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Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 835 is faster, longer lasting and built for VR

Leading chip vendor focusses on battery life and optimisations for VR in latest flagship mobile CPU

Qualcomm teased the name and some early details of its next-generation smartphone chip at its Tech Summit in November 2016, but it held back full details of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 until now.

After leaks earlier today, and the full reveal at the company’s CES 2017 press conference, we now have the full picture of the chip that will grace this year’s top smartphones.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 835: Key specifications

  • Octa-core Kryo 280 CPU
  • 10nm manufacturing process
  • 4 x performance cores up to 2.45GHz (2MB of L2 cache) 
  • 4 x “efficiency” cores at 1.9GHz (1MB of L2 cache)
  • Adreno 540 graphics
  • Hexagon 682 DSP
  • Spectra 180 ISP
  • X16 modem with support for 802.11ad Wi-Fi, Gigabit LTE and Bluetooth 5

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We now know the Snapdragon 835 will have double the number of cores of the older Snapdragon 820. We know it will run faster, have a more powerful graphics chip and be optimised for VR. It will also have a better camera ISP with more potent video capture.

But the key headlines remain the same as they were at the end of last year. The Qualcomm Snapdragon will be the first chip the US chip giant has produced on a 10nm manufacturing process, a development that should deliver better battery life, and it will be the first to have Qualcomm’s latest Quick Charge 4 charging tech, which promises five hours of use from a mere five minutes of charging.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 835: Performance, efficiency and battery life

Precisely how much better battery life the 835 can provide is an impossible question to answer without a smartphone to test, and the bulk of those aren’t likely to appear until March at the earliest, but Qualcomm is promising great things.

“Using the new 10nm process node is expected to allow our premium-tier Snapdragon 835 processor to deliver greater power efficiency and increase performance,” said Keith Kressin, senior vice president of product management at Qualcomm.

The processor, which is being manufactured by Samsung, is set to deliver “up to 40% lower power consumption” over Qualcomm’s 14nm FinFET processors, and a performance boost of “up to 27%” performance boost.

In particular, Snapdragon says the chip has half the power usage of the Snapdragon 801, and users should have two-and-a-half hours longer left on the battery gauge of their smartphones at the end of the day than with the 821. Both are impressive-sounding claims, but we’ll have to wait and see how that translates to real-world performance gains.

The move to a smaller manufacturing process also has the benefit of physically reducing the size of the chip. The Snapdragon 835 is 35% smaller than the Snapdragon 820, which means smartphone manufacturers will be able to either produce slimmer, lighter smartphones, or squeeze larger batteries into 2017’s handsets.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 835: Quick Charge 4

As well as lasting longer away from the mains, smartphones equipped with the new processor will be quicker to charge up. Using Quick Charge 4 – the firm’s most advanced charging system to date – phones equipped with the Snapdragon 835 will be able to deliver “five hours of usage” for your smartphone after only five minutes connected to the mains. That’s enough to get you through a couple of films at least before needing to plug in again.

After 15 minutes plugged in, Quick Charge 4-enabled smartphones should be able to reach 50% of charge, said Qualcomm, where Quick Charge 3 can currently charge a phone to 80% capacity in 35 minutes. Even taking into account that phone batteries take on charge more slowly as the charge state rises, this looks to be a significant improvement over the previous generation.

Qualcomm is also building in a raft of new safety measures designed to prevent over-charging, overheating and – presumably – spontaneous smartphone combustion of the kind that afflicted the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 last year. It will also support the USB PD (power delivery) standard, which through USB Type-C ports will allow users to charge their smartphones using any compliant charger.

Quick Charge 4-enabled smartphones and chargers are expected to ship, along with the Snapdragon 835 processor, in the first half of 2017.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 835: Graphics, audio and new DSP

With so much focus on VR and related technologies at this year’s CES expo, it’s hardly surprising to find Qualcomm riding the bandwagon pretty hard with the Snapdragon 835.

The first advance is a faster, more capable graphics processor: the Adreno 540. Snapdragon says it has 25% faster 3D graphics performance than the older Snapdragon 820, is capable of rendering more display colours, and supports the HDR10 standard for improved movie and video playback. Clearly, the latter will need to be combined with an equally capable display, but you can expect your mobile Netflix experience to receive a big boost in 2017.

Faster performance isn’t the only improvement in the graphics department, however. The Snapdragon 835 will have 20% less motion-to-photon latency than the 820 (as little as 15ms), which it said was important for reducing the likelihood of nausea while wearing VR headsets.

Motion tracking is also improved, with the chip supporting low-power monitoring of head motion, eye-tracking and hand gestures via the Hexagon DSP’s “All-Ways Aware” hub.

Qualcomm also says the Snapdragon 835’s hardware and software are “Daydream ready”, opening the way for more phones than just the Google Pixel/Pixel XL and Moto Z phones to work with Google’s excellent Daydream View headset in the coming year.

On the audio front, the chipset will offer support for Dolby Atmos-like object- and scene-based audio for both capture and playback, and the high-resolution “audiophile-grade” DSD format.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 835: Camera and ISP

New smartphone buyers can expect to see general improvements in camera technology this year as well, with the help of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835’s Spectra 180 ISP (image signal processor).

The Spectra made its debut in the Snapdragon 820, and this version raises the bar in terms of the features on offer. In particular, hardware-accelerated HDR10-compatible 4K video capture looks to be the most exciting upgrade, which should improve the look of your home movies no end.

You can say goodbye to stepping, stuttery digital zoom in video, as Qualcomm’s ISP natively supports smooth digital zooming and seamless integration from the optical to the digital domain.

Your 4K videos ought to occupy considerably less space, too, with new “perceptual quantisation” able to reduce the encoding bit rate and file size by “about 30%”.

Qualcomm is also introducing improvements to its image stabilisation technology with EIS 3. The big change here is that stabilisation can now be applied while capturing 4K video, but there are also changes to the core algorithms, in particular the rolling shutter correction, which should improve the steadiness of recorded footage even further.

Elsewhere, there’s native support for faster, more reliable autofocus via dual-pixel autofocus, and the Snapdragon 835 also supports more efficient hybrid autofocus by combining different techniques such as phase-detection, laser and contrast-detect autofocus.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 835: Wireless connectivity

Last, but by no means least, the Snapdragon 835 comprises the latest in wireless connectivity. Featuring the new X16 modem module, the Snapdragon 835 will support all the latest developments in Wi-Fi and cellular tech, with native 802.11ad onboard for multi-gigabit data transfers, plus support for wave 2 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.

There’s also up to Gigabit speeds over 4G via advanced technologies such as carrier aggregation, 256-QAM and 4×4 MIMO, although you probably won’t see widespread network adoption for this tech until much later in 2017.

What’s more, the X16 should deliver power-efficiency savings of up to 60% over the previous X12 modem, helping with the overall power consumption of the chip.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 835: Final thoughts

It all looks very impressive, but with no official benchmarks upon which to base any conclusions, it’s hard to say at this stage how good phones based on the new Snapdragon 835 are likely to be.

If it lives up to the claims, though, smartphone buyers could be in for an exciting 2017, with better battery life and charging, improved camera quality and faster overall performance on the cards from thinner, lighter smartphones.

And you shouldn’t have too long to wait either. New smartphones with Qualcomm’s latest flagship processor should start appearing in the first half of 2017, possibly powering the Samsung Galaxy S8 and other rivals. Keep your eyes peeled for announcements.

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