neXt Curve attended Qualcomm’s premiere event which typically takes places in Maui, Hawaii. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the event was virtual but we got the scoop on everything to get excited about the newest edition of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon platform. The new chip set continues to integrate best-in class 5G technologies with powerful mobile compute enhancements that will provide Android smartphone OEMs a wide palette of feature differentiation to pursue in 2021.
At this year’s event, Qualcomm introduced the Snapdragon 888 mobile chip. While we can wax poetic about how it is an improvement over last year’s Snapdragon 865 flagship chip, the 888 is more than just an incremental enhancement. It brings together some critical technologies and architectural innovations at the right time for 5G and for OEMs and operators who are looking to make 5G real for their customers both consumer and enterprise.
Here are our key takeaways from our coverage of Qualcomm’s Tech Summit 2020:
Takeaway 1 – AI fusion computing is the next computing
AI computing has been a critical and fast-evolving part of mobile computing for quite some time. It has been a unique aspect of mobile computing that has differentiated it from portable and desktop PC computing until recently. In many aspects, mobile computing is driving the leading edge of AI computing and is fundamentally changing the way we think of and design software applications for smartphones and increasingly other categories of computing devices including the PC.
Over the past three years we have seen a proliferation of composite AI computing applications ranging from computational photography to computational audio emerging on the smartphone. These new “AI fusion” applications are being enabled by mobile computing architectures and platforms that integrated CPU, GPU, NPU, ISPs and other discrete processing functions to work together in ways that that they did not and could not in the past. The Snapdragon 888 SoC is a great example of this important inflection in mobile computing expressed in silicon.
The 888 introduces a couple of critical enhancements to the Snapdragon AI architecture that make the new chip stand out. The first is the new architecture of the Hexagon 780 neural processor unit which integrates tensor, scalar and vector processing together with shared memory. Qualcomm touts that this new architecture improves overall ML processor performance per watt by three times over its predecessor. It also has 16 times the dedicated memory for accelerating AI operations and improving data sharing and hand-off times between scalar, vector and tensor accelerators. The new Hexagon is a major contributor to the 26 TOPS that Qualcomm claims for its 6th generation AI Engine.
The second critical improvement to the Snapdragon AI platform is the introduction of AI Engine direct which is a unified API for Qualcomm’s AI Engine. This interface layer provides OEMs and developers easier and direct access to the AI functions of the Snapdragon SoC. It is complemented by simplified tooling to accelerate the development of new categories of composite AI applications for the Android universe. According to Qualcomm, AI Engine direct supports the previous 5th generation AI Engine establishing a broad installed base today that can support new applications that developers build on top of the AI API framework.
Takeaway 2 – A symbol of integrated 5G computing
Qualcomm introduced the long-anticipated X60 modem as an integrated feature of the Snapdragon 888. The integrated design represents a timely re-coupling of connectivity and compute on SoC that its predecessor, the 865, skirted. Unlike what the 7nm process was not able to do for the X55, it seems that the 5nm process yielded enough area shrink to make an integrated 5G modem make sense for the 888.
This is good news for premium smartphone OEMs who are looking to simplify the engineering of their devices and capitalize on the mobile computing performance improvements that the Snapdragon 888 is expected to deliver. At a minimum, having the 5G modem integrated on the new Snapdragon SoC will once again reduce supply chain complexity and foster denser premium smartphone designs for 2021.
The X60 not only enables a more svelte and integrated mobile platform design. It introduces Qualcomm’s 3rd generation mmWave technology capable of 7.5 Gbps down and 3 Gbps down along with an expanded suite of 5G carrier aggregation features, most notably, the addition of FDD+TDD and Sub-6+mmWave. While it might seem like these new features are overkill given the state of 5G networks today, it is exactly these features that accelerate the adoption of more advance 5G network capabilities that can help operators economically expand their network capacity and enhance quality of experience with their current and anticipated spectrum assets.
The Snapdragon 888 also incorporates the improved FastConnect 6900 system that adds support for Wi-Fi 6E as well as Bluetooth 5.2 for easier and enhanced connectivity with peripherals such as true wireless earbuds. Qualcomm made a point of emphasizing the complementary role that Wi-Fi will continue to play with 5G. Both wireless technologies will be important in providing continuity and quality of experience across outdoor and indoor boundaries.
Takeaway 3 – One Step for Trust and Privacy
Deepfakes and fake media threaten to exacerbate the disinformation crisis that has had deleterious implications on our society, our politics as well as our privacy. According to Qualcomm, there will be over 1.4 trillion photos taken in 2021. Most of these pictures will be captured on smartphones.
The company announced that it is a member of the Content Authenticity Initiative (CAI) partnering with Adobe, Twitter, BBC, TruePic and the New York Times to battle the rise of “inauthentic content”. The consortium aspires to establish a framework for proving the authenticity of photos.
Qualcomm is partnering with Truepic to create the technical standard and framework. The partnership is leveraging the Snapdragon 888’s Processor Security to capture and store a cryptographic seal of a photo. A Truepic app running in the Qualcomm Processor Security composes pixel, date, time, location and depth map data through its integration with the Spectra ISP. The attribution metadata is then uploaded to a blockchain registry hosted by Truepic in the Qualcomm wireless edge services cloud. This photo attribution profile can then be referenced by CAI-compliant services to verify the authenticity of a photo.
While this photo attribution solution is still a nascent solution, it is a welcome indication of Qualcomm’s emerging interest and investment in the critical topics of trust and privacy for the Android ecosystem and possibly beyond. This technology might not be as sexy as the very impressive improvements to Qualcomm’s Spectra ISP, but it has transformative potential to bring important privacy and trust solutions to the market to battle the global pandemic of disinformation and distrust.
Takeaway 4 – Timely accelerator of 5G value for OEMs and operators
If the Snapdragon 888 lives up to specs and expectations, Android smartphone OEMs looking to put competitive and possibly revolutionary premium handsets out in the market in 2021 have a lot to work with. The 888 provides significant improvements in gaming power, computational photography and videography support, fused AI, mobile security and the differentiating capabilities of the X60 integrated modem that push the boundary for what Android smartphones will be able to do on a 5G network.
The timing could not be better given the release of Apple’s first line up of 5G phones in October of this year with all models sharing the latest generation A Series SoC, the A14 Bionic chip, and Qualcomm’s X55 modem. The Snapdragon 888 will give Android premium smartphones a few months head start with the X60 before Apple releases the iPhone 13 toward the end of 2021 which will likely come with the X60 modem.
Nine months down the line, QCT’s VP of Product Management, Ziad Asghar, indicated that the standout features and capabilities of the Snapdragon 888 will trickle down to Qualcomm’s mid and economy tier chipsets. This tier-down cycle will help Android handset OEMs better compete against Apple’s iPhone 13 line up in the non-premium segments in the late part of 2021.
The Snapdragon 888 and the X60 modem enter the picture at a pivotal point in Qualcomm’s 5G road map. It is a moment when operators are eyeing the transition from NSA (Non-Standalone) to SA (Standalone) 5G NR. Operators such as Verizon are also looking to better leverage their mmWave holdings to expand their network capacity and more ubiquitously deliver Gigabit speeds that have been elusive and rare to date.
At the same time, operators are scrambling to secure precious mid-band spectrum (CBRS and C-Band) for coverage and performance that will help 5G differentiate itself from Advanced LTE which outperforms low-band 5G in many geographies.
The 888 will enable operators to make much better use of their spectrum assets whether they are low, mid or high band holdings. It will also allow devices to dynamically mix and match the best carriers (Sub-6 or mmWave) available at a location in delivering the best user experience possible on an operator’s network.
According to Qualcomm, the first premium devices armed with the Snapdragon 888 are expected to hit the airwaves in the early part of Q1 2021.
Implications for Business and Technology Leaders
The Snapdragon 888 is the tip of Qualcomm’s spear to usher in the next phase of mobile computing for the Android universe. The new premium SoC brings powerful AI capabilities and an advanced architecture that can help OEMs design and build compelling and highly capable devices. Qualcomm continues to enhance its AI software tools to ease the development of AI-augmented features and applications that can help OEMs differentiate themselves in the highly competitive premium segment of the smartphone market while improving the economics of bringing the next generation of mobile AI computing on their devices.
For operators, the Snapdragon 888 symbolizes an inflection point in the evolution of the 5G smartphone. The technologies featured in the 888 and its integrated compute and connectivity architecture set a catalytic baseline for mobile devices going forward. The Snapdragon 888 will support advanced 5G network features enabling operators to improve spectrum efficiency and improve the scalability of their 5G infrastructure. These are critical benefits that operators will highly value as they seek avenues to accelerate returns on their 5G investments in these early days of their 5G transformation journey.
Finally, the Snapdragon 888 is a brilliant reminder of the catalytic role that Qualcomm and its products and technologies play in advancing mobile computing.