Qualcomm’s new chip brings A.I. smarts (and 5G!) to 2019 flagship Android phones

Benchmark results show Snapdragon 855 destroys previous-generation chip

With improved performance, 5G support, and built-in artificial intelligence, the Snapdragon 855 will be the processor powering a majority of flagship Android smartphones next year. Qualcomm announced the successor to the Snapdragon 845 (which is in most flagship 2018 phones) yesterday at its Snapdragon Tech Summit in Hawaii. Now, the company has shared more details about what we can expect from the new chipset.

The Snapdragon 855 is built to embrace a new wave of technologies expected to arise over the next few years, including 5G, mixed reality, artificial intelligence, and more. In fact, we already know of a phone to feature the new chip — at the event, OnePlus announced that its next flagship will be the first with the Snapdragon 855. Here’s everything you need to know about the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 platform.

Performance

Specs are one thing — but real-world performance is often another. At CES, a number of outlets were able to get their hands on the Snapdragon 855 reference design for themselves, giving them the opportunity to benchmark the processor in a reference device and see how it performs. And, thankfully, it looks like the device will perform pretty darn well.

According to a report from CNET, the Snapdragon 855 hit a score of 3,475 on GeekBench 4.3 single-core, and a score of 11,153 on GeekBench multi-core — beating out flagship Snapdragon 845 phones by a solid amount, many of which hit scores of up to 2,400 on a single-core score or almost 9,000 of a multi-core score. Unfortunately, the scores still didn’t beat out the iPhone XS, which has a single-core score of 4,797 and a multi-core score of 11,264.

The Snapdragon 855, which is Qualcomm’s first chipset to be built on a 7-nanometer process, features Qualcomm’s new Kryo 485 CPU, which will reportedly deliver a 45 percent performance boost over previous-generation tech. Qualcomm has also switched to a slightly different architecture from the Snapdragon 845. There’s one so-called “Prime Core,” which delivers a clock speed of up to 2.84GHz. There are then three “performance cores,” with up to 2.42GHz clock speeds. Last but not least are four “efficiency cores,” with 1.8GHz clock speeds that are focused on battery-efficient tasks like background processes.

Graphics performance has also improved. The chipset features the new Adreno 640 GPU, which offers a 20 percent performance boost over the Snapdragon 845, and supports features such as HDR gaming and physically-based rendering. It also supports phone displays up to a 4K resolution, and up to two 4K HDR external displays. Things step up a bit for mixed reality too — in virtual reality, the Snapdragon 855 supports up to an 8K resolution at 120 frames per second. This improved GPU will be especially helpful when it comes to gaming, as there are algorithms in place to cut down on dropped frames by up to 90 percent.

Ultrasonic fingerprint sensor

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 is designed to heighten the security of smartphones as we head into an era of in-display fingerprint sensors. As such, we can expect a whole lot more phones to feature in-display fingerprint sensors in 2019. While a few manufacturers have implemented in-display sensors before, they’ve so far been a little underdeveloped. That is because of the fact that they use optical sensors, which essentially take a photo of your finger and match it to a saved fingerprint to determine if you’re you. There are a few problems with that. For starters, they aren’t as secure considering they’re two dimensional. Not only that, but they can take longer to unlock a device.

The Qualcomm 3D Sonic Sensor, on the other hand, bounces sound waves off of your finger to generate a 3D map of your fingerprint, including all the tiny ridges and bumps. Because it’s 3D, it’s much more secure, and because it uses sound waves instead of an optical sensor, it can see through contaminants on your finger. So, if you’ve just had lunch and your fingers are a little greasy, the sensor is much more likely to be able to read your fingerprint, compared to optical sensors that would see contaminants and not recognize the fingerprint. According to Qualcomm, the ultrasonic sensor is able to get a reading as deep as your pores — making it almost impossible to hack the sensor.

We don’t know exactly what phones will feature this tech, but rumors indicate that Samsung will use an ultrasonic fingerprint sensor for the Samsung Galaxy S10 — and we expect other flagships in 2019 and beyond to do the same.

Connectivity

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the new Snapdragon 855 is that it works with Qualcomm’s X50 5G modem, which is an option for manufacturers who want to implement 5G into new devices. In other words, the new chipset is expected to seriously accelerate the rollout of 5G, as carriers build out their 5G networks in 2019 and 2020. The modem supports both sub-6Ghz and mmWave frequency bands, which are the bands expected to help deliver super-fast 5G speeds. According to Qualcomm, with mmWave technology customers can expect to get data speeds up to 20 times faster than some current commercial solutions. These super-fast speeds will allow for things like real-time video collaboration and improved VR gaming, among other things.

5G isn’t the only new connectivity supported by the Snapdragon 855. The new chipset also supports the new Wi-Fi 6 standard, which is faster than previous iterations of Wi-Fi, and offers lower latency. On top of that, the chipset supports 60GHz Wi-Fi, which Qualcomm says allows for speeds of up to a whopping 10Gbps.

Artificial intelligence

The Snapdragon 855 is built to deliver more intuitive on-device artificial intelligence features. Instead of sending information up to the cloud all the time, A.I. features like Google Assistant could use on-device processing to help users when they need it, without the need of a data connection. This should cut down on load times, and keep everything more secure and private. These new A.I. features are powered by Qualcomm’s fourth-generation multi-core A.I. engine, which Qualcomm said is three times more powerful than the previous generation’s engine. The Snapdragon 855 will boast “three times better A.I. performance” than the Snapdragon 845, and can process a massive 7 trillion operations per second.

In fact, on stage at the Snapdragon Summit event, Eddie Chung from Google’s Augmented Reality team took to the stage to note that the Snapdragon 855 helps Google Lens achieve a lower latency, meter accuracy, and more.

Camera tech

Camera technology is becoming increasingly important in our smartphones, and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 has an improved image signal processor (ISP) to help. The chipset incorporates Qualcomm’s new Spectra 380 ISP, which is aimed at offering improved computer vision features. According to Qualcomm, the Spectra 380 ISP offers the world’s first computer vision-based ISP. In other words, we should expect features like Google Lens to get a whole lot better on phones with the Snapdragon 855. According to Qualcomm, the Snapdragon 855 is capable of things like depth-sensing, image classification, and more, while offering power savings of up to 4 times. On top of that, the chipset supports new hardware-based depth sensing, which means users can do things like replace backgrounds in real time, in 4K HDR, and at a frame rate of 60 frames per second. Last but not least, the Snapdragon 855 supports the HEIF file format, which allows for the storage of video information like depth — which is helpful as we move into a world with smarter cameras.

The Snapdragon 855 supports up to two camera sensors up to 22 megapixels, or a single-sensor camera up to 48 megapixels. It also supports video capture of up to a 4K resolution at 60 frames per second, or 720p up to a whopping 480 frames per second.

Snapdragon Elite Gaming

The Snapdragon 855 is Qualcomm’s first chipset to support the new Snapdragon Elite Gaming experience. This means the chipset supports color grading in true HDR, tone-mapping, physically-based rendering, and more. On top of that, the chipset supports the Vulkan 1.1 graphics library. According to Qualcomm, all this means that gaming will be far smoother and more powerful.

While we initially thought that Samsung’s next flagship would be the first with the Snapdragon 855 given Samsung’s manufacturing deal with Qualcomm, on stage at the Snapdragon Summit, it was announced that OnePlus’ next flagship will be the first with the new Snapdragon 855. After that, we expect phones like the Samsung Galaxy S10 to feature the chip. Many Snapdragon 855 phones will likely debut at Mobile World Congress 2019, which kicks off at the end of February.

Updated on January 15, 2019: Benchmark results for the Snapdragon 855 have been released.

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