Skip to main content

A deep dive into the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888’s photo-processing tech

Smartphone cameras have gotten a whole lot better over the past few years. That is partly due to the fact that camera sensors and lenses are getting bigger and better. But it also has a lot to do with something people don’t often think about: Improvements in image processing provided by your phone’s chipset. In the next generation of high-end Android phones, that image processing will be largely powered by the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888.

There are a bunch of things that make the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 a better chipset for photography, and it largely boils down to the Spectra 580 image signal processor, or ISP — though there are a few other things at play as well. Here’s a rundown of the new image-processing tech used by the Snapdragon 888, and how it could affect how you take photos and videos in 2021.

Use three cameras at once

Perhaps the biggest headline feature on offer by the Snapdragon 888 is the fact that the Spectra 580 has triple ISPs. What does that mean? Well, at its core, it means that you could use up to three cameras at once on your phone.

Now, that’s actually a little more useful than it sounds. In past years, smartphone cameras have regularly used two cameras at once, without you necessarily thinking about it. A good example of that is the use of a depth sensor, which collects the data needed for a smartphone to accurately process things like bokeh, or background blur, for portrait mode effects.

With triple-camera concurrency, you can capture three 4K HDR video streams at the same time — which could come in handy for videographers who might want to go back in later and cut between different video feeds. Or, you can capture three 28-megapixel photos, and see feeds of them in the viewfinder all at once — helping to ensure that you capture the best photo you can every time.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

“You could capture two cameras world-facing, and one capture user-facing, so if you were going to do some sort of documentary that you were shooting with two cameras like zoom, and then you wanted to also film your face as you were narrating it, you could also do that as well,” said Judd Heape, VP of product management at Qualcomm, in an interview with Digital Trends.

Artificial intelligence could also play into that. The AI Engine that’s built into the Snapdragon 888 can be used in conjunction with this triple-camera concurrency to ensure that your subject is always framed properly. Qualcomm is showing off a demo built by ArcSoft that automatically zooms in on a subject as she walks away from the camera, better framing the shot and making for a better video.

The other main advantage to triple ISPs is the fact that they can process three streams of data at a time. It gets a little technical, but the way many smartphone cameras capture a great photo these days is that they capture a bunch of different photos at different exposures, then kind of meld them together to create a vibrant and detailed photo with high dynamic range. With the Snapdragon 888, that same kind of tech can be brought to video, which should make for much more detailed HDR videos.

Speaking of artificial intelligence …

A.I. will play other roles in image processing on the Snapdragon 888, particularly when it comes to auto exposure, autofocus, and auto white balance — also known as 3A. Previously, A.I. didn’t necessarily play a big role in these areas, but it does on the Snapdragon 888 — and Qualcomm says it could have a significant impact on mobile photography.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

“We’ve actually trained the neural network based on the human vision system,” Heape said. “We took a bunch of people and put VR headsets on their heads, and we showed them a bunch of photos and videos, and we tracked their eye movement. So what you see is that the user doesn’t necessarily look at the parts of the scene that the camera might assume would be the main focal and exposure points. There might be people in the distance, or interesting objects that are behind other objects.”

Of course, it remains to be seen exactly how this will work in real-world photography and videography. Some users might find that this is a very handy system, while others will probably want to retain manual control of a camera’s focus. Hopefully, it’ll help make focus and exposure much more intuitive — after all, most people simply want their smartphone cameras to “just work.” Ultimately, the phone makers will be able to decide what features — or parts of features — they want to implement when it comes to designing their camera apps.

Burst mode magic

Last year, Qualcomm hailed the Snapdragon 865, which offers 2-gigapixel-per-second processing speeds, however this year, the company is stepping things up to 2.7 gigapixels per second. Basically, the result is that the Spectra 580 ISP can process 35% faster than the Spectra 480 from last year.

What does that mean for you? Well, put simply, the tech will be able to capture up to 120 photos at 12MP every second, taking burst mode photography to a new level on smartphones.

“You can hit the button once on the camera, and it’ll shoot a burst capture capturing 120 images all in one second. So 120 frames per second at 12 megapixels,” said Heape.

That’s very impressive — and while manufacturers will need to implement some fun software to ensure that you don’t have a dump of 120 photos in your camera roll every time you hit the capture button, the fact that it’s possible should help ensure that you can capture even very fast-moving subjects.

When will you actually see these features?

All these new features are great, but they don’t mean much if smartphone manufacturers don’t actually adopt them or enable them in software. Of course, the timing really depends on each manufacturer, but the first step is, of course, enabling such features on a hardware level.

“We cooperate with [manufacturers] really early, and we take their feedback years in advance,” said Heape. “We started defining this chip when I joined Qualcomm back in 2017, so we have to plan pretty far in advance. We have to look at the market and say, ‘Do we think we need a triple ISP?’ Camera is an area that a lot of [manufacturers] like to differentiate themselves. They choose a different set of camera features, lenses, sensors, etc. The good news is we can enable all of that.”

Editors' Recommendations

Christian de Looper
Christian’s interest in technology began as a child in Australia, when he stumbled upon a computer at a garage sale that he…
There’s something Samsung didn’t tell you about the Galaxy S24
The Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra in its launch colors.

“Look, dude, I don’t know how they are going to manage the costs of licensing from AI companies and cloud partnerships, among other associated factors. Nothing comes free.” That’s what a machine learning engineer told me a few days ago when I explained to him how Qualcomm and MediaTek are bringing some neat generative AI tricks to phones.

Well, Samsung has confirmed those fears and quietly dropped the bombshell that at least some of its snazzy AI tricks for the Galaxy S24 series phones will eventually ask you to cough up some cash. That’s going to happen next year, but we don’t know how much you'll have to pay and in what way — at least not right now.

Read more
Qualcomm’s newest chip will bring AI to cheaper Android phones
Qualcomm Snapdragon 7 Gen 3 artwork.

Qualcomm has a new mobile platform on the table, and this one targets upper-midrange smartphones and promises to bring some new AI tricks. The latest from the chipmaker is the Snapdragon 7 Gen 3, which technically succeeds the Snapdragon 7+ Gen 2, but the company is comparing most of the improvements against the older Snapdragon 7 Gen 1. 
The new platform is said to bring a 15% boost in processing power, a 20% rise in energy efficiency, and a massive 50% jump in graphics capabilities. Based on the 4nm fabrication process, it packs a single prime core, a trio of performance cores, and four efficiency cores. Interestingly, these cores are clocked at a lower frequency compared to those on the Snapdragon 7+ Gen 2. However, this won't be the only area where Qualcomm's latest sounds like a mixed bag.
Qualcomm says the new chip improves AI-assisted face detection accuracy, but it adds that AI also lends a hand at tasks like making sense of routines and how users interact with apps. There are also a handful of new software-side enhancements coming to the Snapdragon Gen 7 series for the first time. 
Those include an AI re-mosaicing system for reducing grainy textures in photos, bringing down noise, and video retouching. Support for Ultra HDR is also a first for the midrange chip. Spatial audio with head tracking and CD-quality wireless audio are a part of the package as well.

The Snapdragon 7 Gen 3 jumps to the X63 cellular modem that promises a higher downlink speed of up to 5Gbps. Interestingly, it adopts the Fast Connect 6700 Bluetooth + Wi-Fi modem instead of the speedier Fast Connect 6900 modem on the Snapdragon 7+ Gen 2. 
The camera capabilities situation is also interesting. The Snapdragon 7 Gen 3 relies on a triple 12-bit ISP system, while the Snapdragon 7+ Gen 2 puts its trust in a more advanced triple 18-bit ISP architecture. The latter allows higher-resolution photo and video capture in single and dual camera configurations. 
In fact, the Snapdragon 7 Gen 3’s ISP steps down to 120 frames-per-second (fps) slo-mo video capture compared to the 1080p 240 fps video recording allowed by its direct predecessor. Overall, it seems like Qualcomm jumped into its parts bin and crafted a half-new midrange chip for Android phones.
Qualcomm says China’s Vivo and Honor are the first adopters of the Snapdragon 7 Gen 3. The first wave of phones powered by the new chip is expected to be announced later this month. 

Read more
The iPhone’s futuristic satellite tech isn’t coming to Android any time soon
The Google Pixel 8's screen.

It could take a while before Android phones allow satellite connectivity to assist users in emergency scenarios, thanks in no part to Qualcomm canceling its ambitious Snapdragon Satellite plans. Apple introduced satellite SOS support last year with the iPhone 14 series, with the intention of helping people when they are out of cellular or broadband coverage range.

The feature allows you to text emergency responders, share locations, and request roadside assistance. But not long after, hope emerged for Android phones. Earlier this year, Qualcomm announced Snapdragon Satellite, with the goal of aping Apple’s initiative for Android phones.

Read more