We put Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 820 mobile processor to the test with our full suite of benchmarks
Qualcomm’s next flagship mobile processor is the Snapdragon 820, and it’s due to arrive in almost every top-end handset of 2016. Officially unveiled in November 2015, company president Derek Aberle said it will be more powerful, more thermally efficient and longer-lasting than any previous Snapdragon chip, and we’ve been hands on with it to see how it performs compared to its immediate predecessor, the Snapdragon 810. We’ve also got a detailed run-down of its specifications to give you an idea about what you can expect from Qualcomm’s new processor, and whether it will be worth an upgrade when it starts rolling out next year.
Qualcomm has high hopes for the Snapdragon 820, as it’s also expecting to see the chip being used in cars, home appliances, Internet of Things and more. As a result, low power compute capabilities was one of the design team’s top priorities, along with all kinds of connectivity options and the ability to scale with each form factor. From what I’ve seen so far, those demands certainly look to have been delivered, but we won’t have the full story until actual devices start hitting shop shelves. In the mean time, though, here’s everything you need to know about Qualcomm’s brand-new SoC.
Phones and release date
Qualcomm has promised that we’ll start seeing Snapdragon 820-equipped smartphones in the first half of 2016. There’s no news yet on which handset will be the first one to use the Snapdragon 820, but we’ve already heard plenty of rumours about which phones might be in the running for Qualcomm’s next chipset. So far, Samsung’s Galaxy S7, the HTC One M10 and LG G5 are all likely contenders, but we’ll no doubt see it appearing in Sony’s next Xperia Z phone as well as Motorola’s new Moto X Force successor flagship in the latter half of the year.
Every part of the Snapdragon 820 uses brand new components. It’s the first to be manufactured on a 14nm process, with the 64-bit Kryo processor providing the grunt while staying cooler than the 810 – a critical point, considering the negative feedback from customers and manufacturers that struggled with overheating issues on the outgoing chip.
Efficiency improvements should mean power consumption is 40% less, too, which will mean much greater battery life. That’s a huge jump, considering the 805 and 810 were roughly 5 and 10% more efficient than the Snapdragon 801. Support for QuickCharge 3.0 will also mean you’re back up and running sooner when you do eventually run out of power. The processor also supports Qualcomm’s Smart Protect, a combination of hardware and software security features including content protection, fingerprint scanner capabilities and machine learning to defeat malware.
The Adreno 530 GPU has seen improvements to performance as well as power consumption. It should draw 40% less power than the Adreno 430 in the 810, but provide up to 40% more power at the same time. I was shown an image of a room, rendered to near photo-realism using the GPU and Unreal Engine 4, with phyisically based rendering correctly showing light and shadow interacting with different materials.
VP of product marketing Tim McDonough went into more detail about the X12 LTE Modem, which will support category 12 LTE and even takes 4G connectivity into currently unlicensed frequency bands (LTE-U). That means Snapdragon 820-equipped devices will be capable of 600Mbps downlink and 150Mbps uplink speeds over a mobile connection – that’s faster than many home Wi-Fi routers. Wi-Fi hotspots will require less power, too, so you’ll be able to put those speeds to good use with multiple devices.
Other connectivity improvements include multi-user MIMO 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which better shares wireless bandwidth from a router or access point between devices, and support for the forthcoming 802.11ad protocol. This has yet to be ratified, but to put the potential speed increase into perspective, the fastest 802.11ac speeds need 8×8 MIMO, with 256 QAM modulation four bonded 40 MHz channels. 802.11ad can match those speeds with one spatial stream and 64 QAM modulation on a single channel.
Qualcomm is convinced it has made such massive strides with its camera ISP that it has given it a name – Spectra. It has been tweaked for better low light performance this year, with extra processing eliminating noise without taking longer to show the captured image. A new addition is Heterogeneous Signal Processing, which analyses a scene and correctly balances the light correctly. It’s an alternative to HDR that doesn’t take multiple images, but correctly exposes both the foreground and the background in a sunset, for example.
Machine learning also comes into play here, with the Zeroth scene detection algorithm finding skies, water, people and other objects in your images to automatically tag and organise them. It can be trained to recognise specific objects, for example knowing that sushi is different from a burrito, and it runs on the device rather than the cloud so you aren’t using mobile data to get your results.
Finally, the Hexagon 680 DSP has been developed with virtual reality in mind. It supports recording and playing back directional 3D audio, with speaker virtualisation able to create the impression of multi-channel surround sound in a handheld device.
“Your next phone must be better to be worth the cost of the upgrade. Incrementalism isn’t enough – a millimetre thinner, 10% better battery life isn’t worth it,” McDonough explained. Qualcomm thinks that all these improvements add up to make a desirable whole, and that you’ll be able to justify buying a new phone or tablet once Snapdragon 820-powered devices arrive. With over 60 companies already planning to support the hardware, you may not have long to wait before that becomes a possibility.
In terms of real world performance, I’ve finally had a chance to see how the Snapdragon 820 compares to its 810 predecessor. Using Qualcomm’s development handsets, which had 3GB of RAM, a 6.2in 2,560×1,600 resolution display and 64GB of UFS storage, I subjected the Snapdragon 820 to Geekbench 3, GFX Bench GL’s Car Chase and Manhattan benchmarks, and Futuremark’s Peacekeeper test, and all three applications showed a marked improvement in performance across the board.
I ran Geekbench 3 five times, and each test produced almost identical results. In the single core test, for instance, I got an average of 2,356, while the multicore test produced an average of 5,450. This is a huge improvement on our current Snapdragon 810 results, as its single core result alone is 1.89x faster than the Motorola Moto X Force, 1.91x faster than the Sony Xperia Z5, 1.95x faster than the OnePlus Two and a massive 2.49x faster than the HTC One M9. Its multicore result, meanwhile, is 1.49x faster than the HTC One M9, 1.38x faster than the Sony Xperia Z5, 1.32x faster than the Moto X Force and 1.14x faster than the OnePlus Two.
This isn’t quite as high as Qualcomm’s estimate of 2x better performance, but there’s no denying that this is still a significant step up. Even Samsung’s Exynos 7420-equipped Galaxy S6 doesn’t come close, as its single core score of 1,427 is 1.65x slower than our Snapdragon 820 results, while its multicore score of 4,501 is 1.21x slower.
In GFX Bench GL 4.0.0, we saw a similar jump in speed. According to Qualcomm, the Snapdragon 820’s Adreno 530 GPU is designed to deliver a 40% increase in performance over the Snapdragon 810, but we saw results that were almost twice as fast. In the offscreen Mahattan 3.0 test, for instance, which renders at 1,920×1,080, the Snapdragon repeatedly finished the test in 2,860 frames, delivering a smooth frame rate of 46fps.
The HTC One M9, by comparison, only scored 1,220 frames, or 20fps, while the Sony Xperia Z5, our fastest scoring phone in this test, only managed 1,606 frames, or 26fps. Samsung’s Galaxy S6 falls even further behind with its 1,429 frames, or 23fps. This is a huge improvement, and should bode well for the Snapdragon 820’s VR capabilities as well. We also ran the offscreen Manhattan 3.1 test, where it scored 1,877 frames, or 30fps, and GFX Bench GL 4.0.0’s new ultra-demanding offscreen Car Chase test, where it scored 1,049 frames, or 18fps.
Our Peacekeeper results, however, only showed a very small improvement, as it only scored 1,788 in Chrome. This isn’t much faster than the Xperia Z5’s score of 1,609, or the Moto X Force’s 1,532, but it’s possible we might see better results in phone’s proprietary browsers, as Qualcomm told us that manufacturers sometimes incorporate parts of its own test browser to help improve efficiency. Running Peacekeeper in Qualcomm’s browser, for instance, returned a much more respectable score of 2,092, so we’ll have to wait and see how manufacturers’ custom browsers compare once the chips start appearing in actual handsets.
Regardless, we were very impressed with our benchmarking results, and the graphics tests in particular are very promising indeed. It will be interesting to see whether these scores remain the same once we get some actual Snapdragon 820 handsets in for testing, but right now, it’s certainly looking like Qualcomm’s best Snapdragon SoC yet.