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The big picture: For any company that has built an annual cadence of upgrades, it can be tough to create a sense of surprise when the latest generation of products is unveiled. After all, everybody knows something is coming, and whatever it is, it’s going be better and faster than what came before it. Today Qualcomm introduced their latest Snapdragon processors, which are indeed faster, but most importantly, they've managed to incorporate new technology in this ever impressive system-on-a-chip.
5G pioneer Qualcomm has introduced the latest iteration of its Snapdragon line of SoCs—chips that power the latest generation smartphones and, increasingly, other types of devices. This year, of course, the company faced the additional challenge of doing so in the age of virtual events, instead of in the always enjoyable environs of Maui, Hawaii, where they typically do the unveiling.
Yet even with these burdens, the company managed to pleasantly surprise on many fronts. From sending event attendees beautifully curated care packages that attempted to bring some of the Hawaiian spirit home, to a seemingly out-of-order product numbering change that clearly implies something new is afoot, Qualcomm has managed to turn the debut of its new premium Snapdragon 888 SoC into, well, a bit of a surprise.
The most significant reason for the surprise is the technology the company managed to incorporate in this new chip. In several different areas, Qualcomm took significant leaps forward—enough for them to feel that they could not only skip the expected 875 name (the last three chips were 845, 855, and last year’s 865), but they also jumped past 885 straight to 888. (Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that 888 is considered a lucky number in many Asian cultures, where Qualcomm does a great deal of business.)
Regardless, the Snapdragon 888 has the feel of a part that can serve as a significant step forward for smartphones as well as other intelligent mobile devices. Notably, it marks the return of a fully integrated 5G modem and RF front end (the X60), after the company chose to decouple the X55 modem from last year’s Snapdragon 865. By building the modem into the 888, Qualcomm makes it easier for device makers to design products around the chip and ensures that every device built around the 888 can get the same level of 5G performance.
That’s particularly important because the X60 offers some critical improvements over Qualcomm’s earlier 5G modems. For example, the X60 supports several variants on carrier aggregation with 5G NR signals—where multiple wireless connection channels on different frequencies can be combined together to create a broader “pipe”—that have important real-world value. Specifically, the X60 is the first Qualcomm modem that can aggregate low-band FDD radio spectrum with mid-band TDD, which is exactly the combination that T-Mobile needs to be able to leverage the combination of its 600 MHz low-band 5G with its 2.5 GHz mid-band 5G. In real-world tests, that combination has been able to deliver nearly mmWave-type speeds (over 900 Mbps) but with the significantly broader-coverage of sub-6 5G. Phones based on the 888 will be the first Snapdragon-powered phones that can take advantage of this capability as T-Mobile continues to roll out this type of combined service across its network.
The X60 also has the ability to aggregate sub-6 signals with mmWave ones, which could prove to be important for both Verizon and AT&T, as they build out their respective networks using the spectrum assets they own. The bottom line is that the X60 is the first modem to really deliver all the critical capabilities that carriers need to build out faster and more robust 5G networks.
In addition, thanks to a newly designed Hexagon processor that’s built into the 888 and the 6th generation Qualcomm AI Engine, Qualcomm claims the new chip has AI-related performance capabilities that are nearly twice as fast as its predecessor (26 TOPs, or trillions of operations per second, compared to 15 for the 865). As developers start to take better advantage of AI-related software tools, these AI-focused hardware resources are going to be increasingly important.
Photography and visual recognition, of course, continue to be critical applications for smartphones and the 888 moves these areas forward with the latest generation Spectra ISP (Image Signal Processor) that’s integrated into the chip. Notably, the new version offers support for both higher resolution imaging and significantly faster image capture rates, opening up the possibility not only for just better-looking pictures and video, but different ways of capturing and processing images.
The 888 also includes the latest version of the Adreno GPU, which can help with image processing-related tasks, as well as gaming performance improvements. In fact, Qualcomm claims that the 888 has the largest GPU performance improvement that the Snapdragon line of SoCs has ever had, which should lead to significantly improved 5G-enabled cloud-based mobile gaming.
All told, the 888 looks to justify its far-reaching name with an impressive set of new capabilities that should be able to start delivering on the full capabilities of a 5G-powered, AI-enabled world that we’ve long been promised. From a technology perspective, at least, it certainly looks like 2021 is going to be off to a good start.
Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.