Despite the success of the Snapdragon 805 and even the 808, Qualcomm’s flagship Snapdragon 810 SoC had a tumultuous lifespan. Rumors and stories about the chip and an inability to run in phone form factors without overheating and/or draining battery life were rampant, despite the company’s insistence that the problem was fixed with a very quick second revision of the part. There are very few devices that used the 810 and instead we saw more of the flagship smartphones uses the slightly cut back SD 808 or the SD 805.
Today at Siggraph Qualcomm starts the reveal of a new flagship SoC, Snapdragon 820. As the event coinciding with launch is a graphics-specific show, QC is focusing on a high level overview of the graphics portion of the Snapdragon 820, the updated Adreno 5xx architecture and associated designs and a new camera image signal processor (ISP) aiming to improve quality of photos and recording on our mobile devices.
A modern SoC from Qualcomm features many different processors working in tandem to impact the user experience on the device. While the only details we are getting today focus around the Adreno 530 GPU and Spectra ISP, other segments like connectivity (wireless), DSP, video processing and digital signal processing are important parts of the computing story. And we are well aware that Qualcomm is readying its own 64-bit processor architecture for the Kryo CPU rather than implementing the off-the-shelf cores from ARM used in the 810.
We also know that Qualcomm is targeting a “leading edge” FinFET process technology for SD 820 and though we haven’t been able to confirm anything, it looks very like that this chip will be built on the Samsung 14nm line that also built the Exynos 7420.
But over half of the processing on the upcoming Snapdragon 820 fill focus on visual processing, from graphics to gaming to UI animations to image capture and video output, this chip’s die will be dominated by high performance visuals.
Qualcomm’s lists of target goals for SD 820 visuals reads as you would expect: wanting perfection in every area. Wouldn’t we all love a phone or tablet that takes perfect photos each time, always focusing on the right things (or everything) with exceptional low light performance? Though a lesser known problem for consumers, having accurate color reproduction from capture, through processing and to the display would be a big advantage. And of course, we all want graphics performance that impresses and a user interface that is smooth and reliable while enabling NEW experience that we haven’t even thought of in the mobile form factor. Qualcomm thinks that Snapdragon 820 will be able to deliver on all of that.
The Adreno 530 GPU is the highest end of the Adreno 5xx architecture designs planned for a new family of GPUs. With a nod towards VR and gaming (and of course UI), Adreno 530 will offer as much as 40% higher performance when compared to the Adreno 430 flagship from the 810-series. And it can do this while consuming 40% less power at the same time.
Qualcomm will support the latest in graphics APIs including OpenGL ES 3.1+, Renderscript, OpenCL 2.0 and even the highly regarded Vulkan API. A software layer that is supposed to enable higher multi-threading capability for graphics platforms could have potentially massive impacts on mobile gaming and design so I am eager to see hardware capable of implementing it.
Though technical specifications are light on Adreno 5xx, we do know that this is the first GPU to support 64-bit virtual addressing that allows for a shared virtual memory pool with the Kryo 64-bit processors Qualcomm has built. We have asked QC, ARM and others for years about the impact of HSA and true heterogeneous computing for mobile platforms and we are getting closer to that answer with SD 820.
Part of those lower power consumption claims come from Qualcomm’s integration of new compression techniques and finer-grain power management that reduces the demand for DRAM bandwidth. Memory transfers are always very power-heavy actions for a SoC so any time you can lower the need for a GPUs access to memory you will see advantages.
The display engine for Adreno 5xx also gets some improvements including HDMI 2.0 support in order to output 4K video at 60 Hz as well as 4K/30 Hz support for wireless display streaming. Video gear heads will love to see support for the Rec. 2020 color standard and improvements in display compression will aid in battery life and pixel quality.
Qualcomm will also have the Adreno 510 GPU found in Snapdragon 620 and 618 SoC but it is software compatible with all the features of the Adreno 530.
Spectra 14-bit Image Signal Processor
The SD 820 will be the first part to offer the latest ISP from Qualcomm, the 14-bit capable Spectra. This portion of the SoC aims to bridge the gap between the light that enters your relatively small smartphone camera lens as well through processing and saving and even how that image is views on your phone’s screen or on a TV.
Spectra does this by adding capability throughout the pipeline. You get better image quality through de-mosaicing and radial noise reduction. An updated autofocus frame work and GPGPU-based digital zoom capability also help to bring in the clearest image possible while universal bandwidth compression aims to do it all without draining your battery as quickly as it has in the past. This becomes even more important as consumers begin to record and capture footage with new 4K-capable phones.
The ISP can support three simultaneous camera, one front facing and two rear facing. The two rear facing cameras allow for stereoscopic image capture that can allow for impressive features like the ability to modify focal location in software after the photo has been taken. This is similar to what I saw with Intel’s RealSense technology – and although the first implementation seemed quirky and bit unpolished, this is a feature that consumers will flock to when done well.
Qualcomm is promising improved low light video capture as well with Spectra with a new algorithm that will adaptively brighten areas of that might otherwise be too dark.
Finally, a Snapdragon improveTouch aims to make the touch screen interface a bit more friendly with better water rejection and multi-touch water use; anyone that has used a water proof phone knows that even if you aren’t worried about ruining your phone with liquid it can still make using the device a hassle with false-positive touch recognitions. The new signal processor will offer a lower power mode, the ability to use standard gloves with your touchscreen and will allow manufacturers to use lower cost glass materials without sacrificing user experience.
It’s just a start, but Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 and the Adreno 530 should be promising new options for the mobile market that seems to have found a rut of stagnation in its roadmap. Having access to 40% higher GPU and GPGPU performance while using less power by the same percentage is a feat that very few companies have ever been able to deliver on in a single generational step. Qualcomm has the resources and engineering to do it, if anyone can. We’ll have to wait until the first half of next year to get actual product in our hands based on the Snapdragon 820 but we should know much more about the GPU and CPU designs sometime this fall.