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Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 preview: Here’s what to expect from next year’s smartphones

If you buy a flagship phone in 2021, there’s a good chance it might be able to do all (if not some) of this

While next-gen smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S21 and OnePlus 9 are purely hypothetical at this early stage, we’ve received our first tantalising glimpse of what to expect from next year’s flagships and beyond.

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Usually launched against a picturesque Hawaiian backdrop, this year’s unveiling of Qualcomm’s new top-end mobile chipset was instead handled remotely, live-streamed directly to tech journalists across the globe. Despite the downgrade in the scenery, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 undeniably builds on its predecessor’s strengths and what follows is a summary of the benefits you can expect to reap in 2021.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 preview: What you need to know

Architecturally speaking, the Snapdragon 888 is similar to the previous-generation Snapdragon 865, most recently found inside the OnePlus 8T and Pixel 5.

The Snapdragon 888 uses an octa-core CPU, which consists of a single high-performance ‘Prime’ core (clocked at 2.84GHz) and this is backed by a combination of sustained performance cores at slightly lower clock speeds. These comprise a further three 2.4GHz cores and four 1.8GHz cores.

This particular configuration isn’t anything new, but where the 888 differs from its predecessor is that it’s manufactured on a 5nm fabrication process, just like the Apple A14 Bionic, Apple M1 and Huawei Kirin 9000, and it should deliver superior battery life across the board. Qualcomm says that the Snapdragon 888 delivers a 25% boost in power efficiency, in fact, as well as a 25% performance uplift.

The inclusion of the new Adreno 660 GPU has also improved the Snapdragon 888’s graphics processing capabilities. The big new addition this year is support for variable-rate shading, which allows game developers to shade individual pixels as part of a chosen group, rather than painstakingly apply shaders to each separate pixel.

According to Qualcomm, gamers won’t notice any difference in terms of graphical fidelity but, since variable-rate shading reduces the amount of pixel shading by around 40%, it allows developers to devote more resources to other areas, as well as the possibility of improving rendering speeds by up to 35% (the largest year-on-year increase yet).

Touch response time, or the speed in which your phone recognises your finger swipes, has also been given a boost. Ensuring VSYNC is “more correctly aligned” with the frame rate, the Adreno 660 provides a 20% improvement in 60fps titles, a 15% boost at 90fps and 10% for the shortlist of 120fps games on the Google Play Store.

As for AI performance, Qualcomm says its sixth-generation AI engine is 43% faster than last year and capable of up to 26 trillion operations per second (TOPS), compared to the comparatively measly 15 TOPS offered by the Snapdragon 865.

On that note, it’s finally time to talk about the Snapdragon 888’s camera enhancements. The new Spectra 580 ISP (Image Signal Processor) now allows for three concurrent captures, with a potential throughput of 2.7 gigapixels per second (35% faster than last-gen). As an example, this means a phone could capture three 4K videos simultaneously at different focal lengths.

The Spectra 580 also allows for an improved burst capture at up to 120 photos per second, as well as improved processing in ultra low-light environments, down to lighting levels of 0.1 Lux according to Qualcomm. Computational HDR video processing has also received an upgrade, with the ability to combine multiple exposures in a single frame more effectively than before.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 preview: Early verdict

All very impressive and we likely won’t have to wait too long to see whether any of these improvements will make a major impact on our day-to-day smartphone usage, either.

Xiaomi, Oppo and Motorola have already announced they have Snapdragon 885 handsets in production and there are rumours that Samsung will launch the Galaxy S21 (or whatever it’s called) as early as January. As usual, though, we’d expect only the US version of the phone to get the Snapdragon chipset, with European and Asian variants receiving Samsung’s Exynos equivalent.

When that time comes, I look forward to putting the Snapdragon 888 through its paces. Whether or not it manages to outperform its Apple, Exynos and Huawei equivalents is anyone’s guess at this stage but, one thing’s for certain, the Snapdragon 888 is set to be a formidable chipset indeed.

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