Snapdragon Gets Snap-Happy

Qualcomm clears the way for major upgrades to smartphone cameras

This week, after a pandemic-induced hiatus, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Tech Summit once again took place in Hawaii, where the chipmaker showed off its latest innovations, including its newest chipset for flagship smartphones, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1. This platform is a departure from the usual triple-digit naming scheme of its mobile chipsets, and a very significant upgrade compared with the usual feeds-and-speeds improvements.

Under the hood, Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 features a new CPU architecture and a 5G modem. It uses the latest Armv9 microarchitecture announced earlier in 2021, packing a single Cortex-X2 prime core operating at 3 GHz, three Cortex-A710 performance cores and four Cortex-A510 efficient cores. The integrated modem designed into the system-on-chip is the Snapdragon X65, Qualcomm’s first 5G modem to support 3GPP Release 16. This level of future-proofing will enable smartphones powered by the new chipset to take advantage of any new Release 16 network features that wireless operators deploy.

The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 has an almost identical CPU microarchitecture to MediaTek’s Dimensity 9000 solution announced just two weeks earlier. Both processors use Arm’s Cortex-X2 prime, Cortex-A710 and Cortex A-510 cores. But Qualcomm’s differentiation in GPU and artificial intelligence tensor engines, as well as support for millimetre-wave 5G in the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, give it an edge over the unexpectedly potent MediaTek design.

Qualcomm was especially keen to highlight the presence of its fourth-generation Snapdragon X65 modem in the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, the most capable 5G smartphone modem currently available. With its carrier aggregation capabilities for both millimetre-wave and sub-6 GHz 5G spectrum, the modem offers peak download speeds of more than 10 Gbps. Qualcomm sees upload capability as critical for things like video calling, which has become a popular use for smartphones. It demonstrated updates in this area by hosting a live 8K video conference over 5G using the Snapdragon X65 modem, which offers upload speeds of up to 3.5 Gbps using uplink carrier aggregation.

This year’s Snapdragon Tech Summit was loaded with technical advances — more than I can cover in this article. But a common thread from the four-hour-long keynote presentation on the first day was the promise of mobile photography and videography powered by this next-generation silicon.

The most notable change to camera set-up on the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 is its triple image signal processor (ISP) design, which features 18-bit capture capability on each of the three ISPs. Moving to an 18-bit data pipe allows the chipset to capture 4,096 times more data from the camera, equivalent to discerning up to a billion shades of color. The triple ISP also offers faster processing speeds of up to 3.2 gigapixels per second for capturing more frames. That’s the equivalent of being able to snap 240 frames at 12 megapixels every second.

Qualcomm claims that the next generation of handsets can therefore be designed with professional-grade photo and video capturing capabilities. For example, device-makers will be able to create smartphone cameras that can record cinematic video using high dynamic range technology. This alone will give Android manufacturers a competitive edge against Apple’s claims of having the most professional video hardware. Additionally, new artificial intelligence features such as real-time background blurring and the bokeh effect in videos are now supported along with host of other cinematic video features.

For still photography, Qualcomm demonstrated multicamera capabilities including using two separate image sensors in a panoramic configuration, creating a 140-degree field of view from digitally stitching together pixels from the two sensors. This level of computational photography takes advantage of the 3.2-gigapixel-per-second ISP data pipeline.

These upgrades to camera performance were so prominent that Qualcomm has introduced a new brand to its stable of Snapdragon feature sets, Snapdragon Sight, intended to showcase what’s possible with the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1. I’m excited to see how phone-makers inject their own innovations to push mobile photography and videography even further.

Qualcomm’s goal with the Snapdragon Tech Summit has always been to drum up excitement for the next generation of mobile system-on-chips; for 2022, I expect to see premium smartphone brands flexing these latest solutions to produce some truly different and powerful devices. By raising the bar on photo and video performance, Qualcomm not only enables manufacturers to close the gap with Apple in this area, but also opens up new areas of innovation that’ll help advance the industry.

Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 will be rolling out in new premium Android smartphones as soon as December 2021, starting with the upcoming Motorola Edge flagship device. The bulk of new designs will arrive with the next round of flagship models from 2022.

Although I expect leading smartphone manufacturers to embrace the next-generation Snapdragon platform, the competitive environment has evolved so much that MediaTek now offers a viable alternative to Qualcomm’s customers with its Dimensity 9000 flagship 5G system-on-chip. Furthermore, a growing number of manufacturers are choosing to design their own system-on-chips, and this is set to challenge Qualcomm’s very strong position.

These new developments have complicated the path forward, but Qualcomm’s entrenched position in the smartphone industry and technical superiority with wireless connectivity should provide a strong competitive moat from which to fend off threats.