fingerprint or face.
A poorly performing chip means the entire phone could run slowly, and the battery probably won't last as long. So when Qualcomm offered to let us test the claim that Snapdragon 845 will work 25 percent faster across the board compared to the Snapdragon 835 found in last year's Galaxy S8, we jumped at the chance.
We journalists spent two hours running and rerunning a suite of 12 benchmarking tests on Android reference phones that the company whipped up specifically to evaluate and fine-tune Snapdragon 845. For a truer reading, we gave the phones a chance to cool down when their batteries grew hot.
Together, the dozen benchmarking tests simulate how well the graphics (GPU), raw computing power (CPU) and websites among other things will run on phones that use this chip.
I then ran the exact same tests on some of 2017s top phones when I returned to San Francisco: the Galaxy Note 8, Pixel 2 XL and LG V30. And yes, all three used last year's Qualcomm chip, the Snapdragon 835.
You'll see the results in the charts below, but spoiler alert: The 845 device performed at least 25 percent faster than the best score on all but four tests out of the dozen.
Now, benchmarking tests are only one indication of performance, and there's a lot they don't cover. Keep reading for more on that.
The new chip is hitting at a time when Qualcomm, the world's largest chipmaker for mobile phones, needs to show it's still the apex predator. The company faces increased pressure from device makers like Huawei and even longtime partner Samsung, both companies that make their own chips (Samsung phones often use Qualcomm in some regions and their house-made Exynos processor in others).
Qualcomm is also locked in a legal battle with Apple that it's currently losing -- perhaps along with Apple's business -- even as the ensuing threat of a hostile takeover by giant chipmaker Broadcom looms.
But a wave of best-in-class phones made with Snapdragon 845 will give Qualcomm the prestige it needs to sell more chips and strengthen partnerships as it prepares to usher in 5G phones next year.
What's a reference phone and why does it matter?
The phones running Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845 CPU aren't exactly prototypes, and you'll never be able to buy them. They're what's known as "reference devices," working phones meant for in-house use.
In this case, Qualcomm relies on them to test new chips in as close to a real-world environment as possible. The reference devices also work as a proof-of-concept for partners that might consider making a phone or other device using the chip.
Snapdragon 845 reference phone specs
- 5.5-inch LCD screen with 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution
- Dual rear cameras: 12-megapixel and 13-megapixel
- Front-facing camera: 12-megapixel
- 2.8GHz Snapdragon 845 processor
- 6GB RAM
- No headset jack
- Not waterproof
Snapdragon 845 vs. Galaxy Note 8, Pixel 2 XL and LG V30
I ran 12 benchmarking tests a minimum of three times each on the Snapdragon 845 reference phone, in some cases rerunning tests six times when the results seemed off-target. I averaged the results.
Then, I ran each test three times on three other phones: the Galaxy Note 8, Pixel 2 XL and LG V30, which all run on Snapdragon 835. That's a grand total of 150 benchmark results to average and compare in the chart you see below.
The Galaxy S9 looks like this, according to these rendersSee all photos
If you don't regularly study benchmarking scores, don't worry. All you need to know is that taken together, these tests attempt to model real-world speeds for graphics, computing power and web use. They establish a baseline indicator of how fast the phones can be at their peak efficiency.
Comparing phones with the Snapdragon 835 chips can be one basis for predicting how devices made with the next generation processor will behave, along with real-world observation.
If there's only one thing you take away from this chart, it should be how much faster the Snapdragon 845 reference device is than the next fastest 835 phone. That's the far right column.
Snapdragon 845 versus Note 8, Pixel 2, LG V30
||Snapdragon 845 Reference Phone||Galaxy Note 8||Google Pixel 2XL||LG V30||Percentage faster**|
|Geekbench 4.0||Single: 2,439; Multi: 8,200||Single: 1,870; Multi: 6,411||Single: 1,911; Multi: 6,393||Single: 1,922; Multi: 6,466||Single: 27%; Multi: 27%|
|GFXBench 4.0 Manhattan 3.0 Offscreen||5,160 frames||3,911 frames||3,747 frames||3,750 frames||32%|
|GFXBench 4.0 Manhattan 3.1 Offscreen||3,769 frames||2,650 frames||2,566 frames||2,573 frames||42%|
|GFXBench 4.0 T-Rex Offscreen||8,434 frames||6,567 frames||6,476 frames||6,318 frames||28%|
|GFXBench 4.0 Car Chase Offscreen||2,086 frames||1,488 frames||1,453 frames||1,432 frames||40%|
|3DMark Slingshot 3.1 Unlimited||4,895||4,690||4,017||3,568||4%|
|3DMark Slingshot 3.0 Unlimited||6,217||6,026||5,006||4,029||3%|
|Kraken - Chrome (lower is better*)||2,436 milliseconds||3,643 milliseconds||3,536 milliseconds||3,150 milliseconds||23%|
|Octane - Chrome||15,921||11,550||12,326||10,805||29%|
|Sunspider - Chrome (lower is better*)||448 milliseconds||591 milliseconds||529 milliseconds||862 milliseconds||15%|
|Jetstream - Chrome||86||59||63||62||37%|
*Higher scores are better, for all results except Kraken and Sunspider
**Versus the next fastest phone in this group
Snapdragon 845 benchmarking tests paint half a picture
Benchmarking scores aren't the end-all, be-all of performance indicators. First of all, the tests don't account for variations in how you use the phone, or for all the features that help you enjoy your device.
Second, the validity of benchmarking results has been called into question in the past for "optimizing" phones so they skew more powerful in testing. Samsung, OnePlus and HTC have all been nailed for this.
Even if one handset using 845 winds up with scores that peg it as slower than another device with the same chipset, you may not notice much difference when using the two side by side.
That's why we balance test scores with anecdotal observation from everyday life. Does it lag or hang as you naturally use it, how smooth is scrolling or gameplay on a game with some seriously detailed graphics? How long does it take to process a photo?
The most meaningful interpretation we can get from these results right now is that Qualcomm's claims mostly hold. Best case scenario, you can hope for your Snapdragon 845 phone to be about 25 percent faster than 2017's models.
But the variation in score between phones humming along on the very same chip proves that there are other factors in play that make these devices the sum of multiple parts, not just a collection of processors.
Before you know it, we'll be able to get a better idea of Snapdragon 845's real-life results, as soon as the first phone to use it -- likely the Galaxy S9 -- lands in our hands.