The Qualcomm Snapdragon 820: everything we know and what we expect

Snapdragon 820: everything we know and what we expect
The existence of a new, more powerful SoC that's destined to succeed the troubled Snapdragon 810 isn't a secret. Chipmaker Qualcomm put the Snapdragon 820 in the public mind as far back as March, at MWC 2015. But the company's forward-looking announcements didn't get people interested in its next-gen premium chipset quite like its predecessor's thermal woes did. The "Snapdragon 810 overheats!!!" that the Internet collectively shouts at Qualcomm is, unfortunately, not a meme, but practical reality.

Thus, at this point in mobile computing history, the usual question that arises when approaching an up and coming Qualcomm high-end processor — something to the tune of "How much of a beast is this thing going to be?" — is now precluded by a more pressing question. Something to the tune of "is the SD820 going to be another disappointment like the Snapdragon 810?"

While it's too early to be specific about that, the Snapdragon 820 is definitely due for having an early look at. This is Qualcomm's next generation premium tier SoC (system on a chip) platform. It's designed on a current FinFET process node and is built upon a custom 64-bit CPU architecture named Kryo.

The importance of custom cores

Utilising 14nm FinFET fabrication technology by Samsung and GlobalFoundries means the Snapdragon 820 will be built on the most efficient process that's commercially available now. Meanwhile, custom cores mean a return to Qualcomm's usual way of doing high-end CPUs. The company doesn't make custom cores (with a license to use the ARM instruction set) just for show, but rather with a specific purpose. Historically, this purpose has been to optimise the living daylights out of them. The 32-bit ARMv7 Krait cores that powered the S4 and 800-series of CPUs are either faster, or more efficient than stock ARM Cortex cores running at the same clock speed.

For example, Qualcomm managed to achieve Cortex-A15 class performance with its Krait 400 cores, but avoided the A15's thermal dissipation and power consumption problems which, if you may remember, led the Nvidia Tegra 4 to its demise. And farther back in time (think 2009), Qcom's custom Scorpion cores successfully one-upped Nvidia and Texas Instruments' competing "stock ARM" chipsets by introducing asymmetric use and pushing the Cortex-A8 architecture to its power and performance limits.

Thus, the announcement of Qualcomm's new Kryo microarchitecture, which will debut inside the Snapdragon 820, has gotten semiconductor enthusiasts frenzied. Expectations are at an all time high, because the chipmaker isn't just faced with continuing its successful legacy, it also needs to say sorry for the Snapdragon 810, which failed to deliver on the usual high expectations. And frankly, the technological industry knows no better excuse than coming up with an awesome product. It means the manufacturer listened and put in genuine efforts to improve its output.

Of course, Qualcomm wheeling out the Kryo architecture in the coming months has much less to do with emotional pursuits than it has to do with the company following its established roadmap. Kryo simply wasn't ready for the Snapdragon 810, but device vendors wanted high-end 64-bit silicone ASAP. It was an "oblige, or lose business" situation, and Qualcomm had to oblige.

But now, the time for Kryo has come. Unfortunately, the successor to Krait has not been properly profiled as of now, but we do know that the architecture allows for a maximum clock speed of 3GHz per core, which is Qcom's biggest CPU speed achievement thus far. Of course, maximum clock speed can only be achieved in short performance bursts, but a 3GHz burst is still a 3GHz burst.

Moreover, the new architecture is supposedly able to ensure a 35% performance improvement in CPU calculations over the Snapdragon 810.

Cognitive computing

What Qualcomm has been keen on talking about is the so-called Zeroth "cognitive computing" platform. This is an on-device intelligence that harnesses the power of heterogeneous processing and always-on connectivity to allow for pretty awesome-sounding things to happen. Qualcomm is thinking about deep learning algorithms and smart cameras that recognize scenes, objects, and text; Always-on awareness with sensor fusion, machine learning, and classification algorithms; Dynamic audio that adapts surround sound based on head movements and facial recognition; Devices that learn and take instant actions by recognizing environmental sounds, or gestures and facial expressions. Indeed, Qualcomm is sowing new seeds of artificial intelligence on smartphones, but it will probably take a few years of innovation before its complete vision is realised.

Technological details

Although the Snapdragon 820 was assumed to contain an octa-core CPU, it appears this may not really be the case. A leaked sheet comparing the chipset to MediaTek's deca-core Helio X20 architecture describes the SD 820 as having a "dual cluster" quad-core CPU with two cores operating at 1.7GHz and two running at 2.2GHz. Obviously, that's nowhere near the 3GHz we're promised, but the fact that Kryo cores support this max frequency doesn't mean Qualcomm will outright push the CPU to them.

Following this leak, internal Qualcomm slides surfaced and too showed that the Snapdragon 820 has a quad-core 64-bit CPU. 

Other functionality in the SD 820's "I can do it!" package includes 60FPS 4K video decoding, 30FPS 4K video encoding, LPDDR4 RAM support (up to 2.1GHz), up to 28MP camera sensor support, and LTE Cat. 10 connectivity (450Mbps DL, 100Mbps UL speeds). There's also the Adreno 530 GPU keeping the CPU company. Alas, Qualcomm has made a name for refusing to discuss GPU technology details, so there's nothing we can tell you about it, other than "this is Qualcomm's fastest GPU ever!" and that it runs at 650MHz. We also know we should expect at least a 40% performance improvement and 30% improved power efficiency over the older Adreno 430 chip.

The SD820 will also provide support for dual-channel, LPDDR4 memory interfaces (up to 1866MHz), up to 28-megapixel cameras with programmable DSPs that will allow manufacturers to further differentiate their smartphones, 4K video at 60 frames per second, and even a dedicated, low-power sensor that will enable "emerging, always-on use-cases".

Performance expectations

You'd be quite correct to assume that the Snapdragon 820 will be a beast, and that's not merely judging by all the "hear-say". We also have preliminary GeekBench benchmark results that measure raw CPU performance. They show leading results of 1732 single-core points and 4970 multi-core points. To put this in context, the first test beat the single-core score of 1486 posted by an Exynos 7420-powered Samsung Galaxy S6, and the 1227 tallied by a Snapdragon 810-powered Xiaomi Mi Note Pro.

With the multi-core test, the Snapdragon 820's score of 4970 topped the 4424 scored by its predecessor, but failed to top the 5284 tallied by the Exynos 7420.

As you can see, the SD 820's performance edge isn't mindblowing, but the CPU's single core performance already surpasses the fastest chips on the market, which are already excessively speedy. Paired with what's likely a monster of a GPU, and very fast RAM memory, the Snapdragon 820 has all the makings of a benchmark buster. Hopefully, thermal throttling won't get the best of the chip this time.


Reportedly, Qualcomm has finalized the chip's specs and is already giving samples to device manufacturers such as Sony, HTC, and Xiaomi. Smartphone makers usually have a 6 month window to test the SoC in their devices, and if they manage to integrate it successfully, they have a few good months to wait until Qualcomm makes necessary adjustments according to feedback, and its partnering foundries sort out the mass production and supply.

Assuming the SD 820 is in its early testing stages, this means that first devices sporting the new chipset will come around at the very end of the year, or possibly later, in the first quarter of 2016. The way things seem now, some manufacturers may use the last months of 2015 to announce their Snapdragon 820-running hero devices, then release them to the masses early next year. So far, it seems Xiaomi is the one that's most intent on starting early, as rumors claim that it's looking to announce its SD 820-powered Xiaomi Mi5 (or is it the Mi5 Plus?) flagship in October.

However, the Chinese upstart is no stranger to prolonging the actual release of its smartphones, seeing that it announced the Mi Note Pro in January this year, then released it in May, a whopping four months later. So, by all accounts, it seems we won't be holding any Snapdragon 820 devices in our hands in 2015, unless something completely unexpected happens.

All things considered, it seems Qualcomm is on the right track with its premium-tier chip. Hopefully, the promising chipset won't let us down!

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